I have a most amazing friend. She lives what looks like a pleasant life, at least from the outside that is what it looks like.
However, if you have the opportunity to be invited a bit deeper into this pleasant-looking life, you soon find levels of suffering, awareness of suffering and out right pain that are very hard to take in or make sense of.
Her garden is as beautiful as her life is painful. I hope that the beauty does something to mitigate the pain, but I am not so sure.
I am also not sure that a report about her distress is helpful either to her or to those who hear about her. Perhaps a most brief summary will provide just enough of a glimpse into the distress so that this reflection will make sense?
She is the oldest of three daughters; her middle sister died a painful, horrible death of cancer a few years back. My friend spent the last months of her sister’s life helping to take care of her.
Her youngest sister has Down’s Syndrome. This sister is a very loving person, yet not capable of even moderate grasp of adult conversation or interaction. A mixture of missed communication and strategic gaps in comprehension at times provide some entertainment, but not enough to compensate for the stress of never knowing exactly what is what.
And, because my friend’s parents are now in their 90’s and not exactly strong, she sold her wonderful house in the country and moved into the city into a house that has an apartment for her sister.
My friend’s daughter is mentally ill, unstable and has no real relation to her mother. However, my friend is “allowed” to spend time with her only grandchild, a brilliant and talented 12 yr old. She is taking him to Yellowstone next week because his parents (i.e. his father and a step-mother) went there last year for “their vacation” without him. The 12 yr old has lived that last ten years of his life with his father, step-mother, and grandmother who has Alzheimer’s. The grandmother knows no one in the family, is incapable of taking care of herself in any way, and spends the days crying and rocking.
In short, my peaceful, pleasant friend lives in relation to a little shop of horrors; her own family.
This reflection on the suffering of my friend is not some kind of elevation of her distress to an honorable place out of sight. The combination of so many distressed people, lives, and relationships is tremendous. It is heavy with grief, and questions, and deep longing for another kind of life that is not so saturated with pain.
The comparison of her suffering to my joy is some how involuntary: it is involuntary because even though I have my own questions and concerns about those I love, some how I can’t avoid knowing that her suffering and my joy ARE some how connected. I have to take notice of the little that I know about her unpleasant life, in order to, at the very least, reach out to care about her and for her, and to know that I am a complete fool not to be riotously happy in the life I live!!
I feel some kind of awkward anger when I come across complaints in my own house — how dare we complain from this place of actual comfort and outrageous beauty and in light of what my friend is living with and through??
One of my students just posted a comment on Facebook; he was VERY upset about something and wanted to punch someone. I suggested a lament instead. He relied that the lament would not fix the problem. No, the lament will not fix te problem; there is no “fix” for this level and quantity of suffering. A lament would do something else, instead.
A lament —
How long, Holy One, will my peaceful friend walk through this thick mud?
She has NOT earned this kind of suffering or responsibility, yet, never-the-less, some how she manages to live as though her life were pleasant.
I cry out to you for my friend who won’t do that!
Help her! Do something to sooth the mountains of distress all around her.
A lament would honor this amazing life; and recognize the profound self-offering that she is making for her sisters, her parents, her daughter, and her grandson.
A lament would do something to fill in the huge gap between her suffering and my joy in part by reminding both of us that her suffering and my joy ARE connected, and in what appears as a crazy kind of hope, a hope that she knows something of joy, from her many friends who love her, from her garden, and the exquisite things that she makes.