Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Open Wounds

I'm not putting a photo on this post because I could hardly stand to look at the photos I found of open wounds. I admire doctors and nurses who are able to work with skin and blood and wounds. I can do it when necessary, but unless a real person is involved, I don't do well seeing images.

I dedicate this post to the client I saw today who has had several miscarriages in a short time (and has no living child), who is angry, who wakes with nightmares every night since the most recent miscarriage, who fears she will never have children, and who gets told all the stupid things people say, "Everything happens for a reason," "God wouldn't let it happen to you if he didn't think you could handle it," "It'll all be okay and you'll see them in heaven."

People don't mean to say stupid things, as I told her, but that doesn't mean their words don't hurt deeply. I realize that some people mean well and are probably just not good with words. And some people have not suffered great pain. Others have and are afraid of it, and so are afraid to enter into another's pain. Some people, of course, just don't care. Some are too hung up on their own fear of not knowing what to say, so they resort to cliches rather than just listening and saying, "I hear you. I'm with you."

What strikes me most, however, from my own experience of people trying to address my pain, as well as what I hear from clients, is that people just don't want to accept pain and suffering. They want it to be over, they want to pretend it isn't as bad as it is. Some Christians are worse about it than those who don't believe. They seem to think faith means finding a way to make everything okay right now.

Sometimes the only thing I have to offer clients is the willingness to hear their pain and to feel the depth of it with them, to acknowledge that it is truly real, that it matters, that it may last a long time or even a lifetime, and that it is not to be glossed over. And at times it's clear that that is the main thing they need. I wish they didn't have to pay money to find someone who can do that, but at least I can offer it.

In our culture of instant makeovers, artificial white smiles, Hollywood happy endings, and sappy greeting cards, I was thankful to find this on a blog I was looking at:

Too often Christian theology makes light of suffering by immediately jumping to the future glory, or by looking for the ‘greater good’ that can be seen in the present. The problem of suffering remains a problem, and it must remain a problem. It is inevitable and indiscriminate, it disturbs our existence, invades our peace and destroys hopes. What is needed is a worldview that doesn’t pretend this isn’t the case. Rather, we need a worldview that acknowledges the inevitability of suffering and darkness.

God and suffering belong together, just as in this life the cry for God and the suffering experienced in pain belong together. The question about God and the question about suffering are a joint, common question… It is not really a question at all, in the sense of something we can ask or not ask, like other questions. It is the open wound of life in this world. It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound. (Moltmann: 1981, 49)

from the blog All Things New:


Stephanie said...

Sheila, this is a beautiful post, and so true. I had a freshman student a couple of years ago that had recently lost her mother to cancer. In class one day, we ended up discussing why good people suffer, and she began talking about her mother's death and how hurtful it was when people would say things like, "God works all things together for good." She said, " I love God, and I trust God, but right now I don't want to hear those kinds of things. It doesn't seem good to me that my mother's not here when I need her. Why can't people just say they are sorry or cry with me?"

Feeling like we have to have all the answers makes us sometimes say and do things that are so hurtful to others.

Brent said...

Perfectly said, Sheila.

Sheila said...

The paradox is that when you can tell that another person has really acknowledged your suffering in its depth and breadth, the depth and breadth often decrease a bit. Sometimes even a lot. But when a person tries to make it less than it is, the pain grows deeper and wider.

Lucy said...

This is so true and so beautifully said. I remember writing a condolences card to a friend who'd lost her husband rapidly and painfully and quite young to pancreatic cancer, and I said something along the lines of 'this is rotten and unfair and nothing I or anyone can say can make it anything else',and she said that was one of the most right things anyone had said, she was fed up with people trying to find some kind of blessing in it.

Oddly,from where I'm coming from, though you say Christians can be more crass like that than people of no faith, I'm often surprised and quite disappointed by the number of non-believing people, who have no time for religion or God, who trot out a glib, spurious kind of teleological 'these things are sent to try us...' kind of line, though they wouldn't say they believed in the sender; or else some version of that Nietsche rubbish about 'what does not destroy us makes us strong', as though pain and suffering were some kind of cosmic gym, and which all the evidence clearly shows is patently untrue anyway. I often find Christians and other people of faith are a bit more humble and less inclined to presume to know God's will...

I'm glad that woman has you as a counsellor.

Sheila said...

Lucy, I'm so glad for your comment and to know that you encounter Christians of the sort you describe. Of course I do, too...if not for them, I wonder if I would still be a Christian myself. But the other sort abounds here in the "Bible Belt," and perhaps I am more aware of them because of my work and the effect they have on people I talk with. Now that you mention it, I do also hear/read some of the same things from non-Christians, people with what I think of as New Age beliefs.

And of course I do believe (and know) that we can grow stronger through suffering, and some Christian scripture says as much. But that doesn't mean it was all pre-arranged and "sent" spescifically for that purpose, and it certainly doesn't mean that the darkest time in a person's suffering is the time to introduce that idea--especially not to do so glibly.

It is perhaps that which irks me most, the glibness. I can listen to a Viktor Frankl who says, from his experience of the concentration camp, "This can make you stronger; this can help clarify the meaning of your life." But not someone who offers no scars of his or her own that give a right to speak into an open wound.

Lucy said...

Tom loves Victor Frankl.

I suppose the New Agey 'it all happens for a purpose' line is a kind of adopting of a vaguely Buddhist world view, but without the rigour of genuine Buddhist discipline and practice. And perhaps for some it's just human tendency to want to see, or assume, pattern and cause and effect without really making much effort to go into it too deeply.