Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Being with Suffering

by Miki Kashtan

Confession: I belong to the tribe affectionately known as “general managers of the universe.” If you don’t know what I mean, let me illustrate. I regularly straighten out books in a library or feel concern when a phone rings in a store I am visiting and no one responds. As if that were not enough, I also blessed, and cursed, with a very large vision for the world, for my life, for my work. The combination of vision and responsibility lands me, more often than not, with more to handle than I possibly can, even when I get better and better at saying no. Resources at BayNVC, the organization I co-founded, are not sufficient to hire as much support as I imagine it would take to provide me with manageability.

Add to this health challenges in my family, and significant transitions at BayNVC, and you might see why many of my days are difficult. Writing about it is no simple task, because hard times are a sort of a taboo topic. I overcome this challenge, because I’ve been stretching into vulnerability for many years now, and my practice is strong. The discomfort is smaller, and no longer stops me, even though I still notice that some of my attention, even while writing, is pulled towards the inevitable “what will people think.”

This past weekend I expressed some anguish about not having enough support to someone I care about, and who I know cares about me. She responded, as she has done in the past, by suggesting that my challenge, my stress, is about how I do my work, not about getting enough support. Reflecting on how to respond, I became acutely aware of wanting to be seen, understood. I couldn’t fully resist the temptation to explain the situation. In response, my friend said: “I get it, on one level.” Suddenly I felt the gulf, the distance created by analysis, by what I experienced as a subtle judgment, however loving.

For over 24 hours I was haunted by the question of why we distance ourselves from the suffering of others. I kept remembering the book of Job. The narrator tells us he is an exemplary human being. All manner of calamities befall him. His friends, unable to bear witness to his agony, insist on convincing him that his suffering is caused by some unknown sin of his. In the end, Job is vindicated. There really was no reason. It just happened. Suffering does.

In Biblical times suffering was God’s response to sin. Today’s versions call on bad choices, mental diagnoses, or negative thinking instead of a punitive God. Does explaining someone’s suffering, finding some cause or reason, make it easier to bear? Does the distance protect us from the pain of another’s pain?

I wonder if this is part of why it’s so uncommon for people to talk about their suffering – except, maybe, to their closest. Why create such discomfort for others?

With this heavy heart I found unexpected solace in Tattoos on My Heart, by Greg Boyle. Greg is unafraid to look suffering in the eye. He lets his heart be pierced, again and again and again and again, by the unimaginable hardship of life in the barrios of LA. If you want to be inspired, read the book, and visit the website – He created an award-winning program that offers jobs and training to gang members and ex-cons. They work alongside rival gang members. Unbelievably inspiring.

And still, it’s his love that got me. The unprotected presence, ready for all that’s there, finding the beauty, the heart, in whoever is in front of him, the downtrodden, the rough. Even after burying many dozens of young ones. Present and loving without blinking away, without explaining, without separating. A blueprint for how we can recover hope, and faith, and a sense of community with our fellow humans. All of them. All of us.