The remains of hope

There are people who love their suffering, or so I heard a colleague say in a sermon this past Sunday. She and I have been pulpit sharing for almost six months now, and so, I had the pleasure of listening to her message via recording along with my own congregation. These people seek to control other people by means of their never-ending suffering.

As a skilled preacher, she had done the work needed to deliver such a line. The text was from Romans 5 (Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint), and she avoided the temptation of simple platitudes, and held her words in the interpersonal realm – never giving permission for those of us with privilege to minimize the suffering of those with less. And then she pivoted to this convicting idea: While everyone suffers in this life, some people hold on to their suffering, and claim it as their core identity. I knew exactly who she was talking about.

My maternal grandmother loved her suffering. She survived an abusive childhood in the midst of poverty. Her escape from her family of origin had been her high school sweetheart, my grandfather. She was incredibly happy with him until, later in life, they both were diagnosed with cancer. He died in the hospital at the age of 60, while she was in a different hospital still fighting for her life. She lived another 25 years without him, but did so in, what I could see as, a state of perpetual grief. And she held up that suffering for everyone. We all loved her dearly, but throughout my childhood and young adult life, anytime there was an occasion for celebration, she was sure to remind us that she was still suffering.

Of course, it is easier to see how other people love their suffering. What was so convicting about the message is that, while perhaps various extents, most of us hold a similar propensity. We might not feel comfortable using a word as dramatic as “suffering”, but who hasn’t, from time to time, wallowed in a wrong done to us? And especially in these difficult days of the pandemic, who hasn’t allowed that bitterness to arm itself as resentment toward others?

As I left the church parking lot on Sunday morning, though, I moved past wondering how I, and others, have loved our suffering, and begun to ask myself why this is so. A conversation with interfaith colleagues two days later offered a systemic explanation. The rabbi in the group reminded me of the dangerous concept of the “nobility of suffering”. From the Southern Philippines to Appalachia, I have seen this idea used as a weapon – the wealthy convince the masses that their suffering is their path to redemption or the very nature of their being. Those of us who are more privileged (unwittingly) participate in this when we fetishize poverty, or give ourselves entirely to the feel good work of charity, rather than the difficult and complicated work of justice.

This morning, however, the question of why moved closer to home. We may love the suffering of others because of the powers-that-be in this world, but we love our own for a more simple reason: Suffering is easy to love. Because the love of suffering is the rare kind of love that comes at no risk to us. Suffering does not fail, because in loving it, we have accepted that we are miserable, and imagine we always will be. There is always more than enough suffering to go around, and so, it is incredibly easy to meet our expectations, and to enjoy the self-satisfaction of being right. In this way, suffering is an armor that protects us from the possibility of disappointment and from the unpredictability of change.

While I have put on that armor from time to time, in recent weeks, I have left it sit on a shelf. There has been a specific hope that was so tempting, it eclipsed my desire to know the answer, as well as my fear of loss. And, as I was not pursuing this hope alone, it seemed to take on a life of its own – pulling in more and more people as I shared it with those closest to me. It is easy to love suffering, and it is also easy to enjoy hope. Because hope can be so transcendent that, when held in a collective, it can begin to feel like inevitability.

Emily Dickinson writes that, Hope is the thing with feathers. If this true, then in all likelihood, it has hallow bones. So while hope can take flight, it can also be crushed in one’s hand. Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us… Until it doesn’t. Hope, by its very nature, often disappoints. So what then?

Today, I immersed myself in music that a friend sent me when I was in a similar place months ago: “Beatitudes” by the Kronos Quartet. The piece is an ostinato, meaning that the same theme repeats over and over, with only the slightest variations. It was a comfort to remember that life is just as circular as it is linear. Hope often leads to disappointment, which can lead to suffering. But suffering produces endurance, and then character, and then hope, and so on and so on. The remains of our past hopes become the soil in which our future hopes can grow – provided that we are brave enough to love that expected hope more than our present suffering. This is how movements for justice stay alive across generations, even when it seems as though little progress has been made. This is also how those among us who have faced the greatest suffering that life can offer still, somehow, manage to get out of bed.

That’s not me, but today, quite it in the aftermath of hope, it was good to remember that disappointment does not always have the final word, and that there are other things in this world worth loving.

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