Some of you know that I suffer from a type of bipolar disorder that involves periods of deep depression. When I get depressed, I almost always start thinking about suffering, not just my suffering, but ALL suffering throughout history. How’s that for being grandiose!
Anyway, I recently came out of a period of depression, thanks be to God, and did a lot of reflection about suffering, and how people manage to bear it. Through all my obsessive reading, I came across some ways that people who suffer—from cancer, or mental illness, or even from imprisonment, torture, and war— manage to get through it. It seems that what helps people survive and even amazingly to thrive are: meaning, connection, forgiveness of one’s enemies, beauty, being able to imagine a future, acceptance, and even humor. Now, it’s important to say that acceptance is not the same as romanticizing it or inflicting it on ourselves.
St Stephen the martyr, as he’s called in the Catholic tradition, certainly had community in his Christian brothers and sisters, the presence of God that told him he was not alone, and he forgave his murderers. Victor Frankl found solace in the concentration camp by finding meaning in his suffering, by humor, by connecting with his fellow prisoners, and by imagining a future. A center for torture victims in Minneapolis provides a way to help people heal by telling their stories, connecting with other survivors, and a beautiful and healing environment.
In an essay from the “This I Believe” series from NPR, comes a story of a young man who copes with terrible recurrent depressions. He says:
“There is a wretched place that depression drags me off to, after taking control of my thoughts and feelings. It’s the place where the longing for relief mutes every other desire, even the desire to wake up in the morning. It feels like I am breathing thick black smoke.
Yet, I believe that the depressions that pin me to the mat so often serve a bigger purpose in my life. They don’t come empty-handed. I believe that the purpose of suffering is to strengthen us and to help us understand the suffering of others.”
And there is the story of the Irish saint, St. Dymphna, whose feast day is May 15. She is the patron saint of mental illness. She had a very difficult life, back in the 7th century. She was threatened with sexual abuse by her father. With the help of others, she escaped to Belgium. Her father eventually found her and beheaded her. The town in Gheel, Belgium, where she was buried, started noticing miraculous healings of those with mental illness. Eventually, a sort of hospital was built for the care of the pilgrims. Then the people of Gheel began inviting the patients into their homes to live, because they noticed that after a period of stabilization, patients did much better after being welcomed and integrated into the community. That tradition continues to this day in Gheel, which has a “progressive” program for mental health care.
Loving Spirit, help us to follow the brave examples of St Stephen and St Dymphna. Let us offer compassion to all who suffer, including ourselves.