Patience in Suffering

NOTE: My book, Home Waters, after which the blog is named, treats the theme of environmental stewardship but not always directly. It also touches on themes of community, human suffering, the humanities (specifically poetry), and theology. While I have devoted most of this blog to themes related to environmental stewardship, I have occasionally touched on these other topics. After completing my first year of blogging, I would like to shift the focus of this blog to these other themes, but I will continue to blog about environmental themes at LDS Earth Stewardship. This post marks that shift.

People only look the same to us because we don’t know their stories and they only seem uninteresting to us because we don’t know their suffering. To love others is to bear their burdens. This is the central meaning of Christ’s call: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).

The paradox, of course, is that Christ is asking us to bear his yolk while simultaneously promising us rest. It would seem, then, that we are healed of our burdens to the degree that we repent and are “willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18: 9). We must be knit together in a fellowship of shared sorrow. A deeper form of joy is found in such community, one that no longer stands apart or flees from sorrow but is instead informed by it, maybe even born of it. As William Blake put it:

Man was made for Joy and Woe,
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go.
Joy and Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

It seems strange to say but I believe the greatest mortal emotion is neither joy nor grief but a commingling of the two. Would Christ’s pain at Gethsemane not be such a commingling? The pain of sin, the pain of our infirmities, of physical, mental, and emotional suffering brought together in one triumphant and even joyful healing act of compassion. We recall that, according to Alma 7:11, Christ suffered not just for the mistakes we make but also for the conditions of life we suffer, the very existence we are given. This makes sense, at least to me. I know I have sorrowed for my mistakes, but life itself, in its specific conditions imposed upon me and upon my loved ones, has been cause for sorrow enough to make some healing, some reconciling, some at-one-ment necessary for me to grasp the just cause of God’s purposes. A universe in which life’s burdens are only and always caused by sin is simply not the world I live in, or want to live in. I have no interest in wanting to find someone to blame for catastrophe, large or small. I want no truck with the business of scapegoating. I don’t mean to suggest that evil-doers don’t really exist or shouldn’t get their just reward. I only mean that I am glad not to be the one who has to make such determinations. Christ has called me to a life of compassion, a life of deep feeling, for life itself, for the earth, its beauties and its terrors, for people good and evil, rich and poor, strange and familiar.

This notion of a happiness infused by sorrow is sometimes counterintuitive to a people who believe in a Fortunate Fall, who see the conditions of mortality as necessary to enable human happiness. But the fall enables feeling as much as anything else, the entire range of it, which of course includes the grand prize of happiness, but not happiness selected apart from all other feelings. Happiness emerges from being fully sentient and fully alive, which only means that it comes with being a sufferer. Which raises the question: Is it a weakness to want happiness? In some categorical sense, the answer is obviously no. But it is if we want it like a drug, if we feel anger or betrayal when it slips from our hands, if we feel that it is something we can control or demand. If the fall of Adam makes joy a human possibility and even ennobles it as a human purpose, it is also true that such joy can only be conditioned and contextualized by the experience of sorrow. Just when we think he might have echoed Lehi and reminded us that “we might have joy,” Enoch explains, “Because that Adam fell, we are, and by his fall came death; and we are made partakers of misery and woe” (Moses 6:48). If we “might have” joy, as Lehi in fact understood, we must also have misery and woe.

In short, in this life we must learn to suffer and we must learn meaning and maybe even joy in that suffering, joy that comes of understanding and accepting the limitations of our mortal condition, of understanding the sorrows of our brothers and sisters, and of understanding them with love. This is deeply joyful understanding, even though it also means wading through the waves of sorrow that are the common lot of humankind.

I find this statement about trials by Elder Neil Anderson quite compelling:

These fiery trials are designed to make you stronger, but they have the potential to diminish or even destroy your trust in the Son of God and to weaken your resolve to keep your promises to Him. These trials are often camouflaged, making them difficult to identify. They take root in our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, our sensitivities, or in those things that matter most to us. A real but manageable test for one can be a fiery trial for another. How do you remain “steadfast and immovable” during a trial of faith? You immerse yourself in the very things that helped build your core of faith: you exercise faith in Christ, you pray, you ponder the scriptures, you repent, you keep the commandments, and you serve others.

He seems to suggest here that the nature of our suffering is radically individualized by our circumstances, our weaknesses, and by our personalities, with all their manifold attachments and fears, both healthy and unhealthy. So to suffer is to be uniquely ourselves. Patience, of course, in its root meaning means suffering, so patience in suffering is redundant. It merely means that we are no longer discontent with our particularity, that we have learned to suffer long in forbearance and hope as we are, where we are, who we are. Impatience with ourselves, with others, with the life we have been given, causes the pain of isolation, whereas acceptance brings a suffering that heals, since it a feeling that brings us out of solitude and into compassionate community. To do this we must be willing to experience vulnerability, to accept at least for the time being that the universe is less ordered, less safe, and less understandable than we had thought. In this state of being unsettled, we reach out toward others and to God in need, and in hope and trust in Christ, not because things make sense already but because things need our faith and God’s power to cohere.

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