What if pain and suffering are also nourishment?

A coffin-maker on a roadside in Kampala, Uganda.

(The Hamilton Spectator, Saturday, May 5, 2018)

A bus hits a semi on a highway. A van drives along a busy walkway. Death arrives as casually as one day following another. And all the pain with it. Humboldt. Toronto. And the next one?

Healing will come. But much of it will come later. First it’s been time to cry with those who cry. To be reminded that suffering, for all our fear of it, is our human birthright, our gift – a difficult and bewildering gift – to steward. It’s our covering. Our mantle.

I never imagined that the boy, my son, would run out the door on a recent spring day wearing his hockey jersey for this reason, to remember young, dead hockey players. My boy with thousands of schoolboys and schoolgirls wearing jerseys, this maybe the best way in Canada to cry with those who cry.

The jersey he wore – funny enough, with the same team name and number as what I wore at his age – was from my boy’s first team from his first-ever hockey season in Canada. Then Toronto.

On another day between the grief from Humbolt and Toronto, I wore my own jersey, a Team Canada jersey, when speaking to a group of doctors on the theme “Physicians (and all the rest of us) as Wounded Healers.” Not that I’m some expert on any of this. I’m not. Not any more than you are. That’s what I said that evening.

But I did break my arm once. I wasn’t much older than my boy. And while I’m no doctor, I can tell you this: my arm is stronger at the exact point where it broke than it is anywhere else. Why is this?

Nobody welcomes suffering. We run from it. All the doctors and all the journalists and all the readers. All the energy we put into running. All the pills. Suffering? No, I’m fine, thanks. Contain it. Suffering, you’re just a distraction. I have places to go.

But what if suffering’s rightful place is in some core part of our being? What if pain nourishes us like nothing else can? I’ve seen this too, in places like Africa, where hard times can be as common as sunshine.

Go on the morning school run in Uganda and pass the coffin makers on the roadside. Look, there, tiny coffins for the smallest children. Or, another day, there, look, there’s a body beside a crumpled bicycle. Now pray, like I did, that your children, half-asleep in back, won’t see.

We want to protect especially the children. How could anyone with even half an ounce of love want otherwise? Then the news arrives. And you realize that not only can you not protect your children from pain in this world, you’re not doing them any favours by trying.

No, it seems to me that the best anyone can do is gather their symbols – a jersey, a hockey stick, two hockey sticks crossed – like you gather stones or seashells. You gather and keep them as markers from places you’ve travelled: this one to remember this dark event, this one to remember the time when you were comforted also. Yes, you were comforted, somehow, even in the worst of it.

“Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” This is how it was once put by CS Lewis, whose own loss – his wife, Joy, died of cancer – is told in the story Shadowlands. The shadows, it seems, are what give our lives both grief and meaning.

One national hockey commentator said after Humbolt, “We can’t think about the “why” of it. This is where we get stuck.” Maybe. Or maybe we need to think of the “why” with a different spirit. This, realizing that life is to be lived forward but understood backward.

And it’s often in the looking back when we realize that our most painful memories make up the richest parts of who we are. As people. As communities. As nations. In this, suffering makes us more humble. More dependant. More gracious. More human. And more humane.

Suffering can also make you more bitter, more victimized and more lost. In a world of choice, we know enough of those stories too. But this is not our story. Look around and you’ll see why.

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