How would you feel if you knew it might be your last year to live? This is what is facing today’s God and Suffering: Our Story contributor, Newell Hendricks, who is living with metastasized cancer. Newell has a contagious passion for justice, and his writing always challenges my preconceptions. I’m privileged to have his reflections here today:
My brother died last May of a sudden heart attack. He was a builder. He died lifting a log. Everyone said it was good he didn’t suffer.
Yes, he didn’t suffer. But his loved ones did.
He didn’t have to endure being immobilized in a hospital, being dependent on others. That would have been very hard for him. That’s what everyone said. It’s a good thing he didn’t have to go through that.
But his daughters, and wife, and best friend suffered the consequences. Suddenly he was gone. There was a big emptiness where his presence had been. They are still suffering.
This emptiness is the suffering.
When we lose those we have loved – when they die, or move, or we move, or we break up, or are cut off – there is a loss: an emptiness. Part of ourselves is gone.
Our identity is formed in all our interactions with others – our dreams, our plans, our hopes – all intertwined in the lives of others. When they are gone, we lose that part of our identity that was inextricably linked with them.
Not coming back
What we have lost is we
Part of us no longer exists
I am dying of cancer – it is in my bones. My skeleton is breaking down. But for me, the emotional suffering is far more painful than the physical suffering.
I think about the days when I go into my bedroom, close the door, crawl under the covers and cry – the kind of crying that makes unearthly sounds; that wrinkles my face into hideous contortions. That is the suffering I think of. It is not the physical suffering.
There was the time last year when I was getting nightly calls in Spanish from an inmate in one of the detention centers in Florence, Arizona. I had signed a formal statement saying he could stay with me in Boston (knowing he had family in the area where he would stay). But his family got deported.
Would I pay for his bus fare to Boston?
Could he stay with me?
Would I pay his bond?
I was in bed recovering from my second back surgery. My wife would have to fill any promise I made. She was still trying to do everything she used to do, trying to do everything I used to do, and was also my fulltime caregiver. I had to say no.
He called me from prison begging for his life, and I said no.
I cried and cried.
Who was I if I couldn’t respond to the suffering of someone in need?
Not coming back
A part of me, a big part, ceased to exist.
And another time, about five years ago, I was cut off from someone I really cared about. I had invested a big part of my identity in trying to understand her, in being supportive of her, in trying to respond to her needs. Then it all went terribly wrong. My way of being in the world, my usefulness to others, my response to the vulnerable – all this was called into question; and the questions continue.
No way to resolve anything
My core – eaten away
Gone … me.
I cried and cried, and still cry.
Filling this emptiness is the quest for God. The quest for God is the quest for identity – an identity as part of a better world – a world of justice and love in ever increasing circles around oneself, ones family, ones community, the world. It doesn’t matter what language we use – if we quest for this larger identity, we are questing for God.
When we lose part of that identity, we lose part of God. It is a huge loss. It is a double loss – the loss of ourselves and the loss of God.
And there is no authentic way to fill that emptiness except to go back and rebuild through the quest. God is there, always there – in others, in ourselves, in the natural world. Discovering God is the quest and being open to the discovery of God means being open to more loss, more suffering. The cycle continues – it doesn’t end – it continues in our lives and in the lives of those who follow us.
My daughter, Anna, describes this cycle in one of the poems she gave me for my 50th birthday. She was 10 at the time. Later, I set some of these poems to music.
The colors of life
Are the colors of death
The colors of death
Are the colors of birth
The colors of birth
Are the colors on earth
The colors of moving
Are the colors of loving
The colors of loving
Are the colors of giving
The colors of giving
Are the colors of living
Newell Hendricks: I have had a good life. Maybe a counterculture life, maybe a normal life. I have written operas, built houses, been involved with cross-cultural education between Latin America and the U.S., and hardly ever had a job. I have helped raise two wonderful children with my amazing wife. It’s been a good ride. And I go to church. I’ve just published a memoir – NORMAL: Stories from my life. I am still connected to an organization in Nicaragua, Between Cultures, that promotes sister relationships between communities, faith communities, or schools, and to the extent that my cancer doesn’t pull me down, am attempting to share some of what I have learned, or at least tried out at Newellhendricks.wordpress.com
When we lose those we have loved there is a loss: an emptiness. Part of ourselves is gone. – @Newellhendricks
Being open to the discovery of God means being open to more loss, more suffering – @Newellhendricks
God is there, always there- in others, in ourselves, in the natural world – @Newellhendricks’s God & Suffering Story
Over to you:
- Where in your life at the moment are you feeling this kind of emptiness? Where is God for you in it?
- “When we lose part of that identity, we lose part of God.” What do you think about this?