In His Suffering (my friend is a weirdness)

By Will Baker

 

Were it my task to award a prize to the most compassionate person I know, it would have to go to a carpenter friend of mine. Not only is this fellow a well-spring of compassion, he has dedicated his life to living in a manner that does no harm to his environment or his fellow human beings. I would be remiss were I to leave it at that. Not only does he do no harm…he has done a great deal of good for many people.

Yesterday was his birthday. Most people receive birthday cards or a cake on their birthday. My friend’s present was radiation treatment. He has a brain tumor, and the odds are that he will die most probably a very painful death. It has been my unfortunate experience to witness the slow death, by cancer, of two of my closest relatives. I did not come away from these experiences untouched. It is hard to witness a loved one being reduced to a disease-ravaged shell of their former selves without doing some serious thinking.

It seems to me that perhaps the most chilling aspect of cancer is it simultaneously strikes at so many different levels. Of course, in a situation like my carpenter friend’s, where cancer strikes a truly blest and special person, it is only natural to wonder at the seeming unfairness of it all. Did God mean for this to happen? And if so, what kind of a God does that make him, or is there a God at all? These are the types of questions that the sickness may compel one to ask. And then there are the disease’s financial implications. Dying of cancer can be a costly affair. The disease very often takes almost everything one has to give, including financial resources. I have witnessed the economic implications of cancer. They can be severe.

This is not an indictment of the medical establishment, however when one interacts with health care providers a temporary loss of personal dignity is often experienced. For example, it is a blow to one’s self esteem to be costumed in a gown that doesn’t fully close in the back. It seems to me that in this day and age a diagnosis of cancer places one almost entirely at the mercy of the medical establishment. I would further argue that this could be a very dehumanizing place to be. When one is severely debilitated and clinging to what little hope that may be left, giving up ones dignity seems a small price to pay. But for some, this dignity is just about all that is left and is among the last possessions to be given up.

And then there is the acute pain and suffering that must be endured. I have never understood notions such as "giving one’s pain over to the Lord," as if pain is something that can be gifted. What kind of God would want such a gift? During the course of my life I have witnessed and experienced pain, and I have been awed by the manner in which others have born tremendous pain. Some would suggest that there is redemptive value in enduring such an experience. I am not so sure. A woman comes to mind that was dying a terribly slow and painful death. Yet all through her sickness she reached out and ministered to others. It seems to me that her sickness did not build her character, but rather gave her an opportunity to demonstrate her quality. I will admit however, that once pain is experienced it becomes easier to empathize with others who are suffering, and if there is redemption to be had, this is where it may lie.

Associated with all of the above is fear. We are in fear of loosing our loved ones. They are in fear of death, or of leaving us alone to fend for ourselves. We look at them and their pain and suffering reminds us of our own mortality. We realize that "all we are is dust in the wind." Our zone of safety and security, that which we know so well, is shaken.

My friend, in his suffering, is a weirdness to me. When I visit him he is full of thanks that I am there, as if I could be anywhere else. Were I to express to him the unfairness of it all, he would quietly remind me of what I already know: nothing is fair. It just is what it is. And as for the disease compromising his theology, there is very little to compromise. He is an agnostic who believes in the enduring goodness of the universe. He is a man of very modest means unaccustomed to the conveniences that most of us enjoy. Therefore, the personal financial implications of his sickness should be small. The man has spent a lifetime devolving his ego. And so far his dignity remains unscathed. Although his head is misshapen now, and his shoulder length hair has been shorn, his basic human dignity remains. I can only imagine that this is so because he doesn’t really care about it. My sense is that were he to struggle to retain his dignity, it would be gone in an instant.

I wish he wasn’t suffering so. I can assure you that in his case pain will provide no redemption. He is a rare example of someone who has already managed to redeem himself and then sustain the state for years. He is merciful, kind and full of love. Seemingly secure in his own redemption, he acts as a Redemptorist to others. I do not see cancer changing all that. But…he is afraid. He and I have been through a lot together in the ten years that we have known each other. During that time I have never seen him cry. However, since his sickness began he has cried each time that I’ve visited him. He says that he cries because he is happy… and I believe him. Even though he is afraid, and in pain, I know that he is very happy to be alive. He and I have often discussed the fragility of all life, and the fleeting nature of human life in particular. I know that he shares my sense that truly, each day is a gift. Yet in his current state I imagine that this concept must take on an amplified meaning.

 

(Essay Collection)