I've watched friends shake, become wet with their own mucus and tears, and moan in front of me. I've watched them begin to curl up or hide. It's terrible.
I've thought, "How do I fix it? What do I do? How? Why?"
It's frightening. I want it to go away. I want to excavate its causes and make judgments about them. I want resolution.
But gut-level reactions or rationalizations are usually poor responses to the suffering my friends are experiencing. I've seen those same friends pull away from generalized advice or be stung by an insensitive survey of their pain's possible causes. I've seen them recognize when a comforter is just trying to numb or distract them, and reject it.
Yes, it's possible to wallow in suffering, or to allow pain to become life's dominant paradigm, but I think my friends were mostly right to reject responses like the ones I described. They knew, deeply, that the responses didn't fit their suffering. They felt them grating against it.
The problem with those responses isn't usually that they aren't 'emotional enough' or 'caring enough.' The people from whom my suffering friends recoiled often loved them deeply. No, it's more basic: those responses to suffering are evidence of a simple mistake about what it is. They aren't so much insensitive as they are erroneous. They forget that suffering is deeply characterized by particularity.
I mean that suffering is particular in a couple of different ways. First, it's particular in a plain, rational way: it only exists insofar as it is experienced––"suffered"––by an individual. Unsuffered suffering isn't anything at all. It doesn't make sense. Suffering is limited to the experience of individuals, and so shares their uniqueness.
But the second way in which suffering is particular is deeper than that. The very experience of suffering is characterized by isolation, aloneness, abandonment. Some good thing has departed from the sufferer or been taken from them, and they experience its loss. In respect to what they suffer, they find themselves alone, and moan and shake. Even when two people are grieving over the same thing, even when they're grieving at the same time, the texture of their suffering is solitude.
I think Gerald Stern's poem "Waving Goodbye" expresses this. He's talking about sending his daughter off to college, but his description could fit any number of pains. He says,
I wanted to know what it was like before we
had voices and before we had bare fingers and before we
had minds to move us through our actions
and tears to help us over our feelings,
so I drove my daughter through the snow to meet her friend
and filler her car with suitcases and hugged her
as an animal would, pressing my forehead against her,
walking in circles, moaning, touching her cheek,
and turned my head after them as an animal would,
watching helplessly as they drove over the ruts,
her smiling face and her small hand just visible
over the giant pillows and coat hangers
as they made their turn into the empty highway.
Suffering is caused by loss, and so characterized by solitude. It's particular because it's defined by the experience of individuals, and it's particular because it makes the sufferer solitary. Responses that deny suffering's individuality or attack its solitude are responses that deny and attack suffering itself. They're a denial of what's real, and false comfort.
That's why, when we suffer, the greatest offense is often an attempt to provide a cure-all. Sweeping advice and generalizations or saccharine distractions just don't fit with the particularity and the solitude of deep pain. We don't want a universal cure; the possibility is, frankly, often sickening. Instead, we want a companion who shares our solitude by entering into isolation alongside us, who helps us by placing our suffering inside the bigger context of a life of love.
Good responses to others' suffering follow this pattern. It's almost always good simply to be with a suffering person, to sit beside them. It's almost always good to try to empathize with them. These good responses have little or nothing to do with "fixing" the isolation that comes with suffering. They do not attempt to make it common, or to eliminate it through distractions.
When we sit with a suffering person it is not so much to assuage their isolation as it is to remind them that they are not totally isolated, that the solitude of suffering is within life, not over it. That even aloneness binds us together.
When we stretch our imaginations out and attempt to feel an echo of another person's suffering in ourselves, to empathetically mimic their experience, we are not entering into their isolation, but accepting an isolation for ourselves so much like theirs that, in a sense that goes beyond the suffering itself, we can be together.
Sharing another's suffering in this way, bearing their burden, does not mean removing or denying their particular suffering, their solitude. Rather, it means joining them in being solitary. It means placing solitude within a larger relationship of love.
This, friends, is precisely what Christ, who walked our earth, has done for us.
God didn't offer humans a cure-all, he became a co-sufferer. This distinction is immense. Rather than allowing us an escape or a distraction from suffering, he suffered alongside us. He experienced the immense solitude of suffering, saying, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" It is that very solitude that allows us to say "he is near to us." He's near because he has been alone beside us.
In The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis makes a very simple, very important point: that because suffering only exists insofar as it is felt by someone, one person can truly bear all the suffering in the world. He says,
There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there can be in the universe.
Christ did not experience every injustice. He did not live through every circumstance. Yet he did suffer like us, and (thank God) beyond most of us. Because suffering is particular and solitary, Christ was able to suffer "all the suffering there can be in the universe." And he did. There is no more pain than the pain he suffered. Though there is more injustice than he experienced, more sickness than he endured, yet he has "shared in our sufferings" to the utmost. You can experience no degree of suffering or solitude so great that you cannot find Christ capable of truly sharing it with you.
This is the hard-edged center of the work of redemption. Christ came down to be with us in our suffering, but–in line with his all his acts' sublime tendency toward inversion–the result is that we now get to be with him in our suffering. Because he saw our suffering and came to sit beside us, we can see each of our sufferings as an opportunity to go and sit next to him. No longer need we cry, "Where are you, Lord?" with the Psalmist. Christ, like you, is here, alone, offering you an opportunity to be with him.
And this is our hope: when we do go and join him in his unmerited sufferings, we can know that we will likewise join him in his triumph. His sufferings–all the suffering there can be in the universe–were not an end, but a sharp entryway to glory and power and joy. His promise is that if we follow him, bearing our sufferings like he did, our path will match his. As with him, our sufferings–both merited and unmerited ones–will come to be a sharp entryway to our greatest hope. That is his way, and it may be ours.
It comes to this: when you suffer, friends, sit beside Christ. Before you suffer, prepare yourself to endure by contemplating his sufferings, and by firmly comprehending his victory.
Christ did not come to soothe, but to save; not to distract, but to illuminate. Accepting his sacrifice isn't a denial of the world's deep pain, nor a drug to dull it. It's an acceptance of the only hope in this world that sees what suffering is with wide-open and tear-filled eyes.