Bearing the world’s suffering
by Glen Doss, Major –
“Happy are men who yet before they are killed can let their veins run cold,” penned the World War I poet, Wilfrid Owen.
A Vietnam War veteran, I understand exactly what Owen meant: if you have no God to whom to turn, it is only by numbing the emotions that one can tolerate the horror of war. An atheist back then, I experienced a growing awareness that my feelings were deadened so that my legs would go where they should and my hands do what needed to be done—what must be done! We soldiers and airmen refused to acknowledge our emotions, for there was no time to mourn—the demands of those still living required our full attention. (And we were glad to bury our feelings, for the very prospect of acknowledging them terrified us immensely!).
“It is frequently said that to bear this world, we must become toughened, callous, hard,” observed the Quaker missionary, Thomas Kelly. “The sadness of the city-evils, the blighted lives we see, the injustices, the pains and tears! Without a protective covering of indifference, it seems rational to say, we cannot endure the world.” He adds: “Were one not assisted one could not bear it” (The Sanctuary of the Soul).
A two-edged sword haunted me during the twenty years I traversed the globe in the Armed Forces—one edge was the breadth of suffering I encountered, the other a sense of helplessness to do anything about it.
After my Vietnam tour I went on assignment as a journalist to Ethiopia. Outside a makeshift hospital in Asmara, I came upon a column of people stretching as far as the eye could see. Listless youths, as well as toothless, lame, emaciated adults—some cradling bloated, half-starved babies in their arms—waited patiently for cursory medical care. Some were laid out on cots, flies swarming about them. Suddenly a young woman dashed from the waiting line. Leaning back against a rock, a blanket clutched tightly in her arms, she softly wept. Concerned, I approached her. Gasping back sobs, she peered directly into my eyes, her face glistening from the tears. Still staring, she slowly unfolded the blanket, revealing a lifeless infant in her arms. Its bloated, blue body sent shock waves through me! I will never forget the look of hopelessness in that young mother’s face!
At 38 I experienced what some might call a nervous breakdown. I recall telling a counselor of my recurring “vision” of two cities in the sky, mounted far above my head, yet within my line of sight. As my perception telescoped in and out, I saw the cities’ inhabitants close up, then at a distance.
The residents of one city suffered immensely. Somehow empathetically I sensed their distress. In the other city, just across the divide, people partied away in complete abandon, apparently oblivious of the plight of the others—out of sight, out of mind! I witnessed both populations, yet remained powerless to make a difference! I wrung my hands! My empathy for the sufferers, along with my helplessness in the face of it all, was driving me mad!
But when I accepted Christ a year later, everything changed—it was no longer I alone against the evil and sorrow in the world; rather it was God and I together—a winning combination! “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us,” boasted Paul (Rom 8:37 NIV).
“It is given to us to see the world’s suffering, throughout, and bear it, Godlike, upon our shoulders, and suffer… and rejoice with all things and all people,” explained Kelly. “There is a point of vision from which one can look through sorrow and pain and still see the face of the Eternal Lover.
“Overburdened men and women, blighted lives, slaveries in all their modern forms, nations and institutions in insane self-destruction, and little children hoping for warmth and love and opportunity [are all laid upon us]… Pain inflicted on them becomes pain inflicted on ourselves. Were the experience not also an experience suffused with radiant peace and power and victory, as well as tragedy, it would be unbearable.”