Magazines 2016 Sep - Oct Don't turn away from suffering

Don't turn away from suffering

27 September 2016 , 2016 Sep - Oct By Doug Koop

What we learn as we walk with people in distress

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PHOTO: LIGHTPOET / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

A big part of my job as a spiritual health practitioner is to stay attuned to the suffering.

Every day I encounter patients and family members enduring multiple types of personal distress – physical, emotional, spiritual. People who require hospital care almost inevitably find themselves struggling to come to terms with any of a variety of uncomfortable realities.

In a word, they suffer.

Meanwhile, pain of any sort is difficult to be around, even when it’s not your own. The anguish of any individual stirs something awkward in others. Suffering is something most of us would rather avoid. That’s why many people aim to stay clear of hospitals.

Yet people in pain are the very ones who can most benefit from good company, who need to know they’re not alone, who warmly welcome listening ears and are eager to talk about the things that matter most in their lives, even to a stranger – perhaps especially to someone who never knew them before and brings no judgment to what is divulged.

And very often those who truly suffer have something to teach those of us who’d prefer if the hassles, headaches and heartaches simply went away.

PRECIOUS?

Sitting at the bedside with a man whose wife of two decades was actively dying after a two-year struggle with multiple cancers, I was intrigued when the grieving husband told me the entire experience was deeply "precious" to him.

It had not been easy. How often had I seen this man roll out a cot to spend yet another interrupted night by her side? How often had his tired eyes responded to yet another message from family and friends? How many bad news meetings with medical staff had he endured? How often had he stumbled down the street to move the car to an affordable parking spot?

I was keenly aware his devoted attention to her cancer journey had cost him a job, that he lived with significant financial pressures, that one of his children was making bad life choices, that his dying wife was apt to be anxious or troubled, that this man was stoically carrying on under heavy burdens. And that the great love of his life would soon be gone.

Precious?

When I asked him to say more, he took a long pause and then replied, "A lot of things that people say they believe turn out to be hollow. When you go through something like this, you discover who really cares. You learn what a person is prepared to give and do for someone else. For us," he concluded, "it’s about actual relationship. Not ideas."

Suffering to him was a proving ground, an uncomfortable way of learning what really matters, a portal to glimpses of the depths of good character. As psychiatrist Victor Frankl famously put it, "What is to give light, must endure burning."

This is that grieving husband, steeped in the harsh effects of cancer, yet gaining insight into better ways to live. To be fully restored and experience the joy of abundant life, it is necessary to fully absorb both the difficult feelings and the damaging facts.

WHY? WHY? WHY?

The nurse had hardly left the room when the angry woman turned to me, the spiritual health practitioner who had just been introduced to the family. "Why does there have to be suffering? Answer me that!" she demanded.

I was standing near the head of the bed where her 85-year-old dad lay dying, a gaunt figure struggling for breath. The woman’s siblings and their mother, the soon-to-be widow, seemed more resigned, less belligerent in their posturing against the care they were receiving.

I took a step toward her, looked her full in the face and said, as softly and directly as I could, "The short answer is that nobody knows. You are asking the question that has vexed and perplexed humanity for as long as we’ve been around."

I paused and watched the frustration of her circumstances cloud her face and mishmash her emotions like shiny stones in a jeweller’s tumbler.

While it was not an appropriate time for me to suggest people often discover new depths of their own humanity as a result of direct exposure to agony, she was beginning to grasp the notion that death is the natural end of every life. This is a truth we all know, yet only rarely truly feel. She was feeling it.

When the initial barrage of hostility was spent, a different conversation slowly emerged. Questions of transcendence surfaced. "What comes next?" she wondered. Her father had been raised in the Church and now she sought opinions on heaven and the afterlife.

An undertone of guilt seeped through and, in time, family secrets began to spill. Her father, it turned out, had not been a very nice man. She told stories of her teenage confrontations and hinted at darker encounters with the man whose struggling breath so commanded her concern. Now in her 50s she continued to feel the judgment of a man she did not like, yet felt duty bound to serve, and whom she had somehow never stopped loving.

In her case, daughterly duty took the form of demanding unreasonable levels of care from hospital staff, a late attempt to bridge the gap between the bloodlines of affection and the troubling alienation left unresolved for decades. Now, on his gasping deathbed, the issues of a lifetime could not be quelled. They rose unbidden with an acuteness she could not ignore.

She was suffering the loss of the true community a father is supposed to provide, the internal upset of an unsettled relationship. It took the frailty of a dying octogenarian to bring her to the point where she could critically consider her own attitudes and actions in light of her purported values of composed maturity and familial solidarity.

COUNTERINTUITIVE

The notion suffering can be precious might be counterintuitive, but it is an amplified expression of our more ordinary understanding that valuable things come with a cost.

What we most deeply desire rarely becomes ours without some sort of struggle. The birth of a child is accompanied by pain and hard labour. Explorers seek out the most inhospitable places. The athlete’s victory doesn’t happen without significant self-discipline and the torturous rigours of hard training. The scholar’s intriguing insight arrives only after years of acquiring knowledge and assimilating a solid appreciation for the nuances and complexities of his or her subject.

Humanity as a whole lauds the spirit of those who take on the most difficult challenges.

And yet, nobody really likes to suffer.

To suffer means to endure something that seems to us intolerable. Suffering occurs whenever what we experience clashes with our hopes and dreams. It is the cognitive and emotional distance that separates the yearnings of our spirit from our actual circumstances.

Suffering is often associated with physical pain, yet it is entirely possible to suffer without feeling such pain, or to endure great physical travail without actually suffering.

Certainly in a hospital setting, a great deal of pain can be alleviated with medication. And while physical pain is a reality, it’s rarely what people choose to talk about. Instead, the topics they turn to most often are the stuff of relationships and regrets, memories of successes and failures, anxious concern about unfinished business and hopeful visions of a peaceful pathway ahead.

In these vulnerable spaces where the fragility of human existence is on display, the masks that guard much of our ordinary discourse peel away. Truth is released from the constraints of ego.

Spiritual health practitioners step into this conflicting space in people’s lives hoping to help them recover a sense of personal equilibrium. We don’t fix anything, yet at our best we can encourage these now intimate strangers to discover resources within themselves that will enable them to come to more settled terms with their circumstances.

Like athletes who subject their bodies to painful stressors to excel in their sport, human beings often experience their greatest spiritual growth in these times of physical or emotional distress. When things are going well, we tend to cruise blithely along assuming that apparently we are in control of our lives.

LIFE HAPPENS

However, inevitably life happens and its crises compel us to begin to realize we are not in control, that our successes or failures depend as much on outside forces and circumstances than on our own will and ways. When things begin to go poorly, we are obliged to be more aware of our frailty and instinctively seek out our sources of strength and healing.

kenosis: THE TYPE OF SELF-EMPTYING ATTRIBUTED TO JESUS IN PHILIPPIANS 2, AND WHICH HE EXPERIENCED SUPREMELY IN SUBMITTING TO HIS FATHER’S WILL IN THE GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE AND AGAIN ON THE CROSS

Attempts to ignore or explain away the dislocation we feel at these times comprise the essence of soul suffering. Alas, until life bites hard, most of us will go to great lengths to escape the discomfort of facing our fears head on.

The ironic truth is that our salvation comes when we most fully feel and honestly acknowledge our realities and cease our futile striving. The place of deep healing is right at the bottom (the miry pit, if you will), a place of abject submission when a person comes to the end of him- or herself – no more excuses, no more denial, no more attempts to escape.

Simply sitting in the depths of the sad space without any sense of entitlement or expectation is the turning point. This is where the self is acutely aware of its own limitations and accepts full responsibility for its actions.

This is the realm of kenosis, the type of self-emptying attributed to Jesus in Philippians 2 and which He experienced supremely in submitting (reluctantly, yet unreservedly) to His Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–46), and again on the cross where He spiritually experienced the abandonment of God (Matthew 27:46).

This is Jonah in the belly of the fish – no more excuses, no more running, only a belated recognition of a bitter reality.

This is where alcoholics bottom out, learn to see themselves as addicts and begin to reassemble their lives through 12-step programs that never allow them to forget their frailty and insist on, among other things, a "ruthless self-inventory" to face the facts at hand.

hands.jpgPHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

This is that grieving husband, steeped in the harsh effects of cancer, yet gaining insight into better ways to live. To be fully restored and experience the joy of abundant life, it is necessary to fully absorb both the difficult feelings and the damaging facts.

WHY? WHY? WHY?

The nurse had hardly left the room when the angry woman turned to me, the spiritual health practitioner who had just been introduced to the family. "Why does there have to be suffering? Answer me that!" she demanded.

I was standing near the head of the bed where her 85-year-old dad lay dying, a gaunt figure struggling for breath. The woman’s siblings and their mother, the soon-to-be widow, seemed more resigned, less belligerent in their posturing against the care they were receiving.

I took a step toward her, looked her full in the face and said, as softly and directly as I could, "The short answer is that nobody knows. You are asking the question that has vexed and perplexed humanity for as long as we’ve been around."

I paused and watched the frustration of her circumstances cloud her face and mishmash her emotions like shiny stones in a jeweller’s tumbler.

While it was not an appropriate time for me to suggest people often discover new depths of their own humanity as a result of direct exposure to agony, she was beginning to grasp the notion that death is the natural end of every life. This is a truth we all know, yet only rarely truly feel. She was feeling it.

When the initial barrage of hostility was spent, a different conversation slowly emerged. Questions of transcendence surfaced. "What comes next?" she wondered. Her father had been raised in the Church and now she sought opinions on heaven and the afterlife.

An undertone of guilt seeped through and, in time, family secrets began to spill. Her father, it turned out, had not been a very nice man. She told stories of her teenage confrontations and hinted at darker encounters with the man whose struggling breath so commanded her concern. Now in her 50s she continued to feel the judgment of a man she did not like, yet felt duty bound to serve, and whom she had somehow never stopped loving.

In her case, daughterly duty took the form of demanding unreasonable levels of care from hospital staff, a late attempt to bridge the gap between the bloodlines of affection and the troubling alienation left unresolved for decades. Now, on his gasping deathbed, the issues of a lifetime could not be quelled. They rose unbidden with an acuteness she could not ignore.

She was suffering the loss of the true community a father is supposed to provide, the internal upset of an unsettled relationship. It took the frailty of a dying octogenarian to bring her to the point where she could critically consider her own attitudes and actions in light of her purported values of composed maturity and familial solidarity.

In time she began to open up about her relationship with her own children, which was not all joy. It took the sting of death to drive her to face these vital issues.

Spiritual care providers serve as companions and guides in this search for deep healing. Their role is to cultivate familiarity with the patterns and pathways of the soul to help others ferret out the deepest truths about themselves, and construct more positive relationships within the world they inhabit, to help people face the cluster of their own realities with as exact a mirror that their desire, knowledge and courage can muster.

GET REAL

I honestly don’t know why it takes such pain to get us to be real, to shed the false images we so carefully construct and – if we stick to the task – to become more fully human, revealing more of the image of God in which we were created.

But that’s the way life seems to work.

We are most in touch with ourselves when we lose our illusions about our weaknesses, failures and lack of control. Life itself is larger and stronger than any one of us.

When we dare, like Jacob with the mysterious angel, to wrestle with the unwelcome truths of our circumstances, we create opportunities for the kind of personal growth only suffering seems able to generate. Amid the hurt and hardship is where we summon the will to strip off the accumulations of the ego and attend to fundamental matters we would usually rather ignore.

Doug Koop is a spiritual health practitioner at a major trauma and tertiary care hospital in Winnipeg. The former longtime editor of ChristianWeek also contributes on a freelance basis to a variety of publications.