We Americans have many natural gifts and talents derived from the strengths of our culture. We are good “fix it” people. If there is a problem, we are right on it. A natural disaster happens, a flood, a hurricane, and we have already mobilized first responders even before the catastrophe happens. Months and even years later we give money and our time to help those in need. We are creative problem solvers who cannot live with intolerable suffering in our midst. On the other side of the pendulum, on the negative side, lies our propensity to shield ourselves from the pain of others, because often we cannot identify with their suffering. When someone we know is in pain, we may try to placate the situation with statements such as – “Just give it time, things will get better soon enough.”
We, Americans, are good at "fixing things," but not always
good at sitting with suffering
good at sitting with suffering
Having lived in places like Rwanda, Congo, and now South Sudan, I have come to realize that our American propensity to fix things and to avoid pain with polite half-truisms will only take one so far. What happens when the problem can’t be fixed, or be fixed expeditiously and efficiently? What if time isn’t enough to heal generational wounds? Here in Juba, South Sudan, it feels like every day we are bombarded from all sides with needs. Every time we step out of our building we are accosted multiple times by men, women, and young children who have the look of hunger and hopelessness in their eyes. They ask for a handout but obviously they need so much more. How can one “fix” this problem? What words will ever be enough? Last week Susan, one of the cleaners of our building, came up to Kristi and grasped her hair, saying, “God must love you White People. He gives you nice, soft hair and a good life. God must love you more than the rest of us!” Kristi, understandably, was at a loss for words. How does one respond to such an honest lament? How does one respond to the inherent injustices of our world, a warped world which favors some to the exclusion of others?
Two years ago I was asked to provide time for theological reflection for a divinity student named John who had come to Congo on a summer internship.* Every few weeks John and I would sit down and reflect together on what he was seeing and learning. In one particularly poignant session, we reflected on the nature of suffering. John told me that the suffering he was confronted with in Congo made him want to turn and run. The suffering John was witnessing was simply intolerable to his American, white, middle class sensibilities. Yet, as we sat together with the Scriptures and in a posture of prayer, we came to see that Jesus was unique in that he was able and willing to sit with people in their suffering. He did not turn and run from them. This theological reflection became an object lesson for both John and I, that sitting with people in their suffering is a form of ministry, even when we are unable to fix their pain and don’t have the words to make things better.
This lesson has become even more poignant to me on a deeply personal level over the last three months as I have been diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr Virus, an illness which has rendered me weak and tired, an illness which lingers and can last months and even longer. It has been difficult for me and others to understand that this sickness has no medicine and no defined time frame for improvement. It feels like there is no real "fix" to this ailment - just time and rest and a good diet. I am thankful for many of you who have expressed both lament and support through this period.
Beyond my own ailment, so often I feel rather helpless here in South Sudan. I cannot fix the multitudinous problems and my words will never be enough. What I can do, as I am learning even from my own situation of pain, is to simply sit with people in their suffering. I can bless and serve them by looking them in the eyes and seeing them as human beings worthy of dignity and honor. Of course I can also pray for healing and change and seek to find long term solutions, but perhaps what is most needful in the moment by moment realities of everyday life is to just accompany people, sitting with them in their pain, and being present to them with their questions. Sitting with suffering, I believe, is what God is calling us to do, above and beyond what our cultural instincts might tell us. Lord Jesus, may we heed this call.
*John is a pseudonym for the divinity student mentioned.