“Those who have never been ill are incapable of real sympathy for a great many misfortunes.”André Gide (French novelist and playwright).
“It is easy for the one who stands outside the prison-wall of pain to exhort and teach the one who suffers.”Aeschylus (ancient Greek playwright)
(Image credit – Dani Pettrey)
No one who has lived through and is old enough to remember it will forget 2020 – the “Plague Year” of a century. We tend to forget that there have been many plague years in human history, and many far worse both in absolute numbers of victims and in proportion.
But saying, “There have been many worse times,” is no comfort to the loved ones of those who have fallen victim to this latest iteration of the fourth (pale, pestilence) horse and horseman of the Apocalypse (see Chapter 6 of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament). Neither can we say, entering 2021, that it is over yet.
M. Gide (see opening quote) had an earned right to talk about sever illness based on his own experience in a rather tragic life. I would add that those close to someone who is passing through the “Valley of the Shadow” very often truly begin to suffer with the sufferer. Not the physical pain, but, as we now realize, the psychological and emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain can be just as acute and devastating. Otherwise, what Gide says is totally true.
Compassion is a word derived from Latin – cum passione – meaning “with intense feeling, with passion”. It is the act of “feeling with”, being alongside someone in the depths of their suffering. If we are not the direct victim of a serious illness or great misfortune, we do not know its suffering in the same way as its primary target, but we can still know very much what it means through the pain of seeing what it has done and is doing to someone we care for. Grieving for and with a suffering dear one is a true and real form of intense suffering, and it begins even in the middle of a great ordeal. From our cum passione presence with those suffering, we learn to have “real sympathy for a great many misfortunes”, even of a sort we have not lived with or had to help someone else through. We come into a place of wanting to do and doing whatever we can to alleviate their suffering.
It is only by suffering the pain, the sickness, and the calamity ourselves, or by choosing compassionately and with a real commitment to enter and walk through the Valley of the Shadow with another, that we cease offering the inane sort of comfort Aeschylus refers to. It is only by giving up some sort of right to “exhort, advise, adjust, and correct” the people in the Valley from outside “the prison-wall of pain” that we actually begin to become compassionate people. The best birthing coaches are women who have been there. The best addiction counselors are former, “recovering” addicts. The most merciful people are those who have received great mercy.
Generally, the deeply suffering don’t need more banal advice such as “keep up the good fight” and “don’t give up hope”. Advice, encouragement, and exhortation best comes from people who have earned the right to give it. In any specific life, they are actually few. It becomes irksome and (maybe not just a little) irritating to have “wisdom and insight” offered by people who mean well but are not really part of the sufferer’s journey. Assuredly “experts” with special knowledge have their place, but it’s relationship that opens the door for the needy person to “have ears to hear with”.
General assurances of “thoughts and prayers” are of little worth. Many people utter these clichés who rarely if ever pray. The idea of sending positive thought-vibes too often flees our conscious minds as soon as we move on to the next thing. By all means express sympathy and concern if they are sincere, but refrain from empty assurances if you know you are unlikely to follow through. You may feel more like a compassionate person in that moment, but the recipient will usually know what such declarations are actually worth by the sort of relationship you already have. If, despite all that, you succeed in praying and sending “positive vibes” their way, great! But don’t salve your bad conscience about your shallow relationship and spiritual life by declaring meaningless intentions.
Year-Ends and New-Year beginnings are full of banal good intentions. For my part, I have given up making “resolutions” because I know that if I really mean to take care of myself and work on becoming a “better person”, I will put in the daily effort of deciding and doing what I need to one day at a time. Overcoming temptation is always a one-at-a-time struggle to build up the spiritual and mental muscle I lack, just like building muscle mass to keep my body from deteriorating is a matter of doing the physical exercise involved every day.
I am not without hope as we end 2020 and begin 2021. But saying a bunch of nice-sounding but empty piety is not hopeful. It is delusional. “Saying so don’t make it so!” As the Apostle James expressed it when talking about how compassion really works,
“Supposing a brother or sister is without clothing, and is short of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; be warm; be full!”—but doesn’t give them what their bodies need—what use it that?…. faith, all by itself and without works, is dead.”James Chapter 2, verses 15-17, The Kingdom New Testament
Real hope is based on faith, and faith is not an empty leap in the dark – not even, in fact least of all – in Christianity. Despite the caricature of Christian (and “religious”) faith so often used by sceptics and critics, some of them even within the Churches, the Bible never suggests “blind” faith. The best definition of faith in the Bible, perhaps in all human expression in any language of any time, is this: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In another translation, “It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see.” (Book of Hebrews 11:1 – New Testament.)
Scientists have just as much faith as any religious believer. Everyone lives by faith in and about some things. Otherwise, it is impossible to carry on. For the scientist, reason and the scientific method give him/her faith about discovering “truth” and “reality” – facts that point to the big picture. Contrary to the prevailing paradigm about science versus religion, they are not really so far apart. At least not for Christianity and Judaism.
The source of hope in Christianity is available to all, regardless of “race”, class, gender, age, or any other human distinction one cares to suggest or invent. It is also as factual as any fact of human experience can be. The conflict is in that some (if not most) scientists of the modern and post-modern age classify it as a priori outside the realm of possible facts.
I speak of the “miraculous” as attested by history, and specifically as pertaining to the person of Yeshua ben-Yosef of Natzeret, Jesus of Nazareth to the world at large. Hope for Christians is not a vague wish for better things to come. It is an assurance based on a promise sealed in blood, and verified by the resurrection of Yeshua as God’s guarantee that He keeps His word. He had promised He would redeem broken humankind. He sent His Son to do that and to show all how to return to Him and find their true worth and destiny.
Even in dark times like 2020, and there have been many much darker in many ways over the centuries, the Creator has not departed. He remains anchored among us through the presence of a living Redeemer, a presence shared far and wide wherever those who know Him bring His light.
May you know Him and His light more than ever as we leave 2020 behind and throughout 2021.