Last week I wrote about how difficult it can be to listen to the suffering of other people. I also suggested some ways we can become better at that.
Here's why this matters: bearing witness to suffering, giving a sense of being understood and accepted, is the first - essential – step towards finding hope.
I’d like to go back a couple of thousand years here, to get some help from the Roman poet Virgil, and his epic poem the Aeneid which describes the travels of Aeneas after the Trojan War.
Stay with me, this will make sense in a minute!
In the first book of the Aeneid, we find Aeneas as a refugee, driven far from his home by the vicious ravages of the Trojan war. He is in Carthage, gazing at a mural in a temple, which depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of many of his friends and countrymen. He is moved to tears, and offers a rousing tribute to his fallen comrades.
In the middle of this, he says: ‘sunt lacrimae rerum’.
Yes I know, your Latin is probably a bit rusty, but don’t worry……
These three words - sunt lacrimae rerum - have been translated as either ‘there are tears for things’, or else ‘there are tears of things’. The first version – tears for things - indicates the burdens we have to bear, the frailty of human existence, the ‘shit life syndrome’ people like Darren (who you met last week) experience. The second version – tears of things- indicates that things feel sorrow for our suffering - that in some sense the universe feels our pain.
But of course it isn’t one or the other. It’s both. Virgil is fully aware of the ambiguity and wishes to us to understand both meanings at the same time.
So does the Irish poet and scholar Seamus Heaney, who translates the phrase as ‘There are tears at the heart of things.’
And this is its richness and power. At that moment when I experience and express compassion for the suffering of the person in the room with me, both senses of sunt lacrimae rerum are simultaneously in play. They can express pain, distress and suffering, knowing that – from me - they find understanding, compassion and safety. Our meeting place has become, momentarily, a sanctuary.
Sometimes bearing witness to a person’s suffering in the face of overwhelming life experiences and difficulties, may be all that is possible, or necessary.
Listening to Darren, behind his angry ranting I hear a lost, lonely, frightened little boy. I want to give him a huge hug and bring him home with me, but I content myself with a friendly smile, a warm handshake, and an agreement to meet again soon.
What’s your experience of bearing witness to suffering?