Our October ministry theme is suffering. I admit it’s not the most inviting theme. Nor is it the most uplifting, inspiring or motivating theme. Suffering. Do we have to talk about it?
But we know there is immense suffering in the world. We know all human beings suffer at times through the course of our living. We know animals and other non-human creatures suffer. We hear it spoken aloud virtually every Sunday morning in our ritual of sharing joys and concerns. We know part of being alive is suffering. So we would be remiss—even foolish—not to reflect on the meaning of suffering in our lives, or to focus only on the more positive aspects of the human experience. If part of being alive is suffering, then we need to talk about it. We owe it to ourselves to prepare for the times when we and those we love will suffer.
Some suffering is unavoidable, and nobody’s fault. Sometimes we get sick. Sometimes the hurricane or the fire or the earthquake strikes where we are. Our initial response might be “why me?” but the answers aren’t very satisfying. Luck of the draw? Accident? Wrong place at the wrong time? Genetics? Natural disaster? Certainly, as Buddhism asserts, our suffering stems from our attachments. We are attached in so many ways to things, people, outcomes and desires. The deeper our attachments, the more profound our suffering. Practices that enables us to decrease the strength of our attachments reduce the power of suffering in our lives. Even so, there is no way to prevent pain 100%. We can change our relationship to pain and perhaps reduce its intensity, but nobody gets out of this life without pain. Given this, my hope and prayer for us—and for everyone—is that nobody suffers alone.
In those times when you suffer, you have an open invitation to reach out to me and the UUS:E congregation for love and support. And when others are suffering, I urge you to respond with love and support. Let’s not turn away. The spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.” I take these words to heart.
Of course, some suffering is avoidable. Some suffering isn’t a result of accidents or bad luck or genetics, but is rather created by human beings out of greed, hatred and fear. The suffering that comes from poverty is, in fact, avoidable. The suffering that comes as a result of war is avoidable. The suffering that comes as a result of systems of injustice is avoidable. But avoiding such suffering, we know, takes enormous effort on the part of people who envision a more just and loving world. I feel very strongly that our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to make such efforts—that we are called to spend our lives working to reduce the avoidable suffering that arises from human greed, hatred and fear. This is why we work for environmental justice. This is why we are supporting the resettlement of refugees from war-zones. This is why we support the Black Lives Matter movement. There is too much avoidable suffering in the world, and we are called to respond.
There will always be suffering. Let us be people who respond with our presence and compassion when suffering is unavoidable. And when it is avoidable, let us be people who challenge and transform it!