"That sucks." Can you even get those words out of your mouth? A lot of us can't. There was a time when I couldn't.
The language isn't the issue, of course. It's the struggle to be honest about just how hard and ugly life can be.
When Dave was diagnosed with brain cancer, he was operating on 120 patients a month. One of Nashville's go-to guys for hand surgery, he had just finished a long day of work in the operating room, and, as he was washing his hands, he experienced what his physicians later described as a "visual seizure."
Suddenly, all he could see were images from earlier in the day and the surgeries he had just completed. He couldn't see his hands, the washbasin, the water, or the soap dispenser. The experience didn't last long that first time, so he didn't think much of it. It had been a long day. He was operating on a lot of people. The surgeries were visually demanding, requiring the use of lasers and microscopes. There was every reason to chalk the experience up to eyestrain, and he was going on vacation the next day anyway.
But he was less sure that was the case when, in the middle of the following week, the same thing happened again. He was halfway through a run down the beach one morning of his vacation, and all he could see were images from earlier in the day. He couldn't see his feet, his hands, or the sand beneath him. Worse yet, this time the episode lasted longer.
So, on his return home he contacted a friend of his who is a neurosurgeon. "Bob, I think I need an MRI." Bob obliged, and shortly after the test was completed he had the results in hand.
"Dave, I think that I've discovered the problem. There is a mass pressing against the occipital lobe of your brain, and because it's the sight center, the mass is frustrating your brain's efforts to process images from the optic nerve. So you are getting the neural equivalent of delayed feedback."
In that moment Dave's medical career came to end. He knew that he could no longer safely operate or practice medicine. He informed the chief of surgery, and he hasn't been able to work a day since. Then he made plans to have his head cut open.
Call it what you will, that sucks. It sucks for Dave. It sucks for his family. It sucks for the people he might have helped with his knowledge and skills.
But there were a limited number of people in Dave's circle of friends who were willing to acknowledge that things were that bad. Most of his friends and particularly his friends at church said things like, "It's a blessing in disguise, Dave," or, "God's got something bigger for you out there."
Not surprising, Dave doesn't find that kind of language helpful at all. In fact, it drove him away from church and pared down his friendships to a handful of intimate relationships.
The impulse to say comforting things when someone we know gets a terrible diagnosis is understandable. We want to find some way of supporting people and making them feel better when they receive gut-wrenching and life-changing news.
But there are better ways of doing that than uttering banal, even false, platitudes.
What did Dave need that he wasn't getting from his church? Or, put more positively, what can we do for one another under such circumstances?
We can demonstrate our love for others in the painful place that life has put them. When we can't bring ourselves to say, "That sucks," when life really does suck, we fail to love others where they are and as they are. Instead we force those who are suffering to amend their understanding of what has happened to them as a precondition of being loved.
"Look on the bright side."
"It could have been worse."
"Don't be so negative."
When we say those false, cheery things to suffering people, they run. They tell us as little as possible about their struggles, or they tell us what they think we want to hear. How many times have you heard this exchange when it can't possibly be true?
Question directed to someone who is plainly suffering: "How are you?"
Response from the person who is suffering (and who knows the person asking the question is not going to be able to say, "That sucks"): "Oh, I'm fine." (Unspoken thought: "FINE, which is an acronym for Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional, but I don't trust you enough to tell you.")
I've been there. I've used that response. Anyone who belongs to the fellowship of the suffering has used it.
"Oh, I'm fine."
I reserve the word fine for people who don't really care, for people who don't really want to know how things are, for people who are clueless, for people who are going to dispense Hallmark wisdom, and especially for people who want me to change as a precondition of love.
To be sure, there are times when we need to change the way that we think about a tragedy or loss. Even irreparable losses require more reflection than is possible at first-if life gives us enough time to reflect, that is.
When we first receive tragic news, we often panic. We allow fear to overwhelm us, and we lose perspective. We can be obsessed with choices that might have yielded a different result. We can be strangled by what lies ahead. Or we can be paralyzed by a combination of both fear of the past and dread of the future. Rightly, I had a spiritual director years ago who pointed out, "If you have one foot in the past and another in the future, you sh*t on the present."
But in a lot of cases-and certainly in Dave's case-there is no "other way" to think about loss, not in any way that changes the fact that he is dying. And even if there were changes he could make, he can't start there, and neither could we.
You were a surgeon. Now you are not.
You were a contributor. Now you are not.
You were on a journey. Now you are at a dead end.
You weren't going to live forever. Now you aren't going to live long at all.
You were going to watch your children grow up. Now you aren't.
You were going to have grandchildren. Now you will never see them.
When you think about it, frankly, it's stunning how much loss people are prepared to sweep aside for their own emotional security with the words, "It's a blessing in disguise."
When life has gone to hell, we need to feel the loss. We need to register it. We need to test the weight of the experience if we are going to get an accurate assessment of what we've lost or where we are. And, eventually, we need to "re-learn the world"-if we have time (we don't always).
We can't begin to re-learn the world until we've been loved where we are and have been given the space to feel the loss. Most of us can't do that adequately without people who are willing to say to us, "Man, this is bad. It's really bad. Let me sit here among the ashes with you. Let me survey the destruction with you"-not as resident experts or know-it-alls who have all the answers, but as people who love us enough to admit that this is hard.
To have that space-to feel loved and heard in that space-we need others to acknowledge that we are truly in a place where life sucks.
In that space where we know that we are loved and heard we can rehearse what has happened. We can examine our wounds and we can evaluate what the losses really are. No physician would try to treat a patient's wounds without an examination and no one who grieves can re-learn the world without first unpacking the implications of the losses one has suffered.
When Dave went to medical school, he was not just preparing for a career in medicine. He was on a journey of self-discovery.
My father dominated our home, and-thanks to his own insecurities-he dominated everyone around him. He had convictions about what was and was not worth doing in life. He had plans for us. To make matters worse, when we weren't appreciative in the way he expected or when we deviated from his plan, he showed it in ways that were loud and violent.
As a result, when Dave went off to medical school, he wasn't looking just for a place to make a living; he was looking for a world that he could call his own-a place where he could achieve his own goals and chart his own course.
The cancer his physicians discovered was the presenting cause of his grief. But the deeper losses were the things that disappeared in the wake of his illness: the world he had crafted, the ways in which he had helped others, his sense of personal worth, and his identity as a physician.
Behind every loss is not just the trauma of the event alone-divorce, unemployment, a fatal diagnosis-there are also what grief counselors call the inevitable "secondary" losses. The problem, of course, is that the word secondary is completely misleading. The consequences of a tragedy may be "secondary" in time, but these are the deeper losses, and they are not always evident at first glance:
- Divorce is difficult, but it may rob us of the certainty that we are loved. It certainly robs us of our dreams for the future.
- Unemployment is hard. What is hardest is the way it deprives us of a sense of security, control, and independence.
- Illness may rob us of hope or of a means of actively connecting with life around us.
- Sexual assault may rob us of that ineffable quality we call "innocence" and the ability to trust that the world is not always a malevolent place.
- In Dave's case, illness robbed him of a life that was all his own. It robbed him of the life he had created.
What you offer a suffering friend when you honestly say, "That sucks," is the space in which your friend can name her losses. Dave needed months to name what he had lost, and in the absence of a place to explore those losses, it would have taken longer. But he had a few friends who gave him the space to do that. In a word, we need people who can love us when we suffer and can give us space where we can register and explore our loss.
We also need witnesses to our pain, loss, and grief. Therein lies the difference between love that demands we change first and "get past" all that grief stuff and love that begins by accepting us where we are. The notion of witnessing to someone else's loss, pain, or grief may seem pretty abstract and even unnecessary. The most familiar associations most of us have with "witnesses," "witnessing," and "testimony" are tied to the courtroom or the church. We talk about witnessing or giving testimony for the benefit of a jury regarding events that others may not have seen, or we talk about the religious obligation to tell people what God has been doing in our lives.
But witnessing can have an even more primal place in our lives: witnessing on behalf of someone whose life is in the pit is saying out loud that you have seen that person struggle. It is saying that what that person is experiencing is hard or unfair. It is also witnessing to that which is otherwise unseen-sometimes even to the one who suffers.
To talk about suffering as "unseen" may sound like nonsense, since we are all surrounded by people who "see" us struggle on a daily basis. There are doctors, nurses, fellow employees, relatives, friends, neighbors, and others who are simply around at the time. Of course they see what is happening-or so we think.
But witnessing to the suffering of another is not that simple, and there is a lot that is missed in that kind of seeing. For one thing, the experience of suffering is itself isolating and hides a great deal from us as witnesses. Dave spends countless hours in relative isolation, taking intravenous chemotherapy drugs. Every month he lays in a long, coffinlike tube for a regular MRI. He is essentially alone when he does these things. Even the people who administer those tests and drugs do not experience what Dave goes through. They probe his body with a needle, looking for a place to administer his drugs, but they have no idea what it is like to be subjected to that experience. Much of what they "see" is seen at arm's length, emotionally and physically.
The effect that both the cancer and the treatments have had on Dave's sight visually separates him from the world outside. He can only see half of what is in front of him, and he constantly scans his surroundings by turning his head. Half of the world is always missing thanks to the damage done to the sight center of his brain.
Seizures, too, cut him off from his surroundings, making it impossible for him to connect with the world around him in a natural, fluid fashion. "Chemo-brain"-the fog-inducing effect that chemotherapy drugs have on the cognitive process- deepens that effect, giving him the sense that he is "swimming in cotton."
Some of that suffering is not "seen" at all, and there is a feeling of "aloneness" when those who love you cannot share those experiences. Navigate the world without hearing or without seeing everything around you-hammer your brain in ways that rob you of speed and acuity-and you begin to experience the world in ways that are forever changed.
That is not just true of cancer victims. It is true for the divorced, the unemployed, and the physically impaired. It is true for people whose children become addicted to drugs. It is true for women who suffer domestic abuse. It is true for many people in prison.
Even if all of that suffering were "seen," there is still a huge difference between having someone see you struggle and having someone say that he or she has seen you struggle. When we are "isolated," as the Latin origin of the word suggests, we are "an island." We are cut off and surrounded by barriers that make contact with others impossible.
To suffer is to be isolated. In fact, there is even physiological evidence to suggest that isolation changes the white matter of our brains, disrupting normal brain function. So, the isolating nature of suffering is not just a metaphor for a spiritual and emotional experience. It is not just about a loss of relationships with other people and with the world around us. It has physical dimensions as well.
To say, "That sucks," is to register or recognize just how bad things are for someone else. To witness to suffering-to say that we have seen it-is to reach into the isolation, whether we share in it or not.
When that happens, whether the unseen struggle is the aftermath of divorce, the loss of employment, a life-destroying illness, or a crippling injury, that kind of witness has an unexpected power to liberate someone who is isolated.
- It eases the loneliness.
- It has the power to break the isolation that the one who suffers feels.
- It has the power to name kinds of isolation and loss that the one who suffers may labor with but not yet recognize.
- It has the power to encourage, whether the suffering has a solution or not.
- It has the power to free someone to claim the dignity that rightly belongs to that person in the middle of a struggle that may be unrelenting.
Just how a lived witness to pain and loss can make that kind of difference is difficult to describe. There are the inevitably human dimensions of witnessing, I suppose: our need for companionship, the need to be touched (both literally and figuratively), and our need to know that someone is paying attention. I am struck by the way the conversations that Dave has with family and friends seem to lift his sense of isolation and despair, even when things have been difficult.
But I think that there is also something fundamentally spiritual about that kind of witness as well. We Christians are fond of talking about how Jesus understands our struggles.That conviction is based on what we describe as the doctrine of the incarnation, and it is all about God taking on human flesh.
As far as Jesus is concerned, that's a one-of-a-kind event. But I'm convinced that in a very real sense, when we are prepared to sit alongside someone else and say, "That sucks," there is a sense in which we lend our own voice and presence to the work of incarnation. We are Jesus-with-flesh-on, someone who says without equivocation, "I understand that this is hard and overwhelming."
Although I understand that dynamic in distinctively Christian terms, I don't think for a moment that Christians are the only ones who can provide that witness to the suffering of others. Singer-songwriter Marc Cohn, who is Jewish, was sitting in a van with his band after a concert in Denver in 2005. An armed gunman stepped in front of the van, evidently intending to steal it, and shot Cohn in the head. A battle with post-traumatic stress and the effect that Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans three weeks later, where his wife was serving as a reporter, prompted Cohn to write these words, which he set to music:
When your longest night is coming down
When pieces of you hit the ground
When every word they say about you is a lie
When they put your soul up for review
When they're set on turning every screw
Call on me and I will testify
Let me be your witness.
These words suggest what we can all do for one another when "night is coming down": ease the loneliness, break the power of isolation, name the loss, encourage someone in a time of discouragement, and free someone to claim the dignity that is his or hers. That is a lot to give in the middle of an experience that may or may not have a solution.
But giving it can be as simple as being able to say, "That sucks."
About the author:
Frederick W. Schmidt , author of The Dave Test: A Real Look at Real Faith in Hard Times (Abingdon Press) holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation and directs the Rueben P. Job Institute for Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. An Episcopal priest, spiritual director, and retreat leader, he is the author of seven books, including When Suffering Persists and What God Wants for Your Life. He also writes and blogs at Patheos.com. Schmidt and his wife, Natalie, live in Chicago with their Gordon Setter, Hilda.