Diana Aydin, who has survived brain surgery and was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, asks members of the clergy and writers about the nature of suffering.
Posted in , Mar 23, 2017
Why, God, why? Why me?
That's a mystery I've been wrestling with since I was 14 years old. I had just undergone brain surgery to remove a benign cyst sitting on my optic nerve. I woke up sick every morning for nearly a year from taking the medications I would now be on for life. My hair wouldn’t grow back the same. I felt like an outsider at school. I turned to my parents and to my twin sisters for support. Still, it took a long time for me to recover.
Then, at age 24, when life finally seemed to be getting back to normal, another blow. Multiple sclerosis. Just like that, my life became a series of MRIs, daily injections that left painful welts and even more unanswered questions. Would I lose my ability to walk one day? Would I be able to endure a life of pain and the loneliness that comes with it? Pain is like a prison. It isolates us, cutting us off from others. After all, only we can feel our pain.
I’ve read many things on the mystery of suffering. I’ve considered all the explanations. How we live in a fallen world where suffering is the price of sin. How some suffer more because they’re being tested, as if it’s some sort of gift. None of those reasons answered that question in my mind. If God exists and God is good, why do we suffer? Where is God when we do?
I decided to seek answers by talking with those who confront these questions every day: religious leaders and writers who possess intimate knowledge of suffering—mental and spiritual suffering as well as physical.
My journey started with Rabbi Avraham Lapine, codirector of Chabad at the University of Missouri. Lapine was only five years old when he came home from school one afternoon to find groceries abandoned on his doorstep. The front door was locked. No one answered the doorbell. Later he would learn the horrifying truth: His mother had been murdered by an intruder. It was a tragedy that led Lapine to become a rabbi, his way of honoring his late mother’s life.
“Did you ever ask God, ‘Why?’” I asked him.
“Of course,” he said. “There’s no real answer for that because no one really knows the mysteries and secrets of what’s in God’s mind. Whatever you come up with is not going to be good enough.”
There are some hints, though, in the Bible, Lapine said, specifically in the story of Moses and the burning bush. According to one Jewish commentary, Moses approached the thornbush and asked God why the Jewish people were suffering. “God didn’t answer the question,” Lapine said. “God said, ‘I am who I am,’ which translated in the Jewish commentary means, ‘I am with them in their sorrow.’ We don’t understand why God allows suffering, but he’s with each individual going through it.”
There’s another way of interpreting the story. God tells Moses to take off his shoes because he’s on holy ground. “That could be God’s answer to Moses’ question about suffering,” Lapine said. “God is saying that when it comes to tragedy, that’s very holy ground.” I came away from our conversation wondering if suffering could be sacred, an opportunity to get closer to God.
Still contemplating Rabbi Lapine’s words, I called Philip Yancey, the best-selling Christian author of Where Is God When It Hurts? His father died of polio when Yancey was just a baby. He grew up wondering why God didn’t answer the many prayers people had made to heal his dad. We may never know why we suffer, Yancey told me, but we do know how God feels about it.
“All you have to do is follow Jesus around to see how he handles people going through suffering—a widow who lost her only son, a person with leprosy, a woman with a very shameful condition, a blind person,” Yancey said. “He was always on the side of the one who suffers, and he responded with compassion and healing. That is the brightest clue we have as to how God feels about us when we go through pain.”
There’s also a practical purpose of pain that’s important to remember—it highlights areas in our lives that need attention. Yancey pointed out how the inability of leprosy patients to feel pain can actually put them in grave danger. Because of their disease, they can’t tell when they’ve had a serious burn or injury. Similarly, suffering helps us focus on what’s important.
“I would say pain is like a hearing aid,” Yancey said. “When it happens, it’s up to us to tune in and use our suffering as an opportunity for growth, for helping others, for any way to redeem it.”
Why do some seem to suffer more than others? To answer that question, I visited with Reverend Katharine Flexer, rector at St. Michael’s Church in Manhattan. She knows the pain of watching someone you love suffer, both professionally as a pastor and personally. Flexer’s older sister battled leukemia as a child. As a three-year-old, Flexer donated the bone marrow that would save her sister’s life. More than 35 years later, though, Flexer’s sister lost her battle with breast cancer.
“There are four kids in our family—how come my sister ended up with every health problem?” Flexer said. “I don’t know.” She theorized that God doesn’t have an answer we would be able to understand. Maybe the meaning of suffering can’t be explained by the logic of this world. I asked Flexer if she’d ever noticed something else seemingly illogical by earthly standards—an inexplicable closeness to God while in the depths of despair. Something I’ve experienced intensely.
“I know something of that,” Flexer told me. “In that dark ‘I can’t cry any more tears’ time, you get this sense that you’re actually being held....”
“That’s exactly what it is!” I said.
Flexer recalled it happening the night her sister died. She compared it to the way she comforts her 7-year-old son when he’s upset. “I hold him in a particular way, and I can tell he feels enveloped,” she said. “I’m hurting for him, but I also have the bigger picture. That’s what God is doing with us. He’s aching with our pain, but he also knows what we can’t see around and ahead of us.”
Perhaps that’s what Rabbi Lapine would call the holy ground of suffering. It’s when our defenses are down and we get a clear glimpse of how close God truly is, even if he appears to be silent.
Jesus knew something of that too. “He went through that very long night in Gethsemane before he ever got to the place of being able to say, ‘Thy will be done,’” Flexer said. “He also had to go through that total abandonment to realize God’s presence with him.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any agony worse than Christ’s. It is one of the great lessons of the cross, a symbol of both suffering and salvation.
There’s another “crack of light” that breaks through the darkness of suffering, according to Sharon Salzberg, a leading meditation teacher and author of Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. Salzberg was nine when her mother died and eleven when her father overdosed on sleeping pills. Years later, in college, Salzberg discovered Buddhism, which says suffering is inevitable. That belief opened her eyes to suffering as being a normal part of life. One that doesn’t have to break you.
“Suffering itself doesn’t make you noble,” Salzberg told me. “There are plenty of people who suffer and grow really bitter and angry. Then there are other people who use suffering as the springboard to greater compassion for others.”
Can suffering really deepen our humanity? I talked to Roberta Messner, a retired nurse and longtime contributor to Guideposts and Mysterious Ways. She has suffered to the point of contemplating suicide, due to a neurological disorder called neurofibromatosis, which causes large, noncancerous tumors to grow all over her body. Roberta has had the condition since adolescence and, despite the near-constant pain she endures, is one of the kindest souls you’ll ever meet.
“Even though it has been a life of suffering, I wouldn’t trade it,” she told me. “That sounds so crazy. But I just feel so at one with people. I feel their suffering intensely. And I’m so vulnerable when I suffer that it makes me more open to the mysterious.”
She recalled how she was divinely healed from cancer seven years ago. Despite that miracle, the stories Roberta writes about her incurable illness are the ones that most resonate with readers. Like her first surgery to remove a brain tumor at 15, and the physical and emotional scars it left behind. How she felt like an outsider. How she often turns to her twin sisters and loved ones for support and to writing to heal. The more we talked, the less alone I felt. I was connected to something greater.
“What I ask God,” Roberta said, “is how I can use my suffering to help others.”
I thought of Rabbi Lapine, Phillip Yancey, Reverend Flexer and Sharon Salzberg. Like Roberta, they had experienced suffering at a young age, for reasons maybe too mysterious to ever comprehend. It led each of them on different paths, but they all follow paths of compassion. They made something of their pain. Could I do the same?
Why, God, why? Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question.
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