A morning not long ago, I was walking my dog in the woods near my house. It was my day off, so I was out later than usual. The summer sun was already high in the sky; light streamed through the trees in the most dazzling way. With the birds singing, my dog contentedly nosing around the ground, and beams of sunshine lighting my path it was easy to feel safe, sheltered, and holy. Heaven and earth are full of your glory, for sure. It was easy to see. I took picture after picture, trying to capture the light.
Coming home and opening the New York Times on my computer, just looking was much harder. News of children being housed – it’s not an exaggeration to say imprisoned, or caged – in terrible circumstances by my own government, I wanted to snap my laptop shut and go on my way. There are many political and theological arguments to be had. First, though, and maybe hardest, though, is just to look.
Is there moral weight to our looking, to feeling our feelings?
Does it matter when we feel joy, pain, or fear?
On its own, no. Our feelings make us who we are, but they don’t change anything around us.There is no moral weight to the feeling of desperation and sadness I fear looking at the news. It’s the looking away that is making a moral choice. In shifting my glance away from that pain, I am declaring that the suffering of others is not worth my discomfort. I am declaring them less than human.
The author Brené Brown, in her work on vulnerability, talks about all the ways we “armor up” to try to protect ourselves from suffering. She’s come to understand, though, that it’s impossible to mute suffering without muting joy as well. You just can’t do it. You have all the feelings or you have none of them. Encountering the suffering of others is the same. We can’t afford to mute the humanity of certain persons and maintain the humanity of those we claim to love, including ourselves.
Not only that, in looking away from the pain of others I am also, as a Christian, turning my gaze away from Jesus himself. If I’m going to take seriously all of those things I preach on Good Friday – that God comes to us in our suffering, that everywhere there is pain and violence that Jesus Christ is present – then as a Christian I have to look. I have to be willing to confront – even if I don’t always know how, or why, or what to do – first to just see and witness that pain.
It’s easy to see God as the sunshine streams through the trees.
I’d much rather see God walking my dog on a Friday morning than facing the violence my own government is perpetrating on the innocent.
To practice my faith with any integrity, I have to do both.
Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory. In suffering and pain no less than in joy and beauty.
What spiritual practices help you better see suffering?
How do you teach the children in your care to see suffering?