Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.
I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.
Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.
In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that life would be easier if I didn't know so many people, if I didn't try to love so often. With each relationship, I risk an encounter with brokenness and hurt. I wonder if my habitual openness somehow has me spread too thin. I can empathize with those who decide instead to stay guarded; I want to protect myself under a cloak of separation.
During a recent house dinner, while enjoying another home-cooked meal, I listen to an elder sister express some of her concerns about modern technology. She shares her observation that many people get notifications about news headlines on their smartphones. Their phones beep and blink, alerting them throughout the day when there has been a catastrophe in another corner of the nation or the world. Humans are hollowed into headlines, statistics. Her face is thoughtful as she asks: Do we have a limited capacity for encountering suffering and pain? What does it do to the human psyche to receive a constant diet of bad news?
I stare at the crumbs on my plate, uncertain of what to say.
Her question, though, got me thinking about how information is consumed during this ever-connected and global internet age.
I suppose I became convinced, at some point, that I have a Christian responsibility to be socially conscious, to be well aware of the suffering in the world. I feel that I need to know where wars are being waged, so I can pray for those impacted. I ought to know where famine is occurring, so I can be mindful of the needs of my global brothers and sisters, and advocate for systemic change with compassion and knowledge. Ultimately, I believe that I need to be informed about the suffering of others because I feel I have a duty to participate in the struggle for positive social change, of building God's reign. The advocacy I offer ought to come from an informed place.
Part of the struggle is that I don't want to consume the stories so quickly that I become numb to the fact that the person hurting is someone's daughter or son. When I hear the radio buzz of a death count from a bomb or shooting, I try to remember to pause and pray for the deceased. But sometimes I am too occupied to listen in a compassionate mindset, and the facts just run through me like air.
On the other hand, I don't want the suffering of the world to consume me. At times, I can feel flooded by tragic news stories spilling forth from every corner of the globe, of disasters and crime and wars. I can easily become so saddened and disturbed by news of tragedies far away that I am frozen and unable to respond locally to my neighbors in need next door.
Gradually, through much trial and error, I am learning the importance of being a careful consumer of information — even of true stories of human suffering. I need to remain attentive to the sources of my information as well as its content; I need to work to build in some balance about how I learn the news. I like the suggestion found here to "make a conscious decision about when and where I'll get news — and what I'll do afterwards." This is part of the self-care that I have found is an important aspect of modern Christian living. I need to maintain my own mental health so I have the strength to serve, to nurse the wounds of others nearby.
Still, my sister's question still rattles around inside me: Do we have a limited capacity for encountering suffering and pain? What does it do to the human psyche to receive a constant diet of bad news?
As I continue onward on this Christian journey, I feel like the lesson is slowly sinking in: embracing suffering as a companion to the joy of love is the meaning of the cross. In the cross, I am reminded that our human suffering has been redeemed, that we never need to carry our heartaches and troubles alone. Turning to those two crossbeams daily might be just as important as learning to balance the way I learn the news and love my neighbors.
Back at the clothesline, I clip my damp clothing to the line and mutter an acceptance and understanding in response to the sting: The whole point of this life is love, and the cost of love is pain. I walk across the shadows of the tall trees and back to the house, trusting that my clothes will dry, trusting that I will grow, and trusting that those who suffer are held in God's loving care.
[Julia Walsh is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a retreat presenter and a blogger who can be found online at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]