On Cynicism [Part 2] — Hope

Les Miserables

After a bru­tal series of Christ­mas shifts working in the Emergency Room, I had finally come home for the hol­i­days. My mother and I were in the kitchen, talk­ing like we used to. We had seen and loved the new Les Mis­er­ables film, and so I brought up an inter­est­ing ques­tion from an inter­view with Saman­tha Barks, who played Eponine:

Inter­viewer: I think aside from “I Dreamed a Dream”, “On My Own” is prob­a­bly one of the most loved songs of the musi­cal, and I think it’s fas­ci­nat­ing that the two most rec­og­nized and loved are just the two most heart­break­ing songs, so what does it say about us as an audi­ence that the songs that we con­nect with are the most heart­break­ing songs?

My mother was quiet as she thought about it. “I think,” she said, “that it is some­thing we all share in com­mon. We all suf­fer, and know what it means to lose a dream or to be dis­ap­pointed. We all know how it feels.”

In those moments, I was reminded of how much of her life and our fam­ily his­tory was filled with a tragedy not too differ­ent from that of Les Mis­er­ables. Half of our fam­ily tree was miss­ing or unknown, scat­tered and wiped out dur­ing the war in China. My grand­par­ents’ his­to­ries were char­ac­ter­ized by their flight from the war: watch­ing mas­sacres of school­mates while hid­ing in the bushes, step­ping on dead bod­ies to avoid land­mines, being traf­ficked via hay carts and ships in order to seek refuge abroad. My par­ents grew up in the grind­ing poverty of rural vil­lages, their child­hood over­shad­owed by the threat of immi­nent war, their edu­ca­tion grimly dri­ven by the hope of an oppor­tu­nity to emi­grate to the US so that they could form a fam­ily here . . . so that their future chil­dren — mean­ing I — could have a bet­ter life.

With­out know­ing my thoughts, my mother spoke again. “I really like that song from the car­riage… where he has the lit­tle girl sleep­ing in his lap and real­izes that every­thing is dif­fer­ent now he has a child.” She paused. “You know, every­thing is dif­fer­ent when there is a child. Your whole world changes.”

Les Miserables carriage ride


“I have had this all my life, and I am going to get wid of it!”

“Rid of it,” her ther­a­pist corrected.

“W-right.” She turned her head to grin at us, and I couldn’t stop smil­ing. We were all lying on exer­cise mats in the ther­apy rooms because, as the ther­a­pist taught us, we could use “gwav­ity” to help roll those “r’s” bet­ter. I was sure she was one of the therapist’s favorite patients: dili­gent, focused, and with a per­son­al­ity com­posed entirely of laugh­ter and light. In less than fif­teen min­utes, through lis­ten­ing to her “chawming pwonun-sheation,” I had already named her as a favorite. Few of my lit­tle patients were as mature, knowl­edge­able, and thrillingly artic­u­late at the dig­ni­fied age of seven.

And in that moment, I thought about the New­town mas­sacre and the fact that there must have been pre­cious lit­tle dif­fer­ence between any of those chil­dren and this young girl who was now sprin­kling glit­ter on a craft snow­man, that even the best and bright­est of us still live in that same world of terrors.


My mother spoke again. “My favorite song is that one Jean Val­jean prays, about bring­ing him home . . . it is such a beau­ti­ful prayer. He says, ‘You can take, you can give . . . If I die, let me die; let him live . . . bring him home.’”

We talked some more, then she said this: “Life is filled with such suf­fer­ing, you know. There is so much sor­row . . . but there are moments when God saves.”

That night, I went to my old bed­room and pulled a stack of jour­nals off the book­case. They were etched eight, nine, ten years ago with an illegible scrawl that reflected the tired and stress-filled times they were writ­ten in. I leafed through the many yel­lowed pages of thought-scratch, reliv­ing those moments of anx­i­ety and worry. So many of them were des­per­ate calls to God about things I no longer remem­ber now, reflect­ing cri­sis after cri­sis that seem triv­ial and incon­se­quen­tial now. I wanted to laugh at the lit­tle boy, at his deep inse­cu­ri­ties and obses­sion with doubt and suf­fer­ing, and say, “You haven’t seen any­thing yet.”

But I didn’t because I real­ized that even I, the same boy a decade later, am still immersed in my own world of sor­rows, con­flicts, despair, and cyn­i­cism. At times of newness and regeneration, like spring and especially Easter, we are hope­ful that the old wounds of our past will heal, that we can assume a new and a fresh start, that the world will be a bet­ter and brighter place . . . if not for us, then at least for our chil­dren, the icons of inno­cence and hope. But this belies the expe­ri­ences of our own sor­did his­tory as human­ity and as indi­vid­ual humans. Is our redemp­tion progres­sive? Does any­thing ever change? Are our cries for sal­va­tion heard?

Can You Drink the Cup? by Henri J.M. Nouwen

Henri Nouwen writes about this in his last book, Can You Drink the Cup?, scripted dur­ing his final years as min­is­ter at l’Arche Day­break, a com­mu­nity of those with intel­lec­tual disabilities:

There is Tracy, com­pletely par­a­lyzed, but with a bright mind, always strug­gling to find ways to express her feel­ings and thoughts. There is Susanne, not only men­tally dis­abled but also reg­u­larly bat­tered by inner voices that she cannot con­trol. There is Loretta, whose dis­abil­ity causes her to feel unwanted by fam­ily and friends and whose search for affec­tion and affir­ma­tion throws her into moments of deep despair and depres­sion. There are David, Fran­cis, Patrick, Jan­ice, Carol, Gordie, George, Patsy . . . each of them with a cup full of sorrow . . .

And for me things are not very dif­fer­ent. After ten years of liv­ing with peo­ple with men­tal dis­abil­i­ties and their assistants, I have become deeply aware of my own sorrow-filled heart. There was a time when I said: “Next year I will finally have it together,” or “When I grow more mature these moments of inner dark­ness will go,” or “Age will dimin­ish my emo­tional needs.” But now I know that my sor­rows are mine and will not leave me. In fact I know they are very old and very deep sor­rows, and that no amount of pos­i­tive think­ing or opti­mism will make them less. The ado­les­cent strug­gle to find some­one to love me is still there; unful­filled needs for affir­ma­tion as a young adult remain alive in me. The deaths of my mother and many fam­ily mem­bers and friends dur­ing my later years cause me con­tin­ual grief. Beyond all that, I expe­ri­ence deep sor­row that I have not become who I wanted to be, and that the God to whom I have prayed so much has not given me what I have most desired . . .

Whose cup is this? It is our cup, the cup of human suf­fer­ing. For each of us our sor­rows are deeply per­sonal. For all of us our sor­rows, too, are universal . . . Jesus, the man of sor­rows, and we, the peo­ple of sor­row, hang there between heaven and earth, cry­ing out, “God, our God, why have you for­saken us?” . . .

In his immense lone­li­ness, he fell on his face and cried out: “My Father, if it is pos­si­ble, let this cup pass me by” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus couldn’t face it. Too much pain to hold, too much suf­fer­ing to embrace, too much agony to live through. He didn’t feel he could drink that cup filled to the brim with sorrows.

Why then could he still say yes? I can’t fully answer that ques­tion, except to say that beyond all the abandon­ment expe­ri­enced in body and mind Jesus still had a spir­i­tual bond with the one he called Abba. He pos­sessed a trust beyond betrayal, a sur­ren­der beyond despair, a love beyond all fears. This inti­macy beyond all human inti­ma­cies made it pos­si­ble for Jesus to allow the request to let the cup pass him by become a prayer directed to the one who had called him “My Beloved.” Notwith­stand­ing his anguish, that bond of love had not been bro­ken. It couldn’t be felt in the body, nor thought through in the mind. But it was there, beyond all feel­ings and thoughts, and it main­tained the com­mu­nion under­neath all dis­rup­tions. It was that spir­i­tual sinew, that inti­mate com­mu­nion with his Father, that made him hold on to the cup and pray: “My Father, let it be as you, not I, would have it” (Matthew 26:39).

Jesus didn’t throw the cup away in despair. No, he kept it in his hands, will­ing to drink it to the dregs. This was not a show of willpower, staunch deter­mi­na­tion, or great hero­ism. This was a deep spir­i­tual yes to Abba, the lover of his wounded heart. . . .

Our cul­ture tends towards an inflex­i­ble sense of opti­mism and human­ism. We are con­vinced that true joy and human actu­al­iza­tion must come through the erad­i­ca­tion of pain, suf­fer­ing, and sor­row. It comes as lit­tle sur­prise then that we hide away the sick and suf­fer­ing in hos­pi­tals and men­tal insti­tu­tions and ghet­toes, or that con­ver­sa­tions about suf­fer­ing are branded as cyn­i­cal and faux pas (unless they revolve around the trivial). It is only log­i­cal that our per­spec­tive on hope is sen­ti­men­tal and, when bru­tally chal­lenged by events like New­town or other cor­rup­tions of inno­cence, eas­ily sus­cep­ti­ble to cyn­i­cism and despair.

In the per­son of Jesus Christ, whose entrance into the world was hum­ble and threat­ened by scan­dal and vio­lence, we are reminded that hope must be divine. It must derive itself from the exter­nal, the invis­i­ble, and the eter­nal if it is to pose any help to our intractable, super­fi­cial, and fickle human­ity. It can­not be the mere absence or abo­li­tion of suf­fer­ing; it must engage it, over­come it, trans­form it. It does not begin from a posi­tion of strength or intim­i­da­tion; it starts with weak­ness so that it might express itself in desire and, through satisfaction, bring joy. It has no ground­ing in ide­al­ism, the­ory, or abstrac­tion; it instead comes from the close­ness, the sweet­ness, and the affec­tion of Jesus Christ, the incar­na­tion of all we hope for.

It is this recog­ni­tion of Christ’s pres­ence in the hard­ness of life that brings us lib­erty and enables us to hope freely and chal­lenge the dark­ness of cyn­i­cism, unbur­dened by the restric­tions of sen­ti­men­tal­ity and its incon­gruity with real­ity. We can live and thrive in the dark­est cor­ners of the hos­pi­tals, nurs­ing homes, men­tal insti­tu­tions, funeral homes, labor camps, and ghet­toes sim­ply because Jesus says he lives and thrives there as well . . . because he has risen and resurrected from the grave.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inher­i­tance, the king­dom pre­pared for you since the cre­ation of the world. For I was hun­gry and you gave me some­thing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me some­thing to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

“Then the right­eous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hun­gry and feed you, or thirsty and give you some­thing to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or need­ing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, what­ever you did for one of the least of these broth­ers of mine, you did for me.’” — Jesus (Matthew 25)

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”  The Spirit him­self tes­ti­fies with our spirit that we are God’s chil­dren.  Now if we are chil­dren, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his suf­fer­ings in order that we may also share in his glory. —Romans 8

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

Geno­cide, mas­sacre, poverty, dis­ap­point­ment, cru­ci­fix­ion, famine, naked­ness, death, or sword; together with Christ, with the fel­low­ship of suf­fer­ing and the drink­ing of its cup to its dregs, we shall have our over­com­ing. Some­how, we shall attain.

He is Risen!  He is Risen indeed.

He is Risen! He is Risen indeed.

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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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One Comment

  • apetite@aya.yale.edu'
    petergoforth commented on March 31, 2013 Reply

    Thank you, David. I was struck by your “China” comment; I am currently teaching in Beijing. I have posted some photos of Easter and Good Friday on our school’s Facebook page, Beijing No. 2 Middle School, International Division. You may wish to consider the abandonment you write of here, alongside the kenotic theology found in Philippians. I am pondering this right at this moment: is there at all a connection between abandoning and emptying?

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