Psalm 139:7-12, Romans 5:1-5
The Rev. Tom Herbek
February 17, 2019
Only love and suffering are strong enough to get to the core of who we are and how we find meaning in life. Love and suffering are our primary teachers in life. That is why we must listen carefully to the stories of love and suffering around us. Good teachers understand this. Teacher Kristen McCulloch describes it well: (from Love What Matters)
If you walk into our classroom now, you’ll see a bag hanging by our door. This bag contains everything our class carries to school that we consider problems or bad things in our lives. The things that distract us, sadden us, or make us angry.
Something I have found in common with every student conversation about something upsetting them is that the student believes he or she is the only one who has a problem, hard life, family problem- whatever it may be.
So today we all anonymously wrote down on paper what was heavy on our hearts, crumpled them up, and threw them in the bag. I mixed them all up, and students had to pick one and read it out loud. I could not believe some of the things they have to deal with at home, and neither could their peers. It resulted in a lot of tears, a lot of hugs, a lot of “I had no idea so many people had hard things to deal with too.”
The message of the project, as I discussed with them, is that you never know the weight people are carrying. It is so important to remember that, when we interact with others. I wanted them to see that they were not alone and that they had a whole class of people who could relate to them and support them.
Our stories now hang by our door as a reminder of the “bags” others may carry with them.
Certainly we must find ways to tell our own stories, but we also must hear the stories of others, stories of pain and suffering, love and compassion, stories that come to us as part of our family, from our friends, from our faith, our teachers, whoever they might be!
One of Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel’s students asked him how she could understand what he had been through in the camp:
One day in class. Annika, a third-year communications major, asks, “How can we, students with comfortable lives, really understand your experiences, much less pass them on to others?”
Because memory is the secret ingredient that creates a morally transformative approach to learning, this question is vital. How does one educate toward memory? How can students become custodians of memories that are not their own?
Professor Wiesel smiles slightly and says, “You are correct that this is the question. As we know; it is not simply a matter of information. Our task is to awaken sensitivity to others’ suffering. And this is not a simple task.” He continues with a story:
When Rebbe Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people were threatened by tragedy, he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and the miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.
Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple the Maggid of Mezrich had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest, where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and again, the miracle was accomplished.
Later still, Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. “I do not know how to light the fire,” he said to God, “and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.” Once again, the miracle was accomplished.
When it was the turn of Rebbe Israel of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story. That must be enough.” And it was enough.
Professor Wiesel lets his gaze travel around the room as he says, “Like the rebbe of Rizhyn, we may not know how to light the fire, we may not know the prayer, and we may not know the place in the forest. Our connection to the past is weak; it may be distant, at a remove. All we can do is tell the story, and we must. But in order to tell the story, we must first hear the story.”
At the heart of Elie Wiesel’s mission as a teacher was a phrase his students heard him repeat time and again: “Listening to a witness makes you a witness.”
-From Witness, by Ariel Burger
The danger for all of us is that, when we hear the stories of someone else, we think they want advice from us, when often, that is not the case. Parker Palmer describes how people tried to help him when he was depressed:
Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not just between people but between one’s mind and one’s feelings. To be reminded of that disconnection only deepened my despair.
Other people came to me and said, “But you’re such a good person, Parker. You teach and write so well, and you’ve helped so many people. Try to remember all the good you’ve done, and surely you’ll feel better.”
That advice, too, left me more depressed, for it plunged me into the immense gap between my “good” persona and the “bad” person I then believed myself to be. When I heard those words, I thought, “One more person has been defrauded, has seen my image rather than my reality- and if people ever saw the real me, they would reject me in a flash.” Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between people, and between mind and heart, but between one’s self-image and public mask.
Then there were the visitors who began by saying, “I know exactly how you feel….” Whatever comfort or counsel these people may have intended to speak, I heard nothing beyond their opening words, because I knew they were peddling a falsehood: no one can fully experience another person’s mystery.
Paradoxically, it was my friends’ empathetic attempt to identify with me that made me feel even more isolated, because it was overidentification. Disconnection may be hell, but it is better than false connections.
Having not only been “comforted” by friends but having tried to comfort others in the same way, I think I understand what the syndrome is about: avoidance and denial.
One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels- and our unconscious need as Job’s comforters is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us.
In an effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me, not you, free. If you take my advice, you may get well- and if you don’t get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to take my advice, there is nothing more I can do. Either way, I get relief by distancing myself from you, guilt free.
- Let Your Life Speak
Why is it so difficult for us to see someone hurting and not try to give them advice? For most of us, it is probably because we believe that doing something, saying something, is always better than not doing or saying something. And, for most of us, having someone struggle with what suffering means is very difficult for us. We feel we must help them to find meaning. That’s why when someone is grieving, we tell them why their loss occurred, offering statements we’ve heard before.
But we must stop, and we must encourage them to tell their story, which is not our story.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen listens to people with cancer:
I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it. Most of us don’t value ourselves or our love enough to know this. It has taken me a long time to believe in the power of simply saying, “I’m so sorry,” when someone is in pain. And meaning it.
One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often interrupted to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to them. Subtly her pain became a story about themselves. Eventually she stopped talking to most people. It was just too lonely. We connect through listening. When we interrupt what someone is saying to let them know that we understand, we move the focus of attention to ourselves. When we listen, they know we care. Many people with cancer talk about the relief of having someone just listen.
This simple thing has not been that easy to learn. It certainly went against everything I had been taught since I was very young. I thought people listened only because they were too timid to speak or did not know the answer. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words.
-Kitchen Table Wisdom
When we just listen, the person telling their story often finds some sense of meaning in their story simply because we allow them to tell it. The more we tell our stories, stories of love and suffering, the more meaning we find in them. That is why I always ask grieving families to tell me stories of their loved one, and, with their permission, I share their stories when we gather together to celebrate the life of their loved one.
But that is certainly not the end of the stories. As Rachel Remen says:
The best stories have many meanings; their meaning changes as our capacity to understand and appreciate meaning grows. Revisiting such stories over the years, one wonders how one could not have seen their present meaning all along, all the time unaware of what meaning a future reading may hold. Like the stories themselves, all these meanings are true.
And the stories of others can also help us. As people tell the stories of their struggles in life, it can become not only healing for them, but it can become healing for us, as well.
A final comment by Rachel Remen:
After thirty-five years of being a physician and more than forty years of living with my own life-threatening illness, I too am a woman who is full of stories. Stories I have lived and stories I have been told. I have stories about being a daughter, a granddaughter, a friend. Stories about being a patient and stories about being a doctor. Stories other doctors and patients have told me. Stories about my cat. Stories about things I do not understand. Every one of these stories has helped me to live.
I believe we must each create opportunities to hear each other’s stories, to not just hear about our accomplishments, but to hear the more important stories: stories of wisdom and compassion and healing and struggles, of turmoil and peace, of conflict and unity, of hatred and love, of doubt and faith, of suffering and celebration, of all that is important in life.
Whether we are new to this church family or have been here all of our lives, there are stories that we have not heard, lives we have not gotten to know, wisdom we have not learned.
So may we hear the stories- of faith, of the Bible, the stories of our fellow journeyers in this church family, and our own stories- in new ways. As a church family, let us create for each other times when we can hear each other’s stories and tell our own stories. May our stories help us to live life fully.
And may we thereby be witness to the stories of love and suffering of those who have gone before us, those who journey with us, and witnesses for those whose life journey comes after us.