I’ve been reading Elaine Heath and Larry Duggins’ book Missional. Monastic. Mainline. for a New Orleans clergy discussion group we’ve pulled together this May. Today I came across a quote that I wanted to ponder. Heath writes, “There are many definitions of wisdom but one of the best understandings I have received is that wisdom is knowledge gained through suffering… The wisest people I’ve ever known are those who have suffered the most and whose ministry is with those who suffer” (19).
Something about this concept of wisdom is very beautiful and appealing to me. And yet it feels presumptuous of me to endorse it. Despite the fact that I have always thought of myself as an outsider, I am completely a person of privilege according to all the official axes of identity politics. So when I make suffering noble by viewing it as the source of wisdom, does that mean I’m romanticizing it in some kind of disgusting rich white liberal way? How many millions of people suffer every day without any meaningful knowledge gained as a result?
And yet to take a completely different angle, knowledge gained without any suffering seems perverse. It’s the pure, cold rationality of Western modernity that tells us it’s somehow a virtue to know without caring, that dispassion and indifference are signs of a mature objectivity. To lack suffering is to lack personal investment. Compassion means literally “suffering with.” I don’t really take people seriously who seem like they’ve managed to avoid suffering in life. They just don’t have credibility with me. I trust people who have suffered, especially those who have suffered with me.
It seems like an essential part of wisdom is the absence of self-satisfaction. A smarmy know-it-all may have all the technical answers, but he’s a complete fool (and smarmy know-it-alls are almost always men). Somehow self-acceptance is a very different thing than self-satisfaction. When people have battled depression and insecurity and come out on the other side with a healthy love for themselves, they have a different-looking smile than people who have always won at everything. I trust the people with scars more than the people with perfectly straight, white teeth.
Of course there are many people in the world who have suffered a lot more than I ever have. I will never understand what it’s like to get evicted or to go hungry because I’m actually out of money. Or to get patronized and silenced and mistrusted for being a woman. Or to be humiliated and physically abused by a police officer because I’m black. Or to be bullied because I’m gay. Or to be born into a body whose anatomy and gender were not the same. It’s not right that any of this suffering occurs. It is not redeemed by the wisdom it engenders. And yet I definitely believe that I will learn the most by sitting at the feet of those whose suffering has made them wise.