Image – NY Times
“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, then the entire world would be wise since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1973
The couch’s middle cushion dipped as I settled into it at Quaker Meeting. It was the first Sunday of the month, so I anticipated just ten minutes of silence before we’d be directed into worship-sharing. This practice is much like silent meeting for worship, except that the leader poses queries, or questions, for participants to respond to. Out of the quiet, we speak from our own experience, listen deeply and lovingly without commenting, and allow silence between sharings. That day, the worship-sharing leader invited us to respond to any or all of the following queries:
- How and when do we differentiate between alleviating suffering of others and/or empowering them to find their own way?
- Is being present or bearing witness enough?
- What is your experience with suffering? What has it taken from you and what has it given you?
I closed my eyes, resumed my centering breaths, and focused on suffering. As typically happens when I ponder such themes, my thoughts bounced like kernels in a popcorn popper. I quieted them as others spoke, nearly every message resonating. I nodded as someone talked of the importance of being present to those who are suffering, and another suggested we can’t take others’ suffering away. One spoke of awareness that her lifestyle, even as simple as she tries to keep it, contributes to the suffering of other people. More sharing rang true to my own experience: there are ways to give physical help that will ease the suffering of others; our thoughts also affect suffering; recognition of suffering among other species; and the burden of thinking we’re responsible for others’ suffering.
I thought of my own experience with suffering, reflecting on the premature deaths of my father, stepfather, and several close friends. I thought back to other losses, times of uncertainty about my work, and feelings of failure. Those memories led me to explore the questions about what suffering has taken from me and what it has given me. I breathed in, cleared my throat, and spoke of how suffering crumbled my naiveté and eroded my trust that everything would be okay. And once I became aware that my choices about where I live, how I spend, and what I eat often bring suffering to other people, species, and the planet, I couldn’t return to denying my privilege or my complicity.
And there have been gifts. My own hardships, plus awareness of others’ distress, have fostered compassion. When compassion arises, I can open myself to Spirit and to what it is I’m to do. I strive to eliminate the goal of doing “enough.” I know I can never do enough, that I can’t bring an end to the suffering I witness. Instead, I seek clarity about what it is I can bring to a situation or a person and then endeavor to be faithful to that, rather than to an outcome.
As I shared these thoughts, I recognized that these experiences of adversity create a circle—when I act with compassion, I enter into others’ suffering, which in turn fosters compassion. I’m grateful for that, even though many days I wish this cycle didn’t work this way.
But it seems to be the way it is. And it’s why I value my spiritual community, because none of us can do this alone.