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It’s been a bad news kind of week for a lot of people I care about. I’ve listened to stories of depression, discouragement, family squabbles, marital woes, financial troubles, and addictions.
Of course, I have my own parenting/vocational/early mid-life awkwardness issues that, while perfectly normal, still require more energy than I would like. For now, my struggles aren’t quite so dramatic as many of my friends’ problems, but they are mine and so I feel them acutely.
As I’ve listened to the stories—both from my friends and from my internal dialogue—I’ve rediscovered something most of us know instinctually: as stress and disorder increase, so does our sense of isolation.
Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies brought this home to me over the weekend. The author, an oncologist, tells the story of his patient Carla, whose brave fight against cancer began with friends and family around her. As the treatment progressed, however, even her most loyal friend stopped accompanying her to her appointments. When Mukherjee asked why, Carla waved away the question. “We had a falling out. She needed to be needed, and I could no longer provide that.”
I think that most of those who suffer do so without such overt rejection. We have people who stand beside us, and we cling desperately to the narrative of their unwavering support. But somewhere, buried within us at varying depths, is a cruel feeling.
I am alone in this.
The preacher in me wants to immediately refute those feelings, to offer words of comfort that surely God is with us and nothing can separate us and so forth. And I still believe those words to be true, on some basic level.
But now that I am older and I hope wiser, I try to resist such glib assurances. We who are Christians strive to be like Jesus, after all. And in the end, Jesus suffered alone.
So where is the good news? I’m asking that a lot these days, mostly on behalf of people I care about very much. I’ve asked it on my own behalf in times past, and I know I will eventually do so again. Is there any solace to be had in the face of life’s struggles? If so, what is it?
I think our hope, at least in part, lies in realizing that suffering is an inescapable part of human experience. Everyone crawls through it, everyone feels alone. So did Jesus. In this strange way, I think the isolation itself is a comfort. It tells us we are in well-mapped territory. We may be feel alone in the moment, and in fact we may truly be alone. But we are on a road that leads to somewhere. Or, better said, to someone.
I cling to the belief that no suffering—not my friends’, not mine, not even suffering that leads to death—lasts forever. It ends in the compassionate, loving embrace of Jesus, who gathers us together and holds us and understands.