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To Suffer Is to Act: Lessons on Suffering from Literature

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

“They know and do not know that action is suffering / And suffering is action.” (Thomas the Archbishop, from T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral)

Professor of Medical Humanities UC-Berkeley-UCSF / Author
April 25, 2016

“We wait,” chant the women who stand at the door of Canterbury Cathedral, sensing a coming sorrow but unable either to name or to prevent it: “For us the poor there is no action, / But only to wait and to witness.”

Suffering is Action: The Cry of the Poor in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

In Murder in the Cathedral, the resonant play from which these lines are taken, T.S. Eliot reclaims the Jacobean meaning of “suffering” for contemporary use—to allow, to bear and bear with, to accept—and, less obviously, to know. The awareness articulated by the women who speak as a prophetic chorus suggests that their suffering is deepened by a profound grasp (though perhaps not fully rational or even fully conscious) of the historical moment, and of the complex web of political forces in which they are implicated along with actors of more public account and heroic proportions. As Thomas the Archbishop says of them,

“They know and do not know that action is suffering / And suffering is action.”

The women give voice to a universal cry of the poor:

“What tribulation / With which we are not already familiar?”

They are powerless to prevent or change what is to come, but powerful in speaking forth their collective knowing. There is both prophecy and protest in their foreboding. In giving words to a shared inchoate fear they forewarn listeners of a crisis that will eventuate in murder, martyrdom, and renewal.

To Suffer Is to Let

Most of us who grew up with the King James Bible learned the antique form of the verse, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Let them come, we would say. Both “suffer” and “let” are curious verbs in the way they betoken both passivity and action: Not only were the disciples to put up with the children’s intrusions, but to invite them, bring them into the inner circle. “Let it happen” is not so very far from “Make it happen,” if we consider the mysterious subjunctive potency of the word in God’s first command, “Let there be light.”

“‘Let it happen’ is not so very far from ‘Make it happen,’ if we consider the mysterious subjunctive potency of the word in God’s first command, ‘Let there be light.'”

Suffering, in this sense of a fully volitional allowing, is active and prophetic. It steps wholly into the moment with a clarity of acceptance and embrace that transforms the inevitable and welcomes it. Consider the calm, sure reckoning with death in Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come.” A series of assents, each beginning with a clear and forceful “Let,” cascades through the poem, culminating in a strong claim before the final submission to “evening” and, one may imagine, death:

“God will not leave us comfortless, so / Let evening come.”

In a similar vein, the poems in Mary Bradish O’Connor’s Say Yes, Quickly chronicle dark months of treatment for terminal ovarian cancer. The author considers her illness as a sign of her times, starting with memories of a childhood in suburbs where streets were sprayed with DDT. The title betokens an urgency, not to find a cure, nor to die, nor to avoid pain, but an urgent awareness of necessity, to which “Yes” is the answer that will reframe months of suffering and reclaim them, coming to terms with life in an entirely new way. Suffering, in these poems, is anything but passive, or even resigned. It is a rigorous, vigorous exploration of limits that becomes paradoxically liberating. It is a task, an assignment, a learning, and an offering.

Pain is Pain: “The Full Look at the Worst”

An aesthetic temptation and moral danger besets such testimonies to personal suffering, undertaken and borne with dignity and grace. It is easy to be too glib about the wisdom or benefit suffering confers. The final lines of Randall Jarrell’s “90 North” are a helpful reminder to those too quick to spiritualize physical or mental suffering:

“Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom. It is pain.”

This bleak refusal to treat pain as either means or metaphor is salutary, especially for those inclined to avoid what Thomas Hardy called the “full look at the worst” that is prerequisite to healing or resolution.

“Suffering, she reminds us, does not necessarily ennoble people. It can. But it makes many bitter, selfish, and small.”

Ruth Kluger, a Holocaust survivor whose autobiography, Still Alive, resists valorization of her own and others’ suffering, insists that the suffering that took place in Auschwitz and other death camps must not be made “tragic,” nor the victims’ sufferings necessarily “heroic,” though many were. The arbitrary brutality, the meaningless cruelty, the pathological sadism and ruthless excesses of self-preservation that characterized behaviors of both victims and perpetrators, she maintains, must not be seen as part of some overarching, redemptive historical lesson, or as a sacrifice that partakes of the sacred. Though stories abound of authentic, often Christ-like self-sacrifice, reconstruction of the genocide as “tragic” would, she argues, come dangerously close to legitimation. Suffering, she reminds us, does not necessarily ennoble people. It can. But it makes many bitter, selfish, and small.

To Suffer Is to Act: Learning Well From Suffering

If this is true, then how are we to recognize and honor the redemptive dimension of suffering? And how do we prepare ourselves for such sufferings as may befall us—to suffer when we are called to do so, not only willingly, but wisely, and to allow that suffering to be a teacher? Perhaps the only way is to bear willing witness to our and others’ suffering, to honor the complexities of sorrow, to listen to the language writers wring from pain and loss, and to find language that keeps us humble before the metaphysical mystery to which all suffering points.

Inhabiting Her Tears: The Witness of William Faulkner’s Dilsey

William Faulkner attempted to bear such witness in his memorable portrait of Dilsey, longsuffering servant to the deeply dysfunctional Compson household, in the final chapter of The Sound and the Fury. As a white man, Faulkner’s access to the suffering of an old black woman, servant to an embittered, disintegrating, and thankless family, was, he knew, limited. But he gives us her tears. As she listens on her hard-won Sabbath rest to Reverend Sheegog’s Easter sermon, what she has suffered emerges in the safe space of a worshiping community where she can lay her burden down. As readers, we are called to humility as we are invited to imagine her pain. Though it is public, it is as utterly personal as the wracked and worn body that sags beneath the purple Easter garb in which she appears, iconic and ”indomitable” in the opening paragraphs of the chapter. Dilsey’s suffering signifies, in the fullest sense of that word—bringing forth meaning in the story she inhabits. For her to suffer is to act, and indeed, her suffering seems to be the only redemptive action in this bleak tale of spiritual squalor.

Love It Hard: The Scars of Toni Morrison’s Sethe

Similarly, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Sethe, a former slave, carries in her own scarred body a share in the suffering of a people not yet free. In her escape from slavery, Sethe has faced down death and violation at great risk and cost. In killing her own child to prevent her falling into the hands of white men, she embarks on a personal descent into hell. In the “chokecherry tree” on her back—a web of scars from the beatings she sustained—she literally bears stripes that, though they are not Christ’s, point to suffering of a kind that, matured by endurance and transformed by testimony and prayer can fuel a collective determination to challenge and disempower violence and inhumanity.

“As readers, we are called to humility as we are invited to imagine her pain.”

The complexity of Sethe’s moral situation as murderer and victim offers another way of understanding that “to act is to suffer, and suffering is action.” She grows into her role as representative of a new, liberated generation, under the tutelage of Baby Suggs, a prophetic figure equal in stature to Dilsey. The scene in which Baby Suggs calls together the men and women of her community, many of them fugitive slaves, and commands them first to recognize themselves as beings capable of loving and being loved, then, in each other’s presence, to cry, laugh, and finally dance, is one of the most remarkable figurings of suffering and action in twentieth-century literature. Without apology she calls upon those who suffer to act on their own and each other’s behalf:

‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!’ (Morrison, 88)

Liturgically, and with a power born of deep reflection on her own suffering, she leads her people through sorrow into recognition, release, and finally joy. First they weep—and even their weeping must be learned. It is the initial stage of reinvigoration that culminates in going forth, back into a hostile world, more equipped to embrace their difficult lives and begin the long work of preparing for transformation.

Waiting in Faith

Action rooted in suffering is the costliest kind. To allow pain to be forged into prophecy is to collaborate with God to wreak good out of the maelstrom of evil. The transformation is God’s work, not ours. For us, whatever we suffer, whatever suffering we witness, the work is to consent to awareness, to stay awake in the dark, to testify, encourage, wait, and be watchful for those moments when our own or others’ suffering may be turned to divine purposes we couldn’t anticipate, whose magnitude we cannot measure.