In recent weeks the media has been full of reports of desperate suffering. So quickly does one story follow on from its predecessor, it is all too easy to forget the events which shocked us just a few weeks ago. Just as the shootings in Plymouth were superseded by events in Haiti and Afghanistan, so these too will one day fade into our collective subconscious as some new tragedy comes to the fore and takes its brief turn on centre stage.
But despite the newsworthiness of such dreadful events, most suffering goes by unnoticed. To all but those caught up in it, most suffering is unexceptional, with life continuing mundanely on for those unaffected by those events of which they are unaware. W.H. Auden had it right when he wrote in his poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’,
‘About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old masters: how well they understood
It’s human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.’
A few weeks ago a practice in the town where I work collapsed resulting in those that had been registered there being allocated to the remaining local practices. Our practice list size increased overnight by about 10% as 1700 individuals joined us bringing with them the stories of their lives, many of which inevitably included great hardship. I was struck by how totally unaware I was of the genuine suffering that was occurring in the town where I have worked these past 25 years despite the fact that, on some occasions at least, that suffering would have been playing out in households neighbouring those I myself was visiting on a regular basis.
I wondered how it must feel to experience grief whilst all too conscious that few others shared it with you. For, despite it being ignored by an indifferent world, those who feel the pain of suffering experience it as something worthy of everyone’s attention. To the grieving individual, nothing remains the same and for the world to continue on, unchanged and unmoved, must surely only add to their sense of disorientation.
Auden’s poem ‘Funeral Blues’, is in stark contrast to his ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. In it he has his bereaved narrator demanding that everyone should stop what they are doing and, having been made aware of his loss, join him in his mourning. Furthermore, given what has happened, he considers the whole of the created order no longer serving any useful purpose.
‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.’
It’s a beautiful poem capturing the intensity of the grief that accompanies the loss that for the most part goes by unnoticed by an uncaring world.
In reality, of course, nobody has the capacity to become emotionally involved with all the suffering that is all too prevalent in what is frequently a very sad world. As George Eliot wrote in her novel ‘Middlemarch’
‘That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow… and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’
Nobody should expect the whole world to experience so intensely the sadness that they themselves feel, but we should not be surprised perhaps when there are some who seek to share their sadness with us and thereby give it a significance more in keeping with that which they feel it deserves. Though the pain that is often brought to us is frequently the result of something we can do nothing about, to acknowledge the sadness of others is nonetheless hugely valuable.
And perhaps that is part of why our job is currently so difficult. With so many struggling and, seemingly, doing so alone, perhaps there is a need for some to have their struggles noticed by somebody other than themselves. If, rather than pretending that we have the answer to their problems and offering platitudes that suggest that things aren’t as bad as they seem, we are able instead to be human enough to perhaps share a little of their sadness, then we will have done something that is immensely worthwhile.
It will not of course be easy, not least because the whispers of our own individual struggles, in a job that too few appreciate is itself increasingly difficult, are themselves seldom heard. Even so, in a world where once many lead lives of what Thoreau described as only quiet desperation, we would do well to at least hear what has now become their sometimes silent but nonetheless deafening distress.
[With thanks to Frank Skinner whose Poetry Podcast on W.H. Auden got me thinking along the above lines.]
When I first posted this elsewhere I was asked how one can ensure that being with those who share their experiences of pain, loss, and grief don’t wear us ever so slightly down each time we meet with them. I suspect that the answer to that is that we can’t but that our being worn down a little, rather than ultimately doing us any harm actually makes us more than we were before. My reasons for thinking this are quite complex and are theologically underpinned. For anyone who might be interested They are touched on in some of the related pieces which are linked to below.
To read ‘General Practice – a sweet sorrow’, click here
To read ‘Covid 19 – could it mean we really did have the experience but missed the meaning’, an updated version of ‘T.S. Eliot, Jesus and the paradox of the Christian life’, click here
To read ‘Suffering – a personal view’, click here
To read ‘Monsters’, click here
To read ‘The Windhover’, click here
To read ‘Why do bad things happen to good people – a tentative suggestion’, click here
To read ‘Luther and the Global Pandemic – on becoming a theologian of the cross’, click here