One of the contributors to the On Being blog, Omid Safi, recently spoke to suffering and finding joy therein. Safi found that, as a human experience, openness to suffering opens one to another’s suffering. He draws from Rumi:
This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
By welcoming suffering as a guest, Safi came to notice with greater understanding of, and entering solidarity with the abandoned child, the refugee, a disenfranchised friend. “Humanity,” he continues, “was not something that we each possess individually. It’s actually our very connection with one another.” Humanity is our connection to each other. But, this is what really caught my eye: “I came to see goodness as not something opposed to evil, but simply the refusal to remain indifferent. We would commit ourselves compassionately to one another.”
When I can sit with my suffering, welcoming it with compassion (versus railing against it or the perceived injustice that precipitated it) suffering becomes a friend whom I can recognize. It is the means or catalyst by which I can enter someone else’s suffering. What is more, I can no longer see the suffering of others with indifference. I do not mean the kind of pity that pings when a news item flashes across the smartphone’s screen. Rather, I am now enabled to make a commitment out of true compassion to this other. Goodness = compassionate commitment.
I suppose it is the last word that I get stuck on: commitment. Ours is a culture that considers commitment abhorrent. Yet, again, humanity is “our very connection with one another.” Lacking compassionate commitment siphons off our humanness. But, as Safi began, one must first commit to one’s own suffering—the compassionate welcome of suffering within.
It is only then that identifying with another’s suffering becomes an act of love, and, as such, compels me to . . . act! And, to engage a practice of alleviating the suffering of another has the effect of eliciting joy. It was not my intention to seek joy; rather, in identifying with the suffering of another—compassionately committing to stand with and help to alleviate the suffering of this other—I greet another guest: joy.
Parker Palmer comes to a similar conclusion when he writes, “Breathe in my life, breathe out my gratitude.” Generosity of spirit is life-giving. I do not know what this looks like exactly. It certainly has as many variations as there are unique individuals. I do know it requires space and time—to know who I am most truly amid the suffering, the joy, the pain and delight—so I am enabled (with time) to recognize those same guests in others. It is a commitment. It is action. It is love.
It was Job who, amid his radical suffering declared, “for I know my Redeemer lives!” I have found a beautiful group of people who have committed to this type of journey, if only to help me finish my doctorate! My prayer is that we will grow in compassionate commitment to one another—not to quit—and bring along some others for the longer journey. And then, together we may breathe in life and breathe out generosity, to welcome still others . . . .