How should we understand human suffering?
I received a call from a young man who began the conversation by declaring “I have a gun in my lap and when we finish talking, I intend to use it.” This young man’s life, and sense of self, were defined by exploitation. He had been abused in every way imaginable, and the assaults came at him from all directions. Now, in his early 20s, he felt used and useless…his life had no apparent value. There was nothing left to do but end the anguish.
After we talked for some time, and I began to understand the depth of his desperation and hopelessness, I asked if I could share a story from the Hasidic tradition. He accepted the invitation.
As the story is told, a disciple asked his Rebbe, “Why does the Torah tell us to write the holy words on our hearts, why doesn’t it tell us to write them in our hearts?” The Rebbe replied, “That’s because, as we are, our hearts are closed, so we write them on our hearts and there they stay…until one day our heart breaks and the holy words fall in.”
After recounting that tale, I told the young caller how I wished I could take away his unfathomable pain, but I was helpless to dull even the sharpest of its edges. Knowing his heart had been shattered hundreds of times, I asked if he learned anything about the human journey that would enable him to help others. “Have there been holy words that have fallen into your heart?”
I was stunned by his reply. He told me story after story of his ability to save the lives of other young men who suffer the kind of abuse he experienced; he truly understood the depth of their searing pain. When he finally grasped his incredible capacity for empathy, and his ability to save others, he put the gun away.
When our hearts break, holy words do, indeed, fall in. We learn something important about the nature of the human journey. In moments of heartache and pain, if we are open to the lessons, we gain in our capacity for kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. Our hearts grow in those moments and we are unexpectedly more human, not less. We are broken open, not broken. I have been the beneficiary of the profound wisdom that emanates from human suffering hundreds of times on the suicide hotline.
Yet, we live in a culture that wants us to believe suffering can be made optional, or, if not, at least veiled and secreted away. Anything that reminds us of our mortality, recalls the fragility of our lives, is sequestered. We are flooded with images and products that hint at the prospect of everlasting youth…and an end to suffering. When we do suffer, we wear carefully crafted masks behind which we hide, lest others learn of our weaknesses and failures. Those who find themselves in crises are often deserted by friends who are frightened by the prospects of their own mortality.
We know, at some very deep level, much of humanity’s most profound wisdom has come from individual and collective suffering. I am reminded of how Joseph Campbell taught us the value of the heroes’ journey…the descent into Hades, only to reemerge, imbued with greater humanity and wisdom.
Because we are unpracticed at being in the midst of suffering, it takes effort to overcome our fear. But when we do, our hearts, too, will break, the holy words will fall in, and we will learn even greater kindness, generosity, caring, empathy…and love. It is a difficult, yet essential, part of the human journey. Those moments plant within us essential seeds of human wisdom.