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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Suffering Proves the Soul. How Do You Measure Up?

Soldier in a foxhole. Source.

You have friends who are so scrupulously politically correct that their shit glows with a white magnesium flame and it smells of bleach. These friends were the very first to support Obama. They drive a Prius and their TV sets are programmed to disable transmissions from FOX news.

But if push came to shove, would these Politically Correct, publicly virtuous bleeding hearts be there for you? If you needed a loan, a ride, someone to hold your hand, would these PC superheroes show up and do the necessary or would they turn tail and run for the hills?

How do you know?


Talk to an old soldier, a combat veteran. They all say the same thing: "You never know who you can trust in a foxhole."

These old soldiers will tell you: some men swagger, use judo moves to pick up cafeteria trays, clean their teeth with deer-skinning knives. You'd think that these Chuck Norris wanna-bes would be the ones you could rely on in a foxhole. Once the enemy fire started, these macho warriors would not be the ones to forget the most fundamental basics of military training, like how to pull the pin on a grenade. They would not break down and cry for mommy.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Other guys you don't even notice. They are as slim as shadows and as quiet as summer leaves. Their back pockets bulge with paperback books. They exhibit zero enthusiasm for the paraphernalia of war. If they talk at all, it's about what they'll do once it's all over and they can return to civilian life. You'd never want to be stuck in a foxhole with these wimps.

Maybe. Maybe not.


Yes, the foxhole is a big fat metaphor.

Life will throw you a curve. One day you are dancing, falling in love, enjoying the sunshine. The next day you get a cancer diagnosis, you are in a car wreck, you lose your job or you're accused of a crime.

The people who surrounded you the day you were dancing and laughing will be different from the people who surround you the day after your bad news.

Think you can predict, now, while things are good, who would stick by you after the shelling starts?

Maybe. Maybe not.


My provisional list of Foxhole Rules:

1.) You are going to be in a lot of foxholes: illness, financial setbacks, emotional crises, disappointments, days when, no matter how hard you look, you can't find the remote.

2.) You never know who you can depend on in a foxhole until you are in a foxhole.

3.) People you thought were your best friend forever will let you down. Rather than take names, you best learn, forgive, and move on. Remember the foxholes where you peed your own pants rather than be a hero; remember the times you let someone else down – and forgive yourself, learn and move on.

4.) Exactly because you don't know in advance whom you can rely on in a foxhole, you can't know who, of the people you see right now, is a hero. You are surrounded by foxhole heroes you do not recognize. The person who literally saved someone else's life, the person who donated a kidney, the person who stayed up all night with a broken-hearted stranger met in a bus depot, the person who loaned an unemployed parent a thousand bucks – you are surrounded by these people, and you do not recognize them.


Why does God allow suffering? I offered my best answer to that question in "Save Send Delete." I was promoting this just-published book this summer when I received a cancer diagnosis. I am now learning even more about suffering.

Suffering doesn't affect only the person who is suffering. Suffering affects others around that person.

I've watched a lot of people wrestle with cancer. I know how cancer reduces victims to helplessness.

I'm alone. No family. Few friends. No car. Little money. I live low-rent in a broken city, where I can't even rely on mail delivery, police protection from gang violence or garbage pick-up, never mind humanitarian social services.

How would I get through even the initial battery of tests – MRI, cat scan, x-rays, sonogram? The hospital I need to go to is inaccessible via public transport. Never mind days when I would not be able to walk from bed to bath.

I'm in a foxhole.

My suffering suddenly becomes a test for everyone I know. Will you offer a ride, bring groceries, say something compassionate?

Maybe this is part of why God allows suffering: not just so that the person who is suffering can grow, but so that those around the person who is suffering are offered a chance for growth.

Which one of these folks could I rely on:

The devout, church-going Catholics, who swear fealty, out loud, every Sunday, to service and compassion?

The academic hipsters, who announce at every wine-and-cheese how much more enlightened they are than the unworthy masses?

The artists, who insist that their unconventional life-path devoted to beauty, not filthy money, elevates their souls?

The suburbanites who work hard and play by the rules?

The leftwing Democrats who are certain that they have the formula to save the world?

The rightwing Republicans who are certain that they have the formula to save the world?

Want to guess?


Some people really did turn and run. Who?

People who had previously insisted that they loved me and that we were friends forever and ever. People I had known for years. People whose house I had slept at. People with whom I had celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays. People whose hands I held when they faced life crises. People who publicly, loudly and repeatedly proclaim how much more righteous and compassionate they are than other people, who are shocked, shocked by other people's callous insensitivity and selfishness and hypocrisy.

I said, "I just found out I have cancer" and they disappeared as if they were cartoon characters and could erase themselves from my life and I from theirs, leaving no trace.

Do you think I'm inviting you to judge and condemn these disappeared ones?

I'm not.

Remember the foxhole rules: life is going to throw you a lot of foxholes, learn, forgive, remember.

Every one of the people who disappeared after I got cancer was someone who had been supportive of me in some other foxhole.

One of the people who disappeared – let's call her M. M is a very artistic, creative person.

This may sound silly to you. It's not silly to me.

I tell this story in "Save Send Delete."

One night I was very sad because I had watched a movie that ended badly. Ridiculous, I know.

I phoned M and she, using her artistic skills, rewove the entire movie for me. As bewitching as Scheherazade, she used her voice and her breath, in that phone call, to soothe me, but also to enchant me.

I love and value her powers of enchantment.

I'm sorry she can't be my friend now.

I forgive because I've let people down, too.

And I'm moving on. No looking back.


So here's my answer to the question I asked above. Of the groups of people I named, the right-wingers, the left-wingers, the Christians, the atheists, the this, the that.

Who let me down after I found out I had cancer? Who offered real support?

Some leftwing people have been helpful. Some have disappeared.

Some rightwing people have been helpful. Some have disappeared.

Some Christians have been helpful. Some have disappeared.

Some Atheists have been helpful. Some have disappeared.

Some people who stand up in public and beat their chests about righteousness and circulate petitions – some are helpful. Some disappear.

Some … but you get the idea.

Words and ideology do not matter. In a foxhole, actions matter. A person's substance matters. Only suffering proves that substance.

Like the old soldiers say, you can't predict whom you can rely on in a foxhole.


With one exception.

This is hard for me to say. I'm saying it because it's true, and it's worth thinking about.

With this new foxhole, as with every other foxhole, Catholic priests have let me down. They've been dismissive, passive, self-protective, trivializing, dense, arrogant, lacking in compassion, utterly clueless about how the real world works, or inaccessible.

I hope at some point we Catholics will take a look at our priesthood and consider changes we might make that might invite a different kind of person to become a Catholic priest.


I've talked here about how helpful Robin Schaffer has been to "Save Send Delete."

Perhaps people conclude that as kids, Robin and I slept over each other's houses, and read romance novels together by flashlight under the sheets, and ate raw cookie dough together, brushed each other's hair, applied polish to each other's toenails.

Not so.

Robin and I met as adults. We were working on the same campus. We spent very little time together, but we did like each other and we hung out.

I left to go to grad school. Robin and I fell out of touch. I moved back to New Jersey several years ago, googled Robin, and we got back in touch again.

We're very different people.

Example: I think the 1950, black-and-white, Bette Davis film "All About Eve" is one of the top ten films ever made. I recommended it to Robin. She didn't care for it.


Another example: Obama. Our feelings about Obama are the opposite of each other's.

So. There you have it. Robin and I are very different people, and though we are friends, we don't have a long, deep history.

This is not the person you would predict to be my best ally in a foxhole.

Bette Davis (r.) as Margo Channing in the 1950 film "All about Eve." Robin and I disagree about her.

We disagree about this guy, as well. 
Robin did three things that stand out:

1.) Robin sat with me.

I am an adjunct professor. I make money, but just enough to live hand-to-mouth. I teach – vital work – but adjunct professors are not valued enough by society to have health insurance. In a year when I made $6,000 as an adjunct professor, St. Joseph's hospital turned me down for charity care. Not poor enough. "We have people coming in with no income or assets whatsoever!" Of course that's not true, and everyone knows it. The people getting charity care at St. Joe's are wise enough to work under the table. Adjunct professors don't have that luxury, so St. Joe's turns us away. And St. Joe's is a Catholic institution.

Getting a cancer diagnosis and devoting a week after that diagnosis to trying to find a doctor to treat me was a slice of hell.

I did not visit that hell alone.

Robin was with me.

2.) Robin drove me.

I found a hospital to treat me, one not accessible via public transportation. Robin drove me there and back more times than I care to count.

3.) Robin took me in.

Nurses warned: after surgery, you cannot go home alone. I needed a bedroom and a bathroom and a pair of hands ready, in reserve, if I could not navigate the path between. Robin provided. She worked from home and stayed nearby so I would not be alone.


Pretty simple, no? As it happens, I did not require Robin to wipe my ass, or to drain my catheter, or to do any of that other icky stuff. I didn't break down and cry, didn't make demands, didn't make noise. I was determined to be an inconspicuous house guest, and I think I was. All until the last day when I yelled at Robin for vacuuming a floor I had previously swept, but, hey.

I sometimes wish I could say this to the people who are afraid to give, afraid to get involved: "It's much easier than you think, and it actually feels good."

Me? I want to save the world from environmental doom. I cannot do so. I do what I can do. I write checks to nature organizations: The Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy. For me, these checks are a lot of money, and I have to sacrifice some things to write these checks. Guess what? That little moment of sacrifice to do a good thing feels better than spending that money on presents for myself.

People are afraid to give because they are afraid that giving will be too much – someone will ask them for a kidney, a home loan.

Maybe not. Maybe you'll just have to sit next to someone who's gotten some really bad news, or give that person a ride, or let that person sleep under your roof for a week. And maybe doing that will feel better than spending that week in glorious isolation.


Otto Gross visited and transported and shopped and sent caring emails at key moments. Antoinette brought medication. Chris drove. Stephen sent a lovely email the morning of surgery: "Waiting to," he wrote "read the next great novel from one of my favorite authors. Speedy recovery!" A group of friends did something really kind I can't describe here – but stay tuned. If the storm passes, there will be a blog post about their kindness someday, too. Claire lit a candle and sent me a photo of the candle. A blessed group of people prayed. The Polish town of Markowa will offer a mass.

Not their own suffering, but someone else's, has taught these people, for a fact, this about themselves: I am someone who can be relied on in a foxhole. And it feels good to be that person.


I actually did save somebody's life once. Her name was Andrea Link and it was while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. Funny – I wanted to save Third World children. I ended up saving an American woman.

At other times, I have not been someone you could rely on in a foxhole. I learned, thereby, to show compassion to others who drop the ball. I forgive myself and others. I move on.


In my next blog post I will relate the question of suffering, and foxholes, and the folks who have been kind to me, to the essay "Ecce Homo" by Xavier Le Pichon, the groundbreaking scientist and devout Catholic.
Who shares your foxhole? Can you rely on him? How do you know? 


  1. A reader who prefers to remain anonymous sent in the following comment:

    Danusha, a response to your reflections: I often want to help friends in trouble. At the same time I am an often-proven idiotka about emotional intelligence, and often so caught up in the undertow of my own health crises. Often I honestly feel like the best or only thing I can offer another person is to shut the f*ck up already and make myself scarce. However, in practical effect, at the end of the day, it still adds up to inattention, rejection, abandonment of people at precisely the times they don't need it.

  2. From Magdalena Paƛnikowska

    It's true we never know who the foxhole hero will be. But with serious illness, there is an additional factor: people might have had to face it before (e.g. in the family) and their reactions might be completely irrational, an urge to run and hide because it is so painful for them to see a friend going through it; they know (or think they know) that they wouldn't be able to be strong enough. They might think their weakness would drag the ill friend even lower, so they do the easiest and most difficult thing of all. They hide. I hope all your friend come out of hiding soon, Danusha :-)

  3. I think it is sometimes our own fear that makes us draw back. Not fear of contagion, but social fear: no one taught me what to do in this situation. It's the real heroes who just roll up their sleeves and get on with what needs doing, and these, I think, are few and far between. I'm glad you have found some. You deserve good friends.

  4. Bless Robin. From Sue Pesznecker.