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On Suffering

In which Dina describes to a roundtable of religious colleagues how she (an atheist) makes sense of the human predicament, experiences grace, and a meaningful loving life, without a faith relationship with (a) God.

December 14. 2012: I was working as a hospital chaplain intern at a major urban hospital, about an hour away from Newtown CT. On that Friday we got word of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a first-responder time frame - just before news broke. Our trauma center was within ambulance range to absorb some of the casualties. We braced ourselves. Within about a half hour it became clear there were not going to be survivors we could help. A reality which had a deep impact on every person working in the hospital that day; as ready as we were to jump in there was nothing we were going to be able to do.

December 14, 2019: I went back into my email archives this morning, seven years later, to see if I had left myself anything relevant to consider. Seven years is long enough to forget that it was the week our chaplain intern group was considering suffering. Our writing prompt was: 'On suffering, beginning from an experience in which you suffered.' This is the writing I brought to class and read to my CPE intern group and our chaplain mentor. It was the Friday I was tasked with leading chapel. At the bottom of this post you'll find the poem I wrote that week, a few days before Sandy Hook and read at noon in the chapel on the day of the shooting.

On Suffering: Four days post spine surgery I found myself a patient in a nursing home where staffing levels were poor. I was there for rehab but found out later that my placement had been a mistake in communication between my insurance company and the hospital's discharge nurse. There were lots of things wrong with this situation, most involving how hard it was to get care, but brought to a critical moment in the night when I was hours late for pain medication, the dressing on my wound was falling off, and no one came when I rang the bell. I left the nursing home with the seeds of an infection in the bones of my spine which would require months of IV antibiotics and morphine, and ultimately caused permanent damage.

How was I affected by this experience? I was reminded, as if I could ever forget, that I have to take care of myself. By hook and by crook and by brain and by brawn. I have rarely felt more alone than I did during the months of this ordeal. I became isolated by pain and illness. I could not care well for my family, so I was separated from purpose. It was a dark time.

How did I respond? By being overwhelmed for a while, and eventually by looking inside myself for remedies, which mostly involved finding ways to be more present so that life would draw me in again. I managed to find a way through, over time. I am still making sense of how profoundly my life has been impacted by my changed and changing physical reality, making sense is a moving target.

What are three things I know about suffering?

  • Suffering is more the norm, rather than the exception, of the human condition. Even if you lead a charmed life, with plenty of money, resources, creative outlets... you will experience the surprises of disappointment, loss, death.

  • Some people seem to seek suffering. Some people seem to seek to cause suffering. Some people learn to duck and others live innocuously. Some people seem to take it all in healthy stride, some wear suffering on their sleeve, some are stoic and suffer in silence. It takes all kinds.

  • There will be more suffering that I witness in my own life, in the lives around me, than I will want to witness.

Theology is the study of God and God's relation to the world and humankind's relation to God. I have to approach suffering from a different direction than the typical prompts for chaplain students indicate, and I do not know what to call my 'ology'... My 'ministry' (however unconventional) is often in relationship with people who, like myself, do not believe in God, or worship any entity. One purpose of engaging in Clinical Pastoral Education is to help me understand and articulate this ministry.

What does this mean in the context of suffering?

Like the 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 - 1976), I am keenly interested in the meaning of "being". It is my experience that suffering is an intrinsic attribute of human beings, I suspect (but do not know) that it is not a necessity of all of being. Heidegger's life work centered on and responded to Aristotle's quest to understand "what it is that unites all possible modes of being," It is this idea, that all possible modes of being are united, which fills my heart with gladness. One, being the resting place. From a philosophical perspective and through the lens of what causes wonder for me, specifically, it is in the moments when I experience this connectivity that life is most interesting to me. It is the dance of everything, all at once, the enormity of this great simultaneous existence that counter-balances in my heart the reality of human suffering and the varieties of darkness we endure.

I have learned through study of world religions and direct observation the significant value experienced when people-of-faith who engage in meaningful relationship with God employ the stories of their religious tradition to understand, shape and give purpose to the suffering they experience. Many religions promise release from suffering in an afterlife where adherents will live in direct company with God for eternity.

For people who negotiate being human without God or religious traditions, and who may or may not study philosophy, suffering, like being, just is. We are not suffering because we have sinned or done wrong. There is no entity in charge to pray to to protect us, or to make it stop, or to make it better. When life sucks even our ancestors are not of much practical help. The silver linings, beautiful mysteries, and greater good we are able to find in our terrible circumstances are not placed in our hearts and minds as gifts from an entity beyond us. They are there because we ourselves, in our awe of simply being, can imagine there is light in darkness.

Words are inadequate to express my thinking. When I am keeping company with people who are acutely suffering, whether physically or mentally, I have no answers for them. I have no philosophical or religious stories that will give them a metaphor to lift a leg on. Bupkus, zippo, nada. All I have to offer in the face of suffering is a stalwart heart. I can offer the willingness to look the suffering face on, and I can offer the honesty that there is nothing I can do to make pain stop. I can witness that suffering is happening without flinching from it. I can listen. I can offer soup or a foot rub, a hand to hold. Human comforts, and no promise of heaven.

I imagine that being a chaplain could sit more easily with the senses when one has faith and a specific theology to guide and structure a working understanding of what it means to minister to people in pain, to love a God who provides a context for suffering, the possibility of a release from suffering, and the promise of life in heaven beyond this life. I have no such assurances to offer. I approach these questions of life and death with more questions, until a silence grows inside of me and from that silence my poet-heart finds words... here is my personal 'ology' of suffering. This is how I roll...

gifts of the unspoken.

I have been tasked to sit here gnawing on the bone of suffering to attempt a comprehension

and attend to the nuance of what I see think believe or act as if I know and I have sat now the time it took

to gnaw enough bone to

taste the marrow

and finally

to leave the mark

of my own teeth

in the long white flank of it

what I know of suffering fits on the head of a pin afloat in a vast sea of human agony

what I know of suffering is a short breath in the long sigh that flies the wind of our sorrows

what I know of suffering turns a new leaf in my heart every time I see a person lean in with love

knowing full well that loving of people places things always introduces luggage

emotional appendages that live with us haunting as ghost limbs long after relations have been severed

still we humans lean in with love the only possible antidote to

the stench of our circumstances

at the bottom of the

well reaching inward towards the murky dark

where even the circle of light from the top

has lost it's promise

what I know is to stop just there in the moment and set down the luggage

let the ghosts rest while I listen to my own heart beating in the darkness

what I know is not to flinch in fear of my own suffering or the suffering of others

what I know is that when I stop and unclench my teeth from hard bone I can listen without encumbrance

I hear the shore receive

wave upon endless

wave from the sea

I hear a constant sighing

released in the wind

that dries the tears on my cheeks

I see trees lift the buds

of new leaves towards a light

I can barely imagine

all the while my heart

beats this quirky rhythm

into the stillness

so that when I look

in your eyes

when you are suffering

it is not your words

or my words that are necessary

to the moment

only the silence

holds our truths

when all has been said

and done we are graced

by the gifts of the unspoken --

'gifts of the unspoken' is one of the poems in my book, Old Bones & True Stories [2018: Human Error Publishing] Available on amazon ;-)