Hope for Hitchens? Finding the Way in the Land of Malady

Timothy DalrympleMy pain illuminates me from within. It pulls back the curtain of my flesh and makes me visible to myself. Nothing else in my life does this.

The tenth of February was the fifteenth anniversary of the day on which I broke my neck in a gymnastics accident. I have always noted the anniversaries inwardly, in a kind of morbid remembrance of that fateful day—that single moment, really, in the early evening—that changed my life decisively and irrevocably.

Of the 5,475 days that have passed in those fifteen years, I have felt spinal pain in nearly every one. The pain arrives swiftly, like water rushing over the shore, and recedes slowly like water sinking into the sand. And it does something else. When the pain presses down from my neck and carves a sharp burrowing path down my cervical spine and through my shoulders into my arms, I can feel my bones. I'm not normally aware of my skull, my vertebrae, my clavicle. They are submerged within me, senseless and mute. When the pain arrives, however, I can count my bones. They ache and mourn—and I am aware of them. Pain illuminates me.

This came to mind recently as I was considering the case of Christopher Hitchens. The irascible commentator and rakish champion of militant godlessness suffers from esophageal cancer. He has complained that many Christians, knowing his plight, have communicated to him that "Surely now would be the perfect time for you to abandon the principles of a lifetime."

The complaint is understandable. Christians have a standard stock of counterfeit sympathies they send into circulation around the suffering and bereaved. It can seem coldly opportunistic when Christians respond to the suffering of a non-believer with: "Perhaps it will turn him to God."

But Hitchens shows that he has not understood Christianity well. Christians, in this case, are standing squarely in the richness of their tradition. That tradition does not teach that sufferers are so wearied and weakened that they will abandon their moral and intellectual scruples. Rather, it teaches that suffering makes certain things plain to us. Suffering has the power to penetrate our illusions, shatter our masks, and unveil the fundamental realities of who we are and who God is. Like pain in the body, the lamp of suffering illuminates the architecture of the spirit.

I can imagine the concerned cries of the professoriate that I am "valorizing" suffering. So let it be said: sometimes suffering is simply devastating and destructive. Countless many have suffered far worse than I, and there may be suffering so severe that it effectively extinguishes the human spirit and any power it might have possessed to find something redemptive within the experience. And suffering sought for its own sake, or wielded against oneself as a tool of self-hatred, is foolish and sinful. There is nothing redemptive in suffering itself, and each person over the course of a lifetime will have abundant opportunity to endure and learn from suffering without having to court its company. And I am bracketing the question of why there is suffering in the first place; I am not asking why there is evil, or why there is suffering (which are not the same), but what good can be drawn from suffering by those who are willing.

I know for certain that some suffering can be valuable instrumentally—in its consequences within and around us. And I know in faith that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which always seeks us and seeks through our joys and sorrows to draw us unto him. Certain truths, certain essential truths, are only learned by a willing student in the school of suffering.

It's a common misconception that suffering binds us together. Suffering first isolates—in order then to bind. No person is more deeply alone than the sufferer surrounded by the babbling throng but absorbed in an interior world of pain and despair, a world that cannot be shared. Even those who love the sufferer cannot take his pain for a day to give him rest. Yet there is something good in this. Some of us will not become authentic individuals until suffering draws us out of the chattering crowd and shows us the emptiness and futility of the crowd's way of living. While the crowd seeks enjoyment and entertainment, anything to distract its collective mind from the fearful realities of our existence, the individual stands alone in suffering and—if he is willing to see it—alone before his brute actuality.

C. S. Lewis likened suffering to a megaphone, yet suffering makes itself heard not by raising its voice but by dampening the voices of others. I think of suffering as an isolation chamber where the sufferer might hear again, for the first time perhaps in years, the still voice within. And when one has been isolated, when suffering has made one different from others, and therefore an object of anxiety, loathing or pity, the sufferer learns who his true friends are. When sufferers are bound together again, they are bound together as individuals, as people who walk together but stand alone before their fate. And in their separation from others they are prepared for God and what God might teach them through their experience.