We are in a strange season. And the strangeness has largely to do with the “we-ness” of it.
There are very few things capable of uniting the whole world in a shared experience. Such far reaching and universally impactful events are rare—rarer still are those that bind us together in shared confusion and sorrow so novel, intense, and protracted that it becomes a transformative experience.
As we face the unprecedented reality of a global pandemic, it is as if the whole human family is aboard a ship, stranded at sea with no sense of direction nor any indication of when it all might end—or how. It is strange to be “all in it together.”
Most experiences of suffering give precisely the opposite impression—they are profoundly isolating. We are in pain while others are happy and oblivious. Even our caregivers and confidants remain to some degree outside our suffering, unable to descend the long ladder into the cave of our hearts and feel the waves of the underground sea as they rage within us.
We are almost always frustrated in our attempts to fully comprehend another’s experience or communicate our own. No one else can think with my brain, feel with my heart, or cry my tears. No one else is privy to the variations of emotion that stir within me, nor can anyone know what my agony feels like, how it looks and sounds inside my head and my heart and my stomach.
The wonder and horror of individuality is that even the strongest love cannot unite the consciousnesses of two people. When we are suffering, longing to be fully known in our unique pain, this reality can make us feel irredeemably alone.
But the pandemic is universal.
Unlike any other time in history, the entire world is experiencing the same suffering (though undoubtedly to different degrees) at the same time. The same cloud of loss and uncertainty hangs over us all. Countless families have lost loved ones as well as jobs. All have experienced the loss of freedom, community, and activity. All have had to abandon some special hope or habit—or been forced to postpone it for an indeterminate amount of time.
Our Facebook pages, newspapers, and Zoom chats are flooded with people affected by—and talking about—the virus. United in this primary preoccupation, we no longer feel like a mere collection of individuals bearing separate burdens. There is a deep and unavoidable sense that the world is suffering.
Remarkably, the pandemic reveals our connectedness—and, specifically, our connectedness in suffering. As it is impossible at times to avoid the reality of our isolation, it is impossible now to avoid the equally stark reality of our interconnectedness. We are hyper-aware of every minute interaction with others, knowing how easily we could endanger our neighbors or be harmed ourselves.
There is a familial unity in our shared plight. Around my neighborhood, families and individuals out for a stroll give each other a wide berth while exchanging familiar smiles and commiserations. Suddenly empathy is the most natural thing in the world. We no longer have to put forth effort to enter into another’s experience because each of us is having, in many ways, the same experience. It is remarkable that precisely in our isolation—in this time of shelter-in-place orders and social distancing—we realize our connectedness more deeply than ever.
Unity in Suffering
Whether we realized it or not, this unity in suffering has always existed. Even when our sufferings are individual and various, even when they feel profoundly isolating, the truth remains: We all suffer, and we are all fundamentally suffering the same thing. We all bear the yawning ache of being human, of being made for union yet forced to endure disunion, made for the infinite yet forced to live in time, made for the transcendent yet forced to live among partial goods, among lies and ugliness. We all feel at times the ache of loneliness and the sting of disappointment. We all suffer the pandemic of sin.
In cheerier times, this soul-disease often remains unacknowledged, unexplored, even unfelt, masked by activity. So often, when we hear of truly horrific suffering, we hold ourselves unconsciously aloof. Though we may feel deep pity, we fail to reckon with the very real possibility that, but for happenstance, but for God’s grace, it could have been me. It could still be me. Our current circumstances make it impossible not to imagine it. We are aware of this fact constantly—aware that the virus could strike at any moment. We no longer have to strive to put ourselves in the shoes of the sick and suffering. From all sides, the truth bombards us: I am not immune.
While many of us have been reawakened to our vulnerability during the pandemic, others of us, perhaps more accustomed to pain, may need to rediscover the fact that others share our brokenness. We need the comfort, the relief, of knowing we are not alone. Whatever our situation, the pandemic helps us see the purpose of our suffering.
United to the Cross
Catholics are taught to unite our suffering to the cross of Christ that it might have redemptive value. Often, though, this response becomes rote; we fail to grasp the viscerality of what we are doing.
But when we remember, as it is now so easy to remember, that the world is suffering, we can use our crosses—past trauma, current hurts, whatever it may be—to venture outside of ourselves and find solidarity with the rest of suffering humanity. We can allow our individual suffering to become a bond between us and the rest of the world.
By turning to the crucified Christ, in whom the suffering of all humanity is united, we can allow the mortifications that wound our hearts to connect us spiritually and imaginatively to our wounded brethren, however removed our experiences may seem from theirs. If we allow it, pain can instruct our imaginations. The wound of divorce can move us to compassion for those who are starving. The burden of depression can inspire humble love for the dying. Grief for a lost love can inspire us to pray for those who are enduring abuse.
As we confront the world’s agony and our own miniscule share in it, may we pray for the needy not as distant benefactors but as though we shared a single heart.
For we are connected even more profoundly than public health experts could ever imagine. Our affiliation extends beyond the physical world and into a deeper reality, thick with spiritual forces. At every moment, God is loving the world, holding each speck of dust in being, calling each heart, incorporating all that we do into His perfect plan, and directing all things according to His holy will.
As we slog through quarantine, we cannot know how our lives fit into this picture. We see only empty routine and piecemeal efforts. But each small act of love, when offered to Christ, can reverberate across space and time, unleashing we know not what profusions of grace into the world.