Love Is Forgetting Yourself

In compassion

Maureen DowdLast Christmas, Maureen Down printed a guest column for her at the New York Times, from a close friend, Father Kevin, a priest who seems to work wonders with the dying and the suffering—even though he’s honest about his own human reluctance to enter into the suffering of others. She said that once Father Kevin visited her unconscious brother in the hospital and held his hand. Doctors noticed that her brother’s blood pressure dropped, in reaction to the priest’s touch.

At her request, he wrote a remarkable meditation on suffering and love, and it turns on the vast distinction between intellectual questioning and spiritual commitment. For Father Kevin, questions about the meaning of evil, the search for explanations surrounding what appears to be the gratuitous and random misfortune and death only obscures the opportunity these ordeals present for a kind of inner release from selfishness. Let me put that in simple terms. Father Kevin says that if you can willingly be available, emotionally, to people who are in pain, you can find freedom from your own selfish preoccupations and psychological isolation. The search for “answers” to human suffering only obscure the opportunity it offers for unselfish love—and that kind of love is a gift both for the sufferer and the one who offers it. Simone Weil, a French Catholic philosopher, suggested that affliction can be a path toward freedom from the self and an awakening of empathy for others. In other words, through suffering, you can let go of everything insubstantial in life and discover a compassion that reorders everything in your system of values. Father Kevin’s thoughts tend in the same direction:

The God of unconditional love domes to us in human form. God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. I really do believe God enters the world through us. We are human and mortal. We suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not. Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence.

This pretty nearly sums up my own understand of God. We bring God, and love, into the world through our behavior, not by praying for God to intervene in some other way than through our own actions. The answer to why there is suffering in the world, why the innocent are cut down by a gunman, why someone blameless dies young of cancer—the answer to that question is to quit asking why and start showing compassion to anyone who suffers as a result of these mysteries. If the most precious force in human life is love, the truth is that suffering doesn’t extinguish or lessen it, but can simply refine and strengthen it. But only if each of us chooses to make it so. We suffer so that we can love more perfectly. That’s the only acceptable answer to such questions and you don’t answer them with your head, but with your heart.