The Mutuality of Suffering, or When One Hurts, We all Hurt


Life takes on a very different light when seen through the prism of others’ suffering. I was in Cancun, Mexico when the earthquake shook Haiti. I remember sitting on the couch in a beautiful suite, looking out over the expanse of water that stretched through our windows and holding the tension of wealthy and poor, have and have not, comfort and suffering in my own heart.

I was surrounded by comfort, but I was sitting there, aching.

My reading and prayer then took me to 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. That day I couldn’t help but read this text in the context of the people of the world—this world that God so loves—and I couldn’t help but feel our world as one big body.

Haiti is fresh on our hearts, but it’s not the only place from which the cries rise up. So as my heart aches with every cry that rises up from the earth, I know suffering does not happen in a vacuum. It is impossible to confine suffering to a distant corner of the world.

I am reminded of the mutuality of suffering and Martin Luther King’s quote on justice. So, with some apologies to Dr. King:
Suffering anywhere is a threat to Comfort everywhere. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

My reading of 1 Corinthians 12 then inspired this:

    Now the world is not made up of one country, but of many.
    If Haiti should say, “Because I am not wealthy, I do not belong to the world,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the world.
    And if South Africa should say, “Because I have 1.4 million AIDS orphans, I am too much of a burden and I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.

    If the whole world were the United States, where would our diversity be? If the whole body were one country, where would the beauty be? But in fact we have been arranged into many countries, every one of them, just as important as the other. If we were all the same, what would the world be? As it is, there are many countries, but one world.
    Canada cannot say to Afghanistan, “I don’t need you!” And the United Kingdom cannot say to Burundi, “I don’t need you!”

    On the contrary, those parts of the world that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.

    “… but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”

    If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

    Now we are the world, and everyone is a part of it.

(I’d be curious to know how much my creative license ruffles theological feathers.)

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that I believe, even if I didn’t cause or inflict direct suffering on the earth, when suffering and injustice exist at all, we are all affected. I may not know it sitting here in my comfy chair at Starbucks today, but it’s here with me. And we may only feel the consequences down the years.

Question: What are your thoughts on the mutuality of suffering?

  • Tina

    India is my Haiti. Every time I visit, I am completely unraveled and emotional. The first thing that hits you is the pungent smell of urine. A minute into driving out of the Bombay (now called Mumbai) airport you hit one of the largest slums in the world (same one that inspired the movie Slumdog millionaire). Here is our family driving in an air conditioned car, with luggage bursting at the seams with presents for family and friends. While on the outside, men and women go about their lives in a very different reality, the slums.

    Kids are picking up garbage from the gutters. Pigs, cows and dogs everywhere. And flies, so many flies. Makeshift house with tarps and sticks. People pooing on the street. You know you live a different life when people don’t even have the comfort/luxury of excreting in private. And you feel pain. I usually wonder why I was born on this side of the fence. On this side of comfort. India invades the heart of the hardest person. You can’t be there and be apathetic. Not feel.

    It usually triggers prayer that flows like a dam bursting open for days. I leave feeling grateful for my life, for safety, security, meals and shelter. And feeling a heaviness for abandoning my brothers and sisters. I carry them in my heart. We are ‘tied (together) in a singe garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’

  • Jimmy

    I would think that the majority of people do their best to block out the suffering of others.
    And even those who seek to meld their awareness with the suffering of others (however well intended) are still to some extent on the outside looking in. There is a world of difference between ‘Being’ and sympathising with.
    But having and seeking to nurture a feeling for the suffering of others is something I believe that God would expect from us. I do feel for people but it’s so frustrating when there is so little I can do.
    Your 1 Cor 12 is a banquet of food for thought.