On Suffering

Our readings for today can be found here.
100,000 People at an Obama Rally
1 Cor 12:5
“There are different kinds of
spiritual gifts but the same Spirit.”

When we encounter difficult times in our life we can get pretty upset. “Why is this happening to ME!” we demand, “Why meeeeeee??” When I looked at the readings for today, I immediately thought of something a teacher of mine once told me: “We all have different sources of suffering but it is ultimately the SAME suffering.”

I believe this is true. And I have had brief moments in my life where I have actually understood how true this is. But this understanding represents a particular challenge for me, because it is difficult for me not to see the disparity between a rich man’s life and a poor man’s life, and it is difficult to accept that the rich man may experience the same pain as the poor man. “Look at this man, who’s most pressing concern is whether the Dow will close up or down. And look at this man, who has nothing to eat. How can this be the same suffering?”

Last Sunday night a 7.0 earthquake occurred in Haiti. All week we’ve seen the images pouring in on the news: unbelievable destruction and an unimaginable loss of human life. Hard numbers are still a long way off, but the UN has stated they are expecting between 100,000-200,000 deaths. There are 100,000 people in the picture above. 200,000 is the population of Madison, Wisconsin.

The survivors are not much better off. Supplies have been slow to arrive, looting and violence persists, and the clean up effort has only just begun.

Faced with this much death and pain, who can say we share the same suffering?

…the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.”

I tend to think of my life as an algebraic equation, with Pain as one variable (P) and Joy as another (J). Having a cup of Vivace coffee in the morning adds +1J to my equation, whereas missing the subway adds +1P. I spend a lot of time walking around with an equation that looks something like this: 4P -5J = :-(

But in reality, Pain and Joy are the same variable. After all, our ability to access both depends largely on the clarity of our self-understanding. Those who demand rationality from their God may find in the earthquake a reason to lose faith. They may see the equation of the world suddenly -100,000J, +500,000P. They may demand, “What loving God would do this to his children? Why us? WHY??”

Perhaps it is to remind us that we are creatures made to love. The outpouring of sympathy and donation money for Haitian Relief Funds has been incredible. The Red Cross has already received more than $150 million dollars in donations, which is more than the total amount of aid pledged by the US government.

Perhaps it is to remind us that we are doing irreparable harm to our environment, every day. As guests on the back of the gigantic organism we call Earth, we are quickly wearing out our welcome. Perhaps this is a way of shaking us off.

Perhaps there is no purpose.

There are different workings
but the same God who
produces all of them
in everyone…”

Or perhaps the question “What is the purpose of this suffering?” is the wrong question. For if we accept that the purpose of suffering is unknowable; if in fact the purposefulness of suffering is unknowable, then we are left with the simple fact of suffering. No reason, no explanation, just the feeling of an awful blade ripping us up from the inside. And whether you live in Haiti or Hawaii, on the street or at the Ritz, you will suffer. That is what it means to say we suffer alike.

We are all infinite beings, containing the full range of possibilities for human emotion. We are all as capable of suffering as you are in your lonely desperation, and we are all as capable of joy as you are in your secretest bliss. Right now, hundreds of thousands of infinite beings are suffering in Haiti.

Please, make your donation to the Haitian Relief Effort today.

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