James Chastek has some, as ever, pithy things to say about The Structure of Suffering. Here are a couple of extracts.
1.) Numinous insight. The one who suffers is seen as speaking with authority, even prophetically. It’s not mere politeness that keeps us from contradicting or arguing with him, but a sense that he’s in a peculiar position to understand something. The examples here are almost too numerous for any list to do justice to: the holocaust narratives of Viktor Frankl and Elie Wiesel; the suffering speaker of the 21st Psalm; Job; St. Therese composing her autobiography while dying of tuberculosis; the forcefulness of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda; and others too obvious to mention.
2.) A kind of return to infancy. Suffering makes everyone want to mother you. You are pitied, doted on, taken far more seriously than you very would be taken in normal circumstances.
I wonder how chronic suffering would modify his remarks.
I’m not sure that the chronically ill person gets to be regarded as heroiic or prophetic in the same way as those with terminal illness. Our illnesses lack the drama, the urgency, the mystery. In truth, of course, most terminal illnesses lack this too in reality – the day to day truth of the thing is just as grim.
But the day to day truth of chronic illness can be too familiar, too mundane, too long-lasting, to have the dramatic flashes that might be regarded as prophetic.
That said, if you take prophetic witness as, at least in part, speaking truth to power, then chronic illness does precisely that. In the midst of a world that tries to tell us that you get what you deserve, all things can be conquered, suffering avoided, those with chronic illnesses bear witness to a truth that we are not what we do, what we achieve, what we earn. We are precious simply because we are.
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