Finding Hope in Hard Times - Part III

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 23, 2009

"Pain suffered alone feels very different from pain suffered alongside another." 
Henri Nouwen

For the past two weeks I shared excerpts from Henri Nouwen's Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times. Part I of his book is entitled "From Our Little Selves to a Larger World." Part II is "From Holding Tight to Letting Go" and Part III is "From Fatalism to Hope." 

Today we will think about the final two parts of his book. Part IV is titled "From Manipulation to Love." Too often our tendency is to turn away from the pain of others when we are in pain ourselves. Nouwen says we fear that their pain will only intensify ours. Natural logic says "Let's go where things feel a little more comfortable." 

But to have compassion or "to suffer with" means, according to Nouwen, " enter others' dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonizes. It means to stay where people suffer. Compassion holds us back from quick, eager explanations when tragedy meets someone we know or love." 

At first glance this seems to contradict what is best for us. How could my focus on your hard time help my hard time? Will not your dark moment make my dark moment even darker? 

If we are to live life to the fullest, however, we discover a paradox with this kind of reasoning. "Living with others can also break us out of our narrow points of view...Pain suffered alone feels very different from pain suffered alongside another. Even when pain stays, we know how great the difference, if another shares with us in it." 

I think of the moments when I visit the sick or talk to the elderly or send a note to the one who was in a severe accident. By when I suffer with them I discover a perspective and an understanding of my own suffering. I do not think of sufferers as persons who can do anything for me but what I can do for them. And as I reach out to them, paradoxically, they help me in my suffering. 

Part V suggests that we move "From a Fearful Death to a Joyous Life." Anyone who has lived over six decades has often encountered death. In my own life I have stood by the graveside as a son to bury a father and as a father to bury a son. 

In those times we are always reminded of our own mortality. We try to avoid death but, as Nouwen reminds us the "...changes we propose, our resolutions and new programs and self-help schemes, will not ultimately free us because we continue to move within the constraints of our mortality. We all eventually die. We cannot escape our earthly limits. We must live knowing that we someday will die." 

A mentor once told me that we seem to do pretty well with teaching people how to live but we don't do very well with teaching each other how to die. Nouwen suggests, "Life is a school in which we are trained to depart." In fact, he also says that at every phase of our lives "life is a constant departure, a constant dying away from the past..." Every change prepares us for our ultimate departure. 

He ends his book with words of hope and faith. "We still ache in grief when death visits those we love or flinch when it approaches us, of course. We will suffer in many ways. But our pangs will be more like labor pains that bring new life. That brings into our world a new life. Facing death allows us to experience that life in a way our denial never can permit. Inviting God into our grief will mean we never walk alone. Confronting our death allows us better to live." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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