Looking into his eyes I could tell that something was gnawing at him from the inside. This wasn’t usually the case. Today it was obvious that he had suffered. His calm demeanor, though merely a façade, was an effective tool capable of hiding a deeply buried pain. At this particular moment, however, the truth was visible. The façade had failed. I turned from the mirror and contemplated returning to bed.
Everything that makes a person who they are is impacted by illness and suffering. Variables that are out of our control make changes to our physical, emotional and mental health without concern for whether they are impacting us positively or negatively. A broken bone produces a tangible physical pain that others can understand. It is a temporary pain that can’t be hidden but will heal leaving little physical evidence of its existence. Emotional wounds, on the other hand, are much harder for others to understand. They heal far more slowly, if at all, and the scars are only visible to the affected individual.
I have managed to cover over sickness and pain in my mind. Some scrapes take longer than others to scab over but eventually my brain wraps them up and tucks them away in a safe hiding place. Over the last thirteen months I have experienced suffering and illness that have brought me to my knees more than once. But what do I really know of either?
Just over a year ago my father lost a short battle with cancer. We both died that day. I have had other experiences with suffering and illness but none that have impacted me as strongly as this one event. I’m not as strong and independent as I may seem. I used to turn to my father for answers to questions, even the ones with answers that I already knew. His reassurance strengthened me and my decisions.
We suffer at the hands of others, because of events that are beyond our control and because of our own demons. There are medications that can be taken to help mask the pain but is that what we really want? I don’t think that it’s what I want but it is what I do for those around me. I would prefer to be normal, or at least what my idea of normal is; no medications, just inner strength and mental power to help overcome the difficult times. Without a doubt, though, the people who don’t need medication to get through life are in the minority. The medication may be legal or illegal but these things help many people get through the tough days.
Suffering changes who we are. It breaks us down and we stay broken. We do our best to get back to where we were before but close is still immeasurably far away. Today you’re one person but what if tonight you get word that your best friend has died? Tomorrow you will be frozen. A zombie in shock or possibly in denial but once you thaw you will be quite removed from where you were before your friend’s passing. Life teaches us about life. There is no way to truly learn the important lessons without experiencing them firsthand.
Right now in Haiti the streets are lined with the bodies of thousands of unnamed people. A situation beyond their control shook the country to its foundation and beyond. Their rotting flesh waiting to be picked up by workers with dump trucks in the middle of the night, many of whom will be cast into mass graves. Their suffering is over. People walk the streets sifting through piles of rubble looking for missing loved ones. Children are orphaned and have no safe place to go. They know what suffering is far more than any of us can possibly understand. But still they are thankful for their faith and the fact that their own lives have been spared.
As bad as things may have seemed at any one point in my life I know that they could always be worse. I've not experienced anything nearly as traumatic as the people in Haiti. Every event that breaks me down also serves as a reminder that there is farther down to go if I let it happen. Often we forget to be thankful for what we have and only focus on our woes. I have lost loved ones. I have been ill. I have even thought, once or twice, that my time was about to expire. All of those moments that bring me down make me realize that I don’t know the real meaning of suffering. I haven’t had a real dose of illness.
I am never alone in my suffering. Woe is not me.