by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
"Suffering doesn’t ennoble people,” my professor said, leaning over the podium, removing her glasses, as she always did when she was making a particularly urgent point. “It may ennoble some people,” she went on, “but it makes others petty or self-indulgent or cruel. Virtue is not an inevitable by-product of suffering.” Her words have stayed with me these many years, not only because they were startling in their edgy realism but also because she spoke with authority. She was a survivor of two concentration camps and a childhood marked with a yellow star in the Viennese ghetto. She had seen people suffer, some with very little grace. She had suffered.
Randall Jarrell’s poem “90 North” ends with lines that insist on a similar unsettling realism about suffering: “Pain comes from the darkness and we call it wisdom. / It is pain.”1
Both the professor and the poet have taught me not to be glibly optimistic about the hope that suffering produces wisdom. It does, however, seem characteristic of those who are wise that they are receptive to the hard, costly lessons suffering offers. But that receptivity may come only in retrospect, years after the pain has abated, only upon reflection.
Reflection itself is work. It requires not only willingness to “go there”—back into the darkness of a difficult time, back into feelings one would rather leave buried—but also the humility to recognize the ordinariness of one’s own suffering. Suffering doesn’t make us heroic any more than it makes us virtuous. Nancy Mairs, who has written remarkable, wise, witty essays about her own experience with multiple sclerosis, ends one with her own response to the “Why me?” question that comes up so readily in the midst of pain: “Why not me?”2 Things happen to people, she points out. When it is our turn to suffer, we are indeed summoned to some theological reflection on the human condition, but it may be that it is best to start in humble recognition of the fact that we weren’t singled out for abuse. It’s just our turn.
So how do we prepare ourselves to be the kind of people who are willing to be taught by suffering, and whose sufferings may yield wisdom? Three practices seem to me useful toward that end. I identify them not from my own experience, but from watching those in whom I have encountered real wisdom, and seeing how they have risen to what life gave them.
One practice is to dwell in, and on, the paradox represented by the tale of a rabbi who, when a member of his congregation came to him rejoicing, would say, darkly, “How do you know it’s not a disaster?” On the other hand, when one came lamenting, he would ask, “How do you know it’s not a blessing?” Always he called his pupils to look again, without judgment, but with what I would call “holy curiosity.” We don’t know what we’re being prepared for. We don’t know how things may work together for good. Believing that they can and do does not, in any case, mean that faith must make us cheerily optimistic, but rather that it may make us willing to live in the mystery of an unfolding story. Indeed, optimism as much as pessimism misses the point: it is the not knowing—the certainty that there is “a divinity that shapes our ends” who is at work in ways we can’t fathom—that opens us to surprise and invitation. Insisting on human logic can blind us to possibilities only visible, if at all, by means of the radical reframing the Gospels invite. The hard part, of course, is to hold onto both: to reason carefully, to consult the actuarial tables, the pie charts, the budget, the score sheets, and at the same time to open our hearts and plans and pocketbooks and lay them without reserve before God who works in mysterious, counterintuitive ways.
One of the several older women I have known whom I would call “other mothers” taught me by example the intimate and necessary connection between wisdom and openness to possibility. When life-changing circumstances arose, and in the course of the years I knew her, many such circumstances did, she approached them not, at first, with either anguish or glee, but rather with a lively curiosity about what they might betoken. She held them, as it were, in an open hand, weighing their possibilities, waiting to see how they might reorganize her mattering map, her rhythm of life, her priorities. A spouse’s sickness, a child in trouble with the law, a family conflict, a job change, all seemed similarly held in possibility. “I dwell in Possibility,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “a fairer House than Prose.”3 In the same way that one image in a poem may open unexpected pathways of reflection, so one event in the course of a day may open up pathways to wisdom, if it is given time to germinate rather than being labeled too quickly as either disaster or blessing.
A second practice that can lay the groundwork for drawing a wisdom from our own sufferings is to be present to other people’s suffering. To witness. To see how many are the ways people deal with suffering. To learn how suffering can elicit creativity or deepen hope or resiliency or understanding. Some people recoil from others’ suffering—don’t like to visit hospitals, don’t know what to say, wish they were somewhere else, or could just send flowers. But a willingness to show up, even in our uncertainty about how to behave, may not only be a gift, it may help us learn to enter the places of darkness with confidence and trust, not needing to know how, or to predict outcomes, but to be fully present to whatever the moment calls for.
Here again, the learning is in the not knowing. Waiting with a friend for biopsy results, or with a spouse facing a company-wide layoff, or with a dying parent or a fearful child, we are specifically called to relinquish control. The task of the moment is simply to come alongside: to pray together, or to offer the gift of silence when words don’t help, or perhaps humbly to accept the need for diversion—backgammon or a read-aloud whodunit or Sunday afternoon sports. I think of the last of those remembering a sweet moment in a class with medical students. We were talking about how to be with others’ pain as caregivers, and the perennial problem of finding words that might actually convey comfort. “You’ve just walked into a new patient’s room,” I hypothesized. “You can see that he’s uncomfortable, restless, apprehensive, and tired of the hospital. What might you say to let him know you’re humanly interested and available, and not just there to check the monitors?” One young man, after some consideration, answered, “So, how ‘bout them Red Sox?” After the laughter died down—and after I had admitted that that particular gambit would not have occurred to me, I considered with them the kindness of that simple a gesture. It neutralized the power differential between the clothed, healthy, and knowledgeable doctor and the gowned, weakened, and uneasy patient. It sought common ground. It affirmed a human connection that consisted of more than medicine. It invoked the commonwealth of the ordinary. And it indicated a willingness, at least for a few moments, to step beyond strict protocols to engage with the patient as a person. For all those reasons the student’s simple suggestion struck me as wise and kind.
We don’t know what we’re being prepared for.
A similar quirky version of wisdom and kindness is developed in one of Cynthia Voigt’s best young adult novels, Izzy, Willy-Nilly, a book worth recommending even to older readers for its treatment of companionship in suffering.4 The most mature, memorable character in the story is Rosamund—a smart, socially awkward, oddly childlike girl, marginalized by her high school peers. When a beautiful, privileged, popular, and therefore inaccessible classmate is maimed in a car accident, Rosamund, alone among those who look on in horror, finds her way past Izzy’s bitterness and tears with empathy, imagination, patience, and unapologetic curiosity. The two develop what in happier times might have been an unlikely, if not impossible, friendship, largely because of Rosamund’s openness to Izzy’s process. She knows how to be silent. She is not intimidated by sorrow. She wants to know what Izzy’s injury might teach her. And she wants to know Izzy. The development and depth of Rosamund’s capacity for friendship is the real theme of the novel. She is the wise one. She waits. She watches. She withstands rebuffs in the interests of friendship and is rewarded by one that grows in dry, unlikely soil.
A third practice that may open a way to wisdom through suffering is acceptance of small things so that acceptance of bigger, harder things, when they happen, may come more easily. Acceptance is not a glamorous virtue. It’s easily confused with passivity. It can be an excuse for not acting on one’s own legitimate behalf. I spent some years resisting wiser people’s advice to accept particular setbacks or (others’) obnoxious behaviors or limitations. Acceptance seemed unimaginative and weak where it seemed confrontation or action might work more to the purpose. It was at an Al-Anon meeting I attended when in distress about a family member’s alcoholism that I began to recognize the largeness and the wisdom of an attitude that had seemed so bland and pale. The “serenity prayer,” recited at all AA meetings and reproduced on plaques and posters and greeting cards, may suffer from overexposure, but its power is evident when one runs up against the real limits of human effort. When someone you love is suffering an addiction you can’t cure, the prayer for “serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference” offers healing clarity and that goes well beyond empty assurances. In one of the first meetings I attended, three people had lost children to addiction. Even to suggest “acceptance” of such loss might seem glib or cruel, but in the context of a whole community of people who recognized the life-saving, life-affirming value of a sustained practice of acceptance, the prayer sounded a deep note of hope—not necessarily for complete resolution, but for a way and a will to live life fully and joyfully even in the presence of loss or intractable disappointment.
The story of the Amish community that several years ago lost five young girls to a crazed gunman on a rampage offers a remarkable example of how practice in ordinary times may prepare us for the moments when extraordinary courage and wisdom are called for. The book Amish Grace offers an outsider’s account of that community’s response to the slaughter, which was to extend forgiveness, grace, and hospitality to the gunman’s family.5 Some readers of the newspaper accounts of their remarkable generosity were offended by their readiness to extend forgiveness, thinking it dishonored the enormity of the atrocity. But the Amish spokesmen’s response was that forgiveness was what they preached and practiced in ordinary times, and it meant nothing if it couldn’t be given in the hardest times. Their testimony echoes those of the many who have done the deliberate hard work of reconciliation in South Africa or Northern Ireland or other sites of suffering where wisdom comes from a common commitment made uncommon in crisis. Suffering—not just putting up with, but accepting and forgiving—the small slights, the intimate antagonisms, the bumps and frustrations of daily life as a training for the hard times is a proven path to a wisdom that may suddenly seem transcendent when put to the test. The transformation of suffering into wisdom, though, as my professor reminded us, is not automatic. It can only be accomplished through prayer, sustained intention, and clarity about how our deepest purposes are always at stake—how the small things are the big things in disguise. When our hearts are open to what comes, and trained faithfully in ordinary times, we can be confident in Paul’s reassurance that somehow, even when the struggle continues, “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Rom. 5:3–4, NIV). In that hope lies all the wisdom we need.
Out of her life experiences, McEntyre observes that it seems “characteristic of those who are wise that they are receptive to the hard, costly lessons suffering offers.” Take some quiet moments to create a list of wise people you know or have known. Recall at least five persons, and then consider the ways in which they have shown or expressed wisdom. In what ways, to your knowledge, have any of these persons experienced “hard, costly lessons” in suffering?
From “What You Get for the Price” by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June 2011), Vol. 26, No. 3. Copyright © 2011 by The Upper Room.
1 Randall Jarrell, “90 North” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th Edition, ed. Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 1553.
2 Nancy Mairs, “On Being a Cripple,” Plaintext (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, 1986), 20.
3 Emily Dickinson, Poem #657 in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1960), 327.
4 Cynthia Voigt, Izzy, Willy-Nilly (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
5 Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007).