This world is hard. We all know that, though some to greater extents. But sometimes things happen that just make you look at that fact…look at it square in the face as if it were a person. They hit you in such a way on a certain day that you want them to change your life, to change your heart, to change you forever and not just to pass you by with a glance, but you WANT to look at them that way in order to be forced to acknowledge them.
Yesterday I had a couple of those experiences. They weren’t my own sufferings, and probably were the more poignant for it. There was a woman with her daughter. I didn’t think anything of it, the daughter was probably around my age and looked normal. Then she started talking to me. And I couldn’t understand her. It was immediately clear that the girl had what I assumed was a developmental disability or something of that nature. I thought I was catching some words, but really the only one I was certain of was “confused,” which I got that she was saying as a reference to her mother who was a bit frazzled. The daughter continued to talk to me, and, in the circumstances, not really being able to hear or understand her well, I just nodded and smiled. Before they left, the mother said, “Confused is her word for weird or out of place. She was in a car accident and when she woke up, the first thing she said was, ‘I’m different now, and confused.'” I know that life-long disabilities have seemingly insurmountable challenges, but something about suddenly understanding that this girl used to be just like me, and that tragedy changed her, couldn’t settle in my brain. The idea of her understanding what she had lost, and the thoughts of what the parents must have felt knowing their daughter was probably never going to do the things she had aspired to do before – it just hung with me.
Then I went to a store to exchange something on my lunch break. I heard a woman who worked there say something behind me, and I thought she was speaking to me. I asked her what she said because I didn’t hear her well, and she said, “I was just praying for God to rescue me from my life.” We had a few back and forth interactions. She told me that she already served her time in prison and she couldn’t take this anymore, clearly intimating that what she was living now still felt like a prison to her. I didn’t really offer her anything of substance…I just gave a tiny bit of listening. In hindsight, I wish I had done all kinds of things, but that doesn’t matter now because I can’t go backwards in time, so I’m trying not to dwell on it.
When I was leaving the store, the woman from before was there with her daughter, and I suddenly felt blasted with other people’s pain – not in such a way as in I wished that it hadn’t happened, but in such a way that I was suddenly overwhelmed by the magnitude of it. Not just their pain, but the pain of the billions of people whose sufferings they represent.
And I felt my smallness. I don’t just mean in that way of, “Oh, I wish I could help everyone, but you can only do so much.” I mean in the way that I know I could do a lot more for people than I do…I felt my emotional and spiritual smallness. I was inadequate.
I had a lot of thoughts throughout the day. I thought about how often I feel “different and confused” myself, which on the surface seems like it would be in a very different way from the daughter, but then I wondered how different is it really? Different and confused is different and confused no matter where you’re coming from. (I’m not saying all of the thoughts I had are true, I’m just telling you what they were.) And I wondered if that car wreck actually could have saved that girl from some other unspeakable horror. She seemed genuinely happy. Maybe it wasn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened to her?
I thought about the other lady and how sometimes all of our lives can feel like a prison, and how sometimes that is just life and I even found myself wondering if she was just lazy. (Many of my thoughts are not highly honorable, I’m just being honest.)
I think that a lot of my thoughts were being formed by the sub-conscious desire to make sense of it, to compartmentalize it and make it OK. But the fact is that it’s not OK. Just because suffering is common to all man does not mean it is something that we should walk un-feelingly by or be able to dismiss because it falls into something we can categorize as “acceptable” or “understandable”.
I came home, and though I wasn’t thinking of it in relation to the days happenings, and quite unintentionally since I meant to be reading Proverbs, I began reading in Ecclesiastes. I couldn’t have read something more appropriate. Vanity indeed. All of the things we seek and all of the atrocities that occur because of it are pointless. What was comforting was the acknowledgment of evil: “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not marvel at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.” – Ecclesiastes 5:8
God is the highest of those high officials, and he is aware of injustice and suffering, and He’s got it. Though all the seeking of pleasure and riches and even wisdom (though he admits it better than folly), he considers vain, it all boils down to what he says at the last, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed in to judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” It is also interesting to me how even in what seems like a most pessimistic view, Solomon still wants you to fight for justice. We are to mete out the mercy as God’s emissaries, indeed, it’s part of those commandments we are advised to keep: “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” – Psalm 82:3-4
I want to be severely affected by the reality of other people’s pain. I want God’s mercy to flow from me to the hurting and oppressed. I want to cease the vain attempts at satisfaction that, from experience, Solomon tells us will never fulfill.