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“Teacher, I saw an accident yesterday, near our office…it was an old man and a woman. They had been hit by a car….” My student described an incident she had witnessed in her home country of Myanmar. It was a scene I could easily imagine. I had seen similar tragedies and, of course, heard of so many more like this one while living and working abroad. “Teacher, I ran to where they were lying. There were many people standing around, but no one was helping them. Someone had called the ambulance, but they would not come unless someone promised to pay them…I shouted at the people for someone to help them, but no one would do anything. I cried so hard…it hurt in my heart so badly.”
As these words, typed out from halfway around the world, appeared on my screen, I could feel my student’s frustration, her heartbreak for the old couple – poor people from the countryside unexpectedly caught up in an unfortunate incident with no resources, friends or family available to help them. A scene, a situation, repeated innumerable times in countless places.
In another professional lifetime, as a hospice chaplain, I was a direct witness to the mental, physical and spiritual suffering that often accompanies a terminal illness. In my more recent work as a development and peace educator, I have been introduced to the kinds of suffering visited upon entire communities through poverty, lack of education, filthy living conditions, unfair social and political systems…you get the picture. Like my student, I too, at times, felt overwhelmed by the enormity of situations I knew I could do very little about. Being in the presence of intense suffering can cause you to want to withdraw, pull in, retract; it can break your heart.
In recent years, I have wanted to know and to learn how to be with people in situations that I find heart breaking without withdrawing, shutting down or distracting myself from the pain around me. Just as importantly, I have wanted to learn how to “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world”. Easy to do? Not at all! Who can feel joyful or want to stay present and engaged when their heart is hurting and sad, when we’ve been abused? In fact I would be foolish to not give myself some space, to protect myself from allowing further infliction of pain and abuse. Jesus’ heart was continually hurt as he faced and lived amongst the ignorance, poverty, privation, cruelty, greed and division that characterized his time. The Gospel of John 11:35 “Jesus wept,” gives the most terse and poignant evidence of Jesus’ broken heart and of his compassion. And yet, Jesus doesn’t weep with impotence, rather he “sets his face for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) and shows determined compassionate warrior-ship.
For me learning and practicing the idea of participating joyfully in the sorrows of the world is a lifelong vow, challenge, and spiritual experiment I am determined to complete. Noble words, I suppose. Words I need grace to live up to every day. Yet Jesus’ example shows me that I can choose to remain open and present even with my pain right there for all to see; to try all along the way to not close down completely. I can choose to allow my broken heart to become the womb of a deeper compassion – for myself and for my fellow strugglers, each walking his or her own path.
Kambe xikombisa xa Yeso xi ndzi komba leswaku ndzi nga hlawula ku tshama ndzi pfulekile evukoneni bya swivavi vanhu va hlalerile. Ku ringeta endleleni hinkwayo leswaku ndzinga heli matimba hinkwawo. Ndzi nga pfumelela ku tshoveka ka mbilu yanga kuva ku tswariwa ka ntwelavusiwana.
Translation: Hope Translator, Cheryl Ngobeni