The Pursuit of Suffering

Bone marrow aspirate showing acute myeloid leukemia. Several blasts have Auer rods. Original uploader was VashiDonsk at en.wikipedia.

I watched the grainy, blocky video in silence. My friend was singing “Land­slide” and I felt a cer­tain taut­ness in my eye­brows and a pecu­liar heavi­ness in the cor­ners of my mouth. By now it had become a famil­iar feel­ing, this phys­i­cal expres­sion of sorrow.

Can the child within my heart rise above
Can I sail through the chang­ing ocean tides
Can I han­dle the sea­sons of my life?”

~Fleet­wood Mac, “Land­slide,” The Dance, 1997

Sonia Lee ’06, whose mel­low and res­o­nant voice was cap­tured in that video, passed away in 2007, during my second year of medical school. For most of our mutual friends at our college Christian fellowship, her pass­ing became our first encounter with the death of a friend. In many ways, it chal­lenged my most deeply held con­vic­tions about the way the world works. I went to med­ical school with the grow­ing con­vic­tion that my call­ing was to deal with death and suf­fer­ing on the pro­fes­sional level, but this experience — so unex­pected, tragic, and ter­ri­fy­ingly personal — cast every­thing under a dif­fer­ent pall.

Sonia had acute myeloid leukemia. The onset was rapid and com­pletely unex­pected by friends and fam­ily alike. I can still remem­ber the dread of the moment I first found out: a string of e-mails with the titles “Urgent prayer for Sonia…” wait­ing qui­etly in my inbox. Sonia and I had been good friends dur­ing our under­grad­u­ate years but had fallen out of touch since my grad­u­a­tion two years prior and I had not heard much from her since then, which made the sud­den­ness and feroc­ity of the dis­ease all the more shock­ing. A full year in med­ical school did noth­ing to pre­pare me for the daily anx­i­ety of open­ing my e-mail in antic­i­pa­tion of an update from the fam­ily on her con­di­tion. I still have all those e-mails: seventy-seven mes­sages with head­ings rang­ing from “A pos­i­tive turn for Sonia!” to “Sonia — Chemotherapy day 3” and “Emer­gency request for platelets.”

I received those updates nearly every day for sev­eral months, track­ing her progress through the end of the sum­mer and into the begin­ning of the school year. It was a try­ing time for our com­mu­nity of mutual col­lege friends. We prayed together, planned gifts for her together, and waited together every day for those e-mails with hope and fear.

I remem­ber the tight­ness in my gut dur­ing my first med­ical lec­ture on leukemia, try­ing to sup­press my emo­tional con­fu­sion as the pro­fes­sor raced through hun­dreds of slides. I remem­ber lis­ten­ing to the com­plaints of class­mates about how “over­whelm­ing” the lec­ture was and nod­ding my agree­ment as I headed over to a com­puter clus­ter, dizzy and ambiva­lent and anx­ious to check my e-mail. By that week Sonia had been doing much bet­ter and was sim­ply wait­ing for a bone mar­row trans­plant donor. Her fam­ily hadn’t been able to match but, by some mir­a­cle, had been able to get her story pub­lished on the front page of a big South Korean news­pa­per ask­ing peo­ple to test for match­ing. Her pic­ture in that arti­cle was the only one I saw taken of her dur­ing that time and it did not show the smil­ing, radi­ant friend I had known.

The seventy-third e-mail on the sub­ject, received only a few days later, car­ried the head­ing, “Bad News.” The seventy-seventh e-mail was entitled, “Memo­r­ial Gath­er­ing for Sonia K. Lee ’06.”

I often find myself dwelling frequently on that time. After those events, friends I talked to in med­ical school or in church — those whom I had expected to under­stand my strug­gle and accom­pany me through it — said that such a fix­a­tion on death and suf­fer­ing was unhealthy and perhaps even patho­logic: “It’s over now; she’s in a bet­ter place,” “Everything’s going to be alright,” “Life just goes on.” I couldn’t under­stand why words like those hurt. They were true, but I resisted them fiercely and was even irri­tated and angered by them. “There is no pur­pose behind death,” one friend sim­ply replied, “We just say things like that to make our­selves feel better.”

On hear­ing that, my ambigu­ous sen­ti­ments and ten­sions revealed them­selves for what they were: fear. Crip­pling, dis­abling, and ter­ri­fy­ing fear. Toni Mor­ri­son once said that humans react to fear by nam­ing it, attempt­ing to feel as if we have some under­stand­ing and there­fore some con­trol over it. We name our dis­eases and our dis­or­ders and our bogey­men. We name our fail­ures and our ene­mies and the secret long­ings of our hearts. But in the end, a name is all we have. A name is not much.

I named my fear The Grav­ity of a Moment. For me, the death of a friend is the lost oppor­tu­nity to sing in har­mony, to shout at, to laugh with, to cry on each other. It is shock­ing in its final­ity and irre­versibly strips my future moments of some­thing pre­cious, the weight of which I can­not mea­sure. How many more moments will lose grav­ity and appear a lit­tle thin­ner and gaunt? Will I ever real­ize the mag­ni­tude of what has been — and will con­tinue to be — lost?

Shortly after the death, a close friend of Sonia’s told me, “I don’t under­stand why peo­ple didn’t want to come to the funeral or the memo­r­ial service … maybe they didn’t feel ready, but some­how it feels like they’re just try­ing to move on. At the funeral, her par­ents told me, ‘Don’t for­get her,’ but I feel like that’s what we’re doing . . . for­get­ting and mov­ing on.” When I heard that I felt guilty because, deep down inside, I wanted to move on too but sim­ply couldn’t. I wanted to find a tidy clo­sure and a proper per­spec­tive from which to define the expe­ri­ence. I didn’t want to forget, but I didn’t want the remem­ber­ing to be so painful either.

Henri Nouwen once wrote:

We tend, how­ever, to divide our past into good things to remem­ber with grat­i­tude and painful things to accept or forget. This way of think­ing, which at first glance seems quite nat­ural, pre­vents us from allow­ing our whole past to be the source from which we live our future. It locks us into a self-involved focus on our gain or com­fort. It becomes a way to cat­e­go­rize, and in a way, con­trol. Such an out­look becomes another attempt to avoid fac­ing our suf­fer­ing. Once we accept this divi­sion, we develop a men­tal­ity in which we hope to col­lect more good mem­o­ries than bad mem­o­ries, more things to be glad about than things to be resent­ful about, more things to cel­e­brate than to com­plain about.

Grat­i­tude in its deep­est sense means to live life as a gift to be received thank­fully. And true grat­i­tude embraces all of life: the good and the bad, the joy­ful and the painful, the holy and the not-so-holy. We do this because we become aware of God’s life, God’s pres­ence in the mid­dle of all that happens.

Is this pos­si­ble in a soci­ety where joy and sor­row remain rad­i­cally sep­a­rated? Where com­fort is some­thing we not only expect, but are told to demand? Adver­tise­ments tell us that we can­not expe­ri­ence joy in the midst of sad­ness. “Buy this,” they say, “do that, go there, and you will have a moment of hap­pi­ness dur­ing which you will for­get your sor­row.” But is it not pos­si­ble to embrace with grat­i­tude all of our life and not just the good things we like to remember?*

Cimabue. Christ, detail from Crucifixion, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved January 31, 2013].

Suf­fer­ing is and must remain an inte­gral part of our human expe­ri­ence. It can­not sim­ply be a byline in our pur­suit of hap­pi­ness, for if we fail to embrace suf­fer­ing, we fail to embrace Christ him­self. As Philip Bliss wrote, “Man of sor­rows! What a name for the Son of God who came, ruined sin­ners to reclaim.” Paul, in describ­ing suf­fer­ing as the loss of things he once con­sid­ered prof­itable, wrote with para­dox­i­cal con­vic­tion and mys­ti­cism, “I want to know Christ and the power of his res­ur­rec­tion and the fel­low­ship of shar­ing in his suf­fer­ings, becom­ing like him in his death, and so, some­how to attain to the res­ur­rec­tion from the dead” (Philip­pi­ans 3:10–11).

I write about death because it rep­re­sents one extreme in our human expe­ri­ences with suf­fer­ing and, for bet­ter or for worse, reveals the raw power of our reac­tions to pain. It exposes our ten­den­cies to sen­ti­men­tal­ize it, to avoid it, to explain it away, to do every­thing except embrace it. We may refuse to acknowl­edge suf­fer­ing but in doing so we elim­i­nate an oppor­tu­nity to expe­ri­ence the true and pierc­ing pres­ence of God. If we cannot expe­ri­ence pain, how can we under­stand the com­fort of heal­ing? If we do not under­stand death, how can we com­pre­hend the vic­tory of res­ur­rec­tion? And so, while we ought not to idol­ize suf­fer­ing or inten­tion­ally inflict it, we can­not ignore its cen­tral­ity in our jour­neys toward the divine.

The last post of Sonia’s weblog is a quote from the movie, You’ve Got Mail: “Some­times I won­der about my life. I lead a small life. Well, valuable, but small. And some­times I won­der, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?” In the small­ness and short­ness of our mor­tal­ity, do we dare to embrace every moment of it? Do I have the brav­ery to love each painful and plea­sur­able instance so bit­terly inter­mingled in its brief course?

I can­not help but won­der if some­where beyond the pall the grav­ity which I thought was lost has sim­ply become a part of some­thing greater, some­thing that draws me to it a lit­tle more closely and tugs at my soul a lit­tle more sharply. Per­haps all the moments that are torn from this life are really just being trans­ported, in the twin­kling of an eye, to a place where the weight of the world becomes the weight of Glory and every­thing I thought I lost will be found in even greater mea­sure than before.

If there is one reflex in my soul stronger than all the rest, it is the long­ing for that day.

Lis­ten, I tell you a mys­tery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– in a flash, in the twin­kling of an eye, at the last trum­pet. For the trum­pet will sound, the dead will be raised imper­ish­able, and we will be changed. For the per­ish­able must clothe itself with the imper­ish­able, and the mor­tal with immor­tal­ity. When the per­ish­able has been clothed with the imper­ish­able, and the mor­tal with immor­tal­ity, then the say­ing that is writ­ten will come true: ‘Death has been swal­lowed up in victory.’

‘Where, O death, is your vic­tory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”

~1 Corinthi­ans 15:51–55

*Nouwen, Henri. Turn­ing My Mourn­ing Into Danc­ing: Find­ing Hope in Hard Times (Nashville: W Pub­lish­ing Group, 2001), 17–18.

[ Orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2008. This January marked Sonia’s 29th birth­day. Happy birth­day, Sonia; we miss you.]

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David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decid­edly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disney’s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.

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