Photograph By Fablic | Dreamstime.com
Call me out of touch, but I can’t sit through ten minutes of Survivor. Sure, contestants toughen up body and mind while they’re “stranded” in the tropics. They eat vile food and forgo luxuries. But it’s hard to believe they’re seriously deprived, when their teeth stay forever glittering white. I know it’s a contest, it’s TV, it’s Hollywood. But to me it makes a mockery of real survivors.
A few weeks ago I read an article about a Memphis priest from Haiti — a nation of people who struggle daily to survive. For years, Father Eduardo Logiste, of St. Peter Catholic Church downtown, has seen his homeland suffer at the hands of dictators, and last year witnessed an earthquake’s destruction that left millions injured and homeless.
In seminary, the priest wrote his thesis on “Suffering Haiti as Christ Crucified.” After years of pondering, he maintains that God does not cause suffering. But like many of us he continues to wonder: Why does God allow it? And why do some individuals or nations suffer more than others? “I will never have the answer,” the priest told a reporter. “But I do know that in suffering there is redemption.”
I’ve reflected on that word “redemption” and its root verb “redeem.” For Christians — certainly for Father Logiste — redemption means salvation from sin through Christ’s death on the cross. But other definitions shed a broader light.
When we “redeem,” according to Webster’s, we “free from what distresses or harms.” We “offset or make worthwhile the bad effect” of what life inflicts. In Haiti, churches and other nonprofits are redeeming lives by building schools and clinics, mending broken bones. soothing broken hearts. In a country so battered by poverty, disease, and disaster, their efforts may seem miniscule considering the millions of people affected. But to one person in pain — and few things are more personal than suffering — a kind touch can be a gift, a stimulus to survive another day.
To those extending kindness also comes a gift — a subtle lesson in what it means to be human. While any sane person wants a world without misery, we know that its curse is here to stay. If we can’t banish it, we can learn and grow from it, from our own suffering and those we try to help.
Anyone who tolerates chronic pain or has endured the effects of a mortal illness can often see its grip on others: A man so crippled by arthritis or injuries he can barely walk across the street; a woman whose strength and hair have been stripped by chemo. Our response to these people can be more heartfelt and sensitive because of our own experiences. A few years ago I wouldn’t have been so attuned to someone struggling to walk or stand. Now, because of a persistent foot condition aggravated by a dislocated ankle, I recognize the body language, the strained face that speaks a world of hurt. I don’t always notice or care; I’m as self-absorbed as the next person. But more often than before, I ask how I can help. A ride to the bus stop, a seat in a busy waiting room, a sympathetic ear — any one of these can “free from distress” and “make worthwhile a bad effect.” My gesture won’t change the world but it can do this: ease one person’s misery and, just as important, give meaning to my own pain.
The same is true, and multiplied many times, for those who reach out on a wider scale: A woman who survived cancer makes and donates wigs to those who can’t afford them. A man whose son was shot to death comforts others whose lives are wrecked by violence.
We’ll always wonder why God allows suffering. And we’ll continue to see it every day, on the news or around the corner — a veteran with no legs, a tornado victim stunned by loss, a father inconsolable when his family dies in a fire, countless people and animals — you better believe they suffer too — without homes or hope.
We can sit around and watch Survivor (or, in my case, a so-so drama or silly sitcom) or Google our fingers to nubs. Or we could get out, pay attention, see the suffering, lighten a load. If we’re lucky enough to be survivors, we can be redeemers too.