The responses of the Jews and Romans to Jesus’ suffering have always fascinated me. Pilate found a mob’s blood lust distasteful, but wasn’t moved enough by Jesus’ innocence and acceptance of His fate to give Him a reprieve. Another man’s life wasn’t all that important to Pontius. The Roman soldiers delighted in Jesus’ fall from power and mocked Him as they crowned Him with thorns. His pain was their sport. Veronica saw His suffering and tried to ease it, and His mother bore witness to her son’s death without turning away. Others ran away and hid.
I could have been any one in the crowd of onlookers at Golgotha. I have a similar range of responses to weakness, suffering and tragedy. When I see someone in distress I sometimes feel an urge to rush in and fix things. At other times I’m repelled by the ugliness of the moment, or am afraid that a particular form of human frailty might be catching. At certain unfortunate moments I take delight that someone else is suffering too, or what’s worse, I feel glad that it’s them and not me.
I became more aware of my wavering response to misfortune when my sister was diagnosed with ALS. She saw my hesitancy to enter her new existence and share in her suffering, and she eased me through the transition. She wanted me to know that she was all right, that she hadn’t really changed inside. (She was blessed with strength and grace and did her best to help others even as she was losing her life in slow increments.)
I also watched how strangers reacted to her as she went about her business in public in a motorized wheel chair. Some became anxious, some pretended she wasn’t there, and others smiled too broadly and made a big fuss when they approached her. They patronized her by talking too loudly and in simple sentences. It appeared that they thought that her impairment was mental as well as physical. My sister ignored the awkwardness and just went about getting what she wanted. If onlookers had a problem with her condition it had nothing to do with her.
I’ve become more aware of the cruelty that sometimes seems to surround us. I’ve recently heard children mocking an elderly couple for their frailty, and saw adults smiling contemptuously at a person in a wheelchair struggling to thread his way through a crowd on a sidewalk. Their lack of empathy astounded me, and I wondered how they managed to avoid realizing that they too could end up in a similar state one day. But weakness provides a tempting target, and some can’t resist taking advantage of another person’s misfortune. I believe that the perpetrators feel empowered when they add to the suffering. I despise this behavior, but am not immune from this form of malevolence. Some of my worst moments of self loathing follow such lapses.
My wife has helped me leave some of this darkness behind. My upbringing wasn’t always sweet and kind, and I learned to defend myself with harsh words and anger when challenged. A few months after I got married I noticed something unexpected: when my wife and I argued I always seemed to lose. When I vented my frustrations and hurt her feelings I had the sensation that I was hurt too. Even when I defeated her in an argument there was no real satisfaction. There was no such thing as winning if it came at her expense–it was like trying to arm wrestle with my right arm pitted against my left.
I’m beginning to understand that I have similar interconnections with those outside my family circle. I occasionally get a glimpse that all my actions and decisions have a ripple effect on the people around me. The ties extend everywhere and all through time.
The witnesses and participants in Jesus’ trial and execution were in different states of awareness. Some saw a man’s suffering as something separate from themselves, while others were aware that Jesus’ agony was theirs too. My intention is to have more moments of wakefulness, more glimpses of the reality that we are all one human mass of suffering, joy, fear, hope, love, hate and desire. Humanity is a continuum and none are above, below or separate. We all hurt or help our brothers and sisters by everything we do say.