Sitting with Suffering
I’ve had a hard time sharing and writing this last season as I’m just trying to be present and take it all in. So far cruising hasn’t been what I thought it was going to be, rather it’s been so much more. It’s challenged me in new ways, made me ask some hard questions and feel more alive than ever before. This isn’t our typical blog post and I hope you can bear with me through my rambling, but I thought I’d share some things that have been on my heart.
This year is so much different than last year. Most of this season Agape has been on her own, very rarely do we see other boats, let alone buddy boat together. Last year we spent most of our time in large tourist ports where things were easy and comfortable, this season the closest to a big city we’ve been is about an 1-2 hour bus ride. I love it. I love seeing the wild coastline and the small towns and villages. In Nicaragua our favorite place was a dusty town called Chinandega. There is zero tourism, nothing of extraordinary beauty that would draw people in, but we fell in love with the people, the dust and volcano lined horizon, the horse and cow drawn carriages traveling up and down every street. Here, outside this city and like many places we go, the people are very poor, living in cinderblock, corrugated tin, and plastic dwellings, mostly with dirt floors. In Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama, we’ve seen lots of squatter settlements where people are just literally waiting to be kicked out by the government. Many of these communities don’t have access to running water in their homes and have to walk to the nearest well to get water each day, and it’s often contaminated by bacteria.
The women in these villages are stunning, and I mean extraordinarily beautiful, maybe not in the way most westerners normally see beauty, but I tell you if you saw them you would recognize it. On the bus each day, the women would board with their young children and new born babies, their hair long and shiny, no make up or fancy clothes, but rather clothed with a natural elegance. Their children are clean and I have never seen a child throw a tantrum in the hundreds of hours I’ve spent bussing across Central America. They don’t have running water, they have dirt floors, they don’t have access to diapers and wet wipes, and all the fancy toys that kids are thought to need. Those things that we consider most basic are not an option. They cost money that they don’t have, and you know what? It doesn’t seem to phase them.
There are no beauty stores, nail salons or designer clothing shops in sight and they don’t seem to notice. These women have the most beautiful smiles and confidence I have ever seen. They have deep community. Women in these places raise their children together, not locked up in their individual homes feeling the pressure to keep the house clean and tidy while taking care of the children’s every need. They do life together. They do laundry together while the children play, they cook together and siesta together. The way these women share their lives is beautiful.
I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to friends back at home that feel exhausted, overworked, alone and lonely at home raising their babies. Friends who are dealing with depression and mom shaming, and feel like they are never doing enough. But how can they with Pinterest pages showing the most beautiful nurseries, instagram showing the trendiest baby OOTDs and all the advice on how to not screw up your kids being shoved down their throats everyday. No, these women don’t care about having the perfect nursery designed or baby clothes, these women are laughing, smiling and supporting one another in even the simplest of tasks.
Before, when I entered these villages I felt the heavy weight of suffering that I thought these people were experiencing. Don’t get me wrong, life is not easy and there is definitely suffering, but the difference is that I’m more comfortable sitting in it. The people we’ve met, whose lives are much more challenging and uncomfortable than our own, honestly seem so much more content and grateful for their lives.
Sometimes I’ve gone into a place thinking, how do we fix this suffering, meet their basic needs, and help the level of discomfort…We will never fully solve the problem of suffering in this world. If we are promised anything in this life, it’s that fact that we will all experience suffering, but I think it’s how we sit with it that makes all the difference.
Before, other peoples suffering, whether physical, emotional or spiritual would make me shift in my seat. It would make me feel at some level uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to address it. Was I supposed to fix it? Ignore it? Talk about it?
No. I think the greatest gift we can give people who are suffering is to sit with them in it; to look them straight in the eye and not shift our gaze. Not over talk the problem or get to work trying to fix it right away, but to just sit there and love them for who they are, not because of their sufferings but rather in spite of them.
When I first started thinking about suffering, the movie The Beach came to mind. In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio finds his way onto a secret island paradise with a community of people all living in harmony, until one man is bitten by a shark. This man is in much pain and risks losing his leg or life from the injury, but the people of the community refuse to bring a doctor to the island, for fear of their secret getting out. He is too injured to travel by boat, so he is stuck there, hoping his body will heal. After a few days his agony and pain, his moaning and wailing become too much for the others to bear, the people he considered to be his family and friends. Their ultimate decision was to put him in a tent outside the commune and let nature take its course. Their stance was basically get better or die. The in-between, the suffering made them uncomfortable and they wanted to forget about it and move on with their lives.
I remember the first time I saw this movie and thinking how barbaric these people were. How could they do that? They were so insensitive and selfish. But, the worst part is I’ve recognized the same thing within myself. Get better or go away. How often do we and our culture want suffering to go away, problems to get solved and resolved. We promote beauty, pursuing happiness, and seeking out contentment and fulfillment in life. But how must that make people who are surrounded by darkness, illness or suffering feel when we push those things aside. We don’t want to hear their deep groanings, see the hard things, or think about what life would be like if we were in their shoes.
I recognize looking back how even the ways I tried to love people by trying to fix their problems or to alleviate their suffering, probably didn’t make them feel very loved at the time. Some problems in life cannot be solved. Some illnesses cannot be cured. Some things will always be hard to look at and to sit with, but what do we do with those things? We can choose to love not despite these things but amidst them.
I’m trying my best to learn how to come along side people who are suffering, whether it be friends with chronic illnesses, people mourning the loss of a loved one, or people living in poverty. How do I make them feel loved and seen as an individual, and not just as their pain? I think too often our culture and I myself, address the pain or the problem first before we ever truly see the person.
My life has been relatively easy and pain free, I wouldn’t say that I’ve truly suffered in this life as of yet. But is that truly a blessing? How much depth, love and intimacy have I missed out on because I’ve been uncomfortable with suffering, because I’ve looked the other way? How have I failed to truly support the people in my life by trying to make their problems go away, rather than just sit with them in it?
Sitting with suffering isn’t easy, whether it be our own or someone else’s. But I think if we can try to learn how to do life together, not hiding our problems and pain, or feeling the need to immediately fix it when it comes up, we will reap the deep love and connections that our hearts so desperately desire. Depth and joy, peace and love are not found in a world without suffering but rather at the heart of it.