as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:3 ESV)
I was chatting with a friend a month or two ago about the difficulty I find talking with people who are affected by deep suffering. I know I’m not at all unique in this experience. Our ordinary conversation consists in the transaction of ordinary objects, the giving and receiving of plans for the day, eyes on the weather, stories of times when this or that happening happened to me. It’s easy in our sillier moments to disparage these mundane exchanges, to say we long for deeper, more heartfelt talk, for a discourse of epiphanies. I have nothing to say against these desires other than that they are about as sustainable as my desire to eat cheese for every meal.
Don’t despise the days of small things, or the conversations about small things that such days hold forth. Small talk is the patois of our common existence, a currency that implicitly speaks of the promises that bind us together. If you could flip the words and examine their undersides, I’m sure you would find a King’s head printed. Even a passing nod in an alley way is a moment of recognition by which I come to know myself as present for you. The exchange of small change over a counter is a tacit sharing of our common loves: here is a coin for our love of family; here is one for our love of beauty; here is one because we like to sleep in on weekends.
Much of what is good in this life is ephemeral and apparently trivial, it derives its only substantiality from a word of promise. It has precisely the same reality as a piece of paper money: a fragile little note that circulates trust. It’s hard to talk to a person who’s suffering precisely because the implicit promises that underwrite our daily conversations appear to have been broken in their particular case. In this case, the difficulty we feel about small talk is a pointer toward the threatened failure of our Big Talk.
The presence of the sufferer feels like a silent word of judgement upon the inadequacy of our common life. We were not able to protect this one, we could not ward off the predation of death from him or her. A black light radiates from them relativising and trivialising our common ends and means, unleashing the possibilities of desperation that would unravel our bonds of trust. Whatever the particular character of a sufferer’s affliction, it has this universal character of threat. Is it any wonder that I can’t look him in the eye?
Suffering gives birth to the individual. It is in the context of wrong that a person comes to understand him or herself as set apart from the community. The sufferer marks the frontier beyond which the currency of trust does not circulate. The promises which are foundational to community have not been honoured here and the inevitable impulse toward exclusion is the communal attempt to preserve trust by preserving imagination. It’s hard to look a suffering person in the face when they are a living word to you that speaks of your powerlessness and a universe of broken promises.
What is needed is an affirmation that comes first of all to the sufferer, the word of explicit and personal comfort, but also, without taking our eyes from his face, through the sufferer to all those watching on: to the mourners, the inarticulate friends, the fearful bystanders, and even the perpetrator. An affirmation that the promises upon which we base our daily acts of trust will be honoured, and will be honoured here. Who could say that word? Who could say it and be believed? Who could say it in such a way that we could repeat it, believing it and being believed?
We lament the distressing individualism of our Western societies. What we should mourn is the nature and depth of the wound which gives birth to the individual. And from this understanding we might be able to begin to realise the conditions under which we can hope and pray once again for the birth of the social.
“Rejoice, barren one, who did not give birth; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the forsaken one will be more than the children of the married woman,” says the LORD. “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let your tent curtains be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your ropes, and drive your pegs deep. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will dispossess nations and inhabit the desolate cities. (Isaiah 54:1–3 HCSB)