For the past couple weeks, I have been with my brother who is recovering from a serious and extremely painful illness. I’ve never known pain this severe…necessitating morphine, just a step away from heroin. His anguish and suffering is beyond words.
Why is this happening? Why, God? he has asked in the throes of his nightly cries. Fortunately, he has a loving caregiver who never leaves his side and encourages his recovery in a million different ways, both big and small. He is making progress, albeit slowly, and we make it a point to celebrate each new achievement: walking a few more steps each day, sitting upright in a chair without pain, pouring a cup of coffee. Two steps forward, one step back…his progress is gritty, hard-earned and somewhat difficult to sustain.
What is suffering? Is it a revelation of God’s presence and love, and an expression of his desire to mine a deeper spiritual connection? Is suffering a ladder to the god of our understanding, a way to plunge deeper into one’s soul? Does intense and prolonged pain create greater empathy and compassion in the one who experiences its depths?
Is suffering a message of love? Do the trials that one endures serve to grow and perfect one’s character?
How we fill the hole that is created by our pain and distress is in our own hands; it cannot be any other way. Some say every deep disappointment in our lives serves to draw us even closer to the ones we love; to let down hardened walls of emotion and soften our hearts. There are no clean and easy answers. In the meantime, we continue to pray. Be silent. Laugh at his silly puns (it’s a revelation when humor penetrates pain). Listen to his beloved music. Enjoy the lively conversation of friends who visit.
Suffering has knocked on my brother’s door, and it will not leave for the asking. In a way, there is nothing he can do but wait to get well as he negotiates the hills and valleys of his protracted illness. In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron says: “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”
My brother’s body may be in pain, but it is clear to me his indestructible heart, though vulnerable is still vivid, whole, and abundantly alive.