Just before I left Denver, Annika, my daughter, was with her grandmother in our bathroom when her grandmother’s hip dislocated and EMS had to come take her downstairs on a gurney to the hospital. This trauma caused Anni to go into a full panic. She was pacing around the front yard waiting for the ambulance, crying and shouting. The sadness and fear in her eyes penetrated my being. Her grandmother’s mortality is something with which Anni struggles often. Anni feels very deeply. The thought that she might never see her grandmother again causes her great pain. In those moments with Anni in the front yard as she thrashed around and tears were streaming from her eyes, I knew she was suffering. All I wanted was to be able to assume the suffering for her and, at the same time, I knew I needed to stay near her and allow her to experience her suffering in safety.
Can or should suffering be quantified? This question is incredibly perplexing to me. At different points in my life I’ve come down on either side of the equation and I am afraid the side on which I land is often times the one that serves me most in any given situation.
I feel like I’ve had a fair bit of suffering in my life. Has it been the most heinous violations of humanity, no; however, I know I understand all to well what it means to suffer. In a variety of different settings I’ve listened to other people articulate the ways in which they have suffered. I’ve judgmentally looked down my nose at people who claim to have experienced great suffering whom I easily determined their suffering was far less than mine. I afforded them very little grace and heartedly believed that my pain was somehow greater. I have at times decided that unequivocally there is greater suffering for some people which in turn gives those who suffer greatly the access to a wisdom around suffering that others may not be able to possess.
So, I came to Bosnia. Here I cannot elevate myself in the hierarchy of suffering because here the exploits I’ve endured cannot measure up to perversions humanity has exacted over many people who call Bosnia home. If I stick to quantifying suffering, most, if not all, of Bosnia can “out suffer” me with a single transgression. The death of my mother to lung and brain cancer at 64 does not measure up to someone who is the lone survivor from his/her family after the war. It is in those moments when I conveniently want to level the playing field, saying pain is pain and suffering is suffering—you can’t quantify it. I want the devastation I feel over the loss of my mother to be just as valid, just as legitimate as anyone’s loss. I want to be acknowledged for my pain when I’ve recently quantified suffering which, either intentionally or unintentionally, diminished the pain of someone else.
Should we be obligated to hold the radical difference in Anni’s panic experience in the front yard compared to a Bosnian child whose family has been torn apart? What is accompanied by saying whose suffering is greater or lesser? It seems as if quantifying the suffering diminishes and devalues both experiences. By quantifying it I depersonalize it and lose sight of the striking fear in Anni’s big blue eyes and I lose sight of the humanity of the Bosnian child because, at some level, I have essentialized that child into the suffering being the totality of his/her person.
This dialectic is one in which I am convinced we must learn to exist. If we deny our own experience and struggle because of guilt we feel resultant from a perception that our suffering is not as heinous as someone else, we will never truly appreciate the suffering of others nor come to terms with our own. I am challenging myself to exist in the tension. It is uncomfortable and confusing, but it seems that is what is required to honor and respect both Anni and the young Bosnian child.
I worry that denying ourselves from having our own suffering for fear that it does not measure up to the suffering of others mistakenly creates divisiveness and haven’t we been shown throughout history that often it is divisiveness that creates suffering in the first place?