Processing suffering

January 14, 2010

activism / spirituality

We continue to watch the misery that the Haitian people continue to endure. I feel that it is impossible to overstate, and also impossible for us on the outside to understand. We must do what we can to help, without understanding, and not forget Haiti after this week. But to let us in a little right now, there are countless videos, photos, stories, and other glimpses. One of the best collections of photojournalism in the country these days is at The Big Picture, the photo blog for The Boston Globe.

The pictures there now are haunting. Often they are beautiful. Sometimes beautiful and haunting, as they have been during the uprisings in Iran over the last year. The utter horror that they depict now, though, has made me consider the depth to which we are capable of processing what we are seeing, since we are not on the inside of it. I want to look at these issues, as they are different for us than they have been for any other generation in the history of humanity.

We know that there is more information, of all kinds, available to us today than there ever has been. More stories, more conversation, more news, more useless crap. Just more of everything. In times like these, though, many of us find that we cannot process all of the suffering that is in front of us. This is one of (many) reasons that I don’t watch news, aside from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Many of us are simply numb, and we can’t handle another video of another person trapped and dying under rocks that, in any other country in our hemisphere, someone could move.

And yet. When I got to hear Bill Clinton speak earlier this month, he spoke about the challenge of “our interdependence and interconnectedness” that he believes is the challenge of the 21st century.

But what does that mean, when we think of suffering?

It means that there is no suffering from which we are disconnected.

Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and told radical stories about what defines a neighbor. He expanded its definition to the limit of what was geographically available to the people of his day.

What does that mean when everyone is geographically available to us? When no story is unavailable to us? I don’t believe it means that we can watch every sad video, or look at every sad photo, or hear every sad soundbyte. We would never do anything else, for one thing, but it is still true that we simply are not mentally or emotionally capable of processing all of it.

But what it does mean is that we cannot ignore any story. We must process what we can, and enter into these stories. We must, as one of my favorite professors was fond of saying, “Take on the pain of the world each day.”

This same professor is a deep practitioner of contemplative and charismatic practices. He reads and prays deeply. He visits monasteries. He is a Pentecostal mystic, in a beautiful way.

This is essential, if we are to enter into these stories. We must, yes, go to the people and places the heart of God demands that we go. But we must also take those people and places to the heart of God. Remember this, in this suffering and all other sufferings.