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Vote with Tears (Or: Sharing the Suffering of Others)

It is not enough to cure the plague; we must learn to weep for it….Perhaps that is supreme wisdom.  -Miguel Unamuno


It’s been difficult to read the news lately. There are far, far too many reports of suffering in the world. I can’t emotionally bear the weight of processing the pain that migrants in Mexico are experiencing, combined with the pain of women who were shot at in a Florida yoga studio by a mentally unstable gunman, combined with members of the synagogue in Pittsburgh where eleven were killed and seven injured in another mass shooting. And, there are more stories of suffering than I cannot even begin to account for here on this page.

Many of us respond to tragedy with anger at injustice and a hunger to right the wrongs that need to be righted. With an aim for justice, we think about gun control, mental health interventions, immigration reform.  All appropriate responses. But I wonder if, in our quest for justice, we might sometimes forget to let our raw hearts bleed and our tired eyes weep a little. 

While it’s true we humans don’t have the physical, temporal or emotional capacity to mourn every grievous event, we can mourn some things. And we can begin, as Jesus said, to “weep with those who weep,” whether they are our next-door neighbors or our neighbors in Syria.

I think Jesus instructed this sort of weeping because he knew a little something about the human condition: we are most likely to bear up in our despair when we’re in the company of those who share our sorrow. Eugene Peterson, well-loved Presybterian pastor and writer, wrote: “When others join the sufferer, there is ‘consensual validation’ that the suffering means something. The community votes with its tears that there is suffering that is worth weeping over.”

My husband and I experienced several pregnancy losses early on in our marriage. The very worst sorts of interactions with people who heard about our sorrows were with those who refused to enter into our mourning. “Oh-these-things-happen-for-a-reason” seemed to be their verbal defense against mourning, a bulletproof shield against my very real and abject despair in that season. It was with those who entered the pain with a hug, a tear, a word, or 15 minutes of listening where I knew my suffering was worth weeping over and that I was not alone.

Recently, in my work as a police chaplain, I found myself in a car with a woman (an immigrant) who had encountered such despairing circumstances that she’d tried to end her life and failed. As she recounted sorrow after sorrow and her estrangement from family, I was acutely aware of my powerlessness to help re-order her life in the little window of time I shared with her. But tears sprang to my eyes and my voice trembled as I responded to her. And I felt somewhat foolish crying in front of the good officer we were with—foolish because tears were “unprofessional.” Foolish because tears couldn’t fix her problems.

But, as I looked back on that car ride, I realized that my tears were able to accomplish something that my words could not accomplish. They voted that her suffering was worth weeping over, even as she entered the jail and we said goodbye.  It’s been difficult to read the news lately. There are far, far too many reports of suffering in the world. I can’t emotionally bear the weight of processing the pain that migrants in Mexico are experiencing, combined with the pain of women who were shot at in a Florida yoga studio by a mentally unstable gunman, combined with members of the synagogue in Pittsburgh where eleven were killed and seven injured in another mass shooting. And, there are more stories of suffering than I can even begin to account for here on this page.


Many of us rightly respond to tragedy and injustices with anger and a hunger to right the wrongs that need to be righted. With an aim for justice, we think about gun control, mental health interventions, immigration reform. All right and appropriate and needful responses. But I've been thinking about how maybe, in our quest for justice, we might sometimes forget to let our raw hearts bleed and our tired eyes weep a little. 


While it’s true we humans don’t have the physical, temporal or emotional capacity to mourn every grievous event, we can mourn some things. And we can begin, as Jesus said, to “weep with those who weep”--whether it is with our next-door neighbors or our global neighbors in Syria.


I think Jesus instructed this sort of weeping because he knew a little something about the human condition: we are most likely to bear up in our despair when we’re in the company of those who share our sorrow. Eugene Peterson, well-loved Presbyterian pastor and writer, wrote: “When others join the sufferer, there is ‘consensual validation’ that the suffering means something. The community votes with its tears that there is suffering that is worth weeping over.”


Example from my own life: My husband and I experienced several pregnancy losses early on in our marriage. The very worst sorts of interactions with people who heard about our sorrows were with those who refused to enter into our mourning. “Oh-these-things-happen-for-a-reason” seemed to be their verbal defense against mourning, a bulletproof shield against my very real and abject despair in that season. It was with those who entered the pain with a hug, a tear, a word, or 15 minutes of listening where I knew my suffering was worth weeping over and that I was not alone.


And recently, in my work as a police chaplain, I found myself in a car with a woman (an immigrant) who had encountered such despairing circumstances that she’d tried to end her life and failed. As she recounted sorrow after sorrow and her estrangement from family members, I was acutely aware of my powerlessness to right the wrongs done to her. But, tears sprang to my eyes and my voice trembled as I listened and spoke with her. I felt somewhat foolish crying in front of the officer we were with—foolish because tears might have appeared “unprofessional.” Foolish because tears couldn’t fix any problems. Foolish because I didn't want to look like I, too, was weak when I was supposed to the be the one in control.


All foolish fears, I now know. As I looked back on that car ride later, I realized that my tears were able to accomplish something that no words or deeds or just acts could accomplish. My watery eyes validated that her suffering was worth weeping over. As she entered the jail and I hugged her goodbye, she knew at least that I had voted and that another person in this world saw her pain and agreed that it should be lamented.


Yesterday was election day. I know many of us have been mobilizing others to get out and vote--to make a difference through just policies and good representation. So, with the recent memory of voting with our pens and our ballots, perhaps it's also a good time to remember how important, how comforting, how eternally significant it is for us to also vote with our tears.


Peace,

Heather





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