I’m a terrible sufferer. I hesitate to use the word, as my experiences with suffering are few, and not long lasting. Still, being ill with a particularly virulent flu virus at the moment opens me to feelings I’d rather not have; lazy, unproductive, frustrated, angry, bored, sorry for myself…to name a few. I’m OK admitting these things. They are truly true. But my suffering is minor, the flu, nothing more.
I can’t imagine how those with chronic pain find the capacity to carry on, day after day, with no relief. There are those who seem to bear the lion’s share of pain and suffering, not just one thing, but many things one after the other. I don’t understand. I feel powerless to help them. And I am ashamed to say seeing their suffering makes me afraid. I think about the end of my life. If I am so impacted by the minor pain that I’ve experienced so far, what will I do should more come to me?
Medical assistance in dying appears to offer a way out of the suffering. I watched a documentary once, a beautiful story about someone taking leave of their illness. After attending to their affairs, and doing what they could to carry on as long as they could, they lovingly attended to their goodbye’s. In a poignant ceremony of gratitude, surrounded by their beloveds, they left this earth for the hereafter. It appeared very peaceful, meaningful, and dignified.
Suggesting this option is heresy for some, hope for others. For some there is a deeply held value in soldiering on through illness, to suffer silently and with great inner strength. I recall as a young child my parents spoke about folk who were dying. They talked about their testimony. They found in the way these gentle people handled their illness, hospitalization, and treatments, a reflection of God’s love and grace. I’m not so sure.
I have been witness to the sorrow of a dying friend of great faith who implored us to help him, who when he lost the capacity to do everything, and being deeply afraid of ever being left alone, asked us to take turns sitting by his bedside through the days and nights until the end. I can’t imagine God’s love shining more brightly in my dying friend than it did when he was healthy, and whole. I can’t imagine how his slow and lingering decline testified more greatly to his life of faith. Perhaps it did to some. Not to me.
It is said, “Most certainly I tell you, when you were young, you dressed yourself, and walked where you wanted to. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you, and carry you where you don’t want to go.” I’m not a scholar, but I have to wonder about the carry you where you don’t want to go part. Yes, it could be literal, but might it also be metaphorical?
There may come a day when I sit in a doctor’s office and hear something I would prefer not to hear. I wonder about suffering again in that context, and if when I am old (or any day now really) and I am dressed in the burden of suffering and it carries me where I do not want to go, will I also be given the grace to accept it as part of my journey that will have its own gifts of mercy and moments of transcendence. I believe I believe that.
Today my throat is too sore to swallow, so I try not to. My fever has broken. The sun just came out for a few minutes, and the feeders are busy with an abundance of birds. The dog naps on the couch, and in the time it took to write this I become unaware of anything other than my fingers on the keys, my thoughts on the page. The flu becomes less. These words become more. That is a grace.
Thanks for joining me in considering these things. I recently read an article by Anne Lamott. She says: the first and truest thing is that all truth is a paradox. Life is both a precious, unfathomably beautiful gift, and it’s impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. And here it is again. Paradox. Is suffering a vehicle, a way, or a curse, a great burden? Both. And.
I can’t help thinking of the cloud of witnesses who have gone before me, some of them through deep suffering over their lifetime; my ancestors, friends, all regular folk. Many of them, of great faith. Thinking on them I am reminded of how it is possible to make a life, like a pie, out of the ingredients you have on hand…and then share it bite by bite by bite…right to the bottom of the dish. The taste is not always sweet, but mostly. And the fragrance of the pie while it’s baking, well there’s nothing quite like it. I’ll have to think more on what that means.