What happens inside us when we suffer or those around us suffer? What happens in our brain? In our soul? Curtis is joined by “the other Curt” — Dr. Curt Thompson — to talk about his new book, The Deepest Place: Suffering and the Formation of Hope. Their conversation explores questions such as: What is the connection between our desire for beauty and our vulnerability to suffering? Why do we avoid others when we are suffering? Why do the sufferings of others make us so uncomfortable? Most of all, the they probe for the invitation of God amidst suffering.
This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
CURTIS CHANG: So Curt, when you invited us to join with others in their suffering, and when you described that experience for yourself when your brother died, you got emotional. And I felt like I was hearing about something beautiful and also something profoundly terrifying. The depth of feeling that listeners could probably pick up, even remotely, in the timbre and pause and the break of your voice – that’s beautiful and that’s terrifying. Can you say more to those of us who are near people who are suffering? Part of us wants to draw near and share suffering in the way you describe. And then part of us feels terrified by this.
I’ve got a friend in our church who has a rapidly progressing neurological disease such that he’s a shell of himself. He’s barely functioning, barely conscious. He’s not really mobile. This is a 40-year-old guy who, up until two years ago, was playing basketball. And tomorrow on my Sabbath day, my wife and I are visiting him in his care facility. And I am terrified of doing that. I mean, every time I go, I’m terrified. And all this dread: it’ll make me feel uncomfortable, it’ll make me feel sad. It will make me feel…
I think it makes me anxious for myself and my future. What will my demise be like? I mean, so many things come up. Can you help me – and listeners who also surround the suffering – work through our own experience of the suffering and combat our impulse to avoid it?
CURT THOMPSON: Well, the first thing I want to say is I’m just really sorry. I’m sorry about your friend and I’m sorry for you because, when we lose any part of something or someone we love, we lose a part of ourselves. And that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. That’s death trying to put its hand on our shoulder – the death that God warns Adam about in Genesis 2.
And I think we become afraid of ourselves.I become afraid that I’m going to feel something unpleasant. I’m sensing that I’m not going to be able to tolerate what I’m feeling. I’m worried that I won’t be able to tolerate me. And that feeling comes from my own experience somewhere. Some part of my story is coming into the room, some part of my story when something happened to me that shouldn’t have, or something didn’t happen to me that should have, where there’s been a rupture that hasn’t been repaired and I was left to deal with this sadness, grief, anxiety by myself.
Those emotions of distress were never intended to be dealt with in isolation. They were intended to be co-regulated with someone else. “It’s not good for the man to be alone.” These are the primary mechanics of attachment. When an infant is in distress, the parent helps the infant learn to co-regulate their distress.
And so we bring our own stories to the table when we are sitting with our friend who is suffering. And it becomes an opportunity, if we are open to it, for Jesus to bring comfort and healing – not only to our friend via our presence, but also to us and the parts of our stories that are invited into the room because we chose to move toward the suffering.
And this is Jesus saying, “It’s not those who are well whom I have come for. It’s those who are not well.” And we all have, myself included, parts of us that are not yet well that we have tried to keep out of Jesus’ sight line. This is like the woman in Mark 5 who has the bleeding problem, who comes with a plan, right? Get in, get the job done, get out, tug on His robe. And then He has a completely different plan. He’s going to come for everything – things she might not have thought He could address. But this is what happens.
We want to come and be a presence for healing for our friend in distress only to discover that Jesus will heal everyone in a five-mile radius of this. Jesus wants to be in the room with you with those feelings. He’s in the room and He’s not looking at you with any disdain or any sense of, “Why are you feeling this?” He’s looking at you in the room when you feel all this and He’s going to wink at you and say, “I know.”
And if you’re able to name these things, you can be sure that your friend will know that you feel what he feels – all the worry, all the fear. He can feel like he’s not alone by virtue of you naming your pain that, for sure, is part of his story as well.
When two or more gather in my name, the Spirit is going to come to the room and do things that you all are not in charge of. The wind blows where it will, and it’s going to come and do its work.
And little do we know that, all these things that I’m feeling that I would much rather leave those things at home, Jesus says, “No, I want them in the room. I want you to be curious about this. I want what’s happening with your friend to be an opportunity for me to do work with you in parts of your story that you didn’t know would come into the room.”
CURTIS CHANG: That’s beautiful. And that is a profound invitation. And just to restate it for myself, if not for our listeners, you’re saying that, when we draw near to suffering and feel that resistance, that avoidance, that’s actually Jesus’s invitation for our growth and healing. We are not mere delivery vehicles of healing for others, but in that process we are recipients of healing for ourselves because, in that resistance, something in our own story is being triggered. And it’s an opportunity for Jesus to touch that part of us.
CURT THOMPSON: Absolutely, if we are open to it.
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