The burden of human suffering

Don’t try. You cannot even begin to understand. The “overwhelming burden of human suffering – disease, mutilation, grief, age and death” that Benedict Anderson so aptly described, the inability to come up with a straight answer to the simple yet agonizing question “why him?” are not things that could be grasped vicariously.

For us, however, this was reality. A reality that struck our minds the moment we entered Ward 64 and saw the worn out face of a tall man carrying half a meter long baby fed through a nasal tube. We still didn’t know what we were walking into. A day later it became clear that we were walking into a “new normal”, where nothing is normal. A so-called normal which consists of tubes, syringes, sophisticated scanning machines, poisonous cures (indeed, an oxymoron), physical pain, exhaustion, fear, desperation, well, all that makes up “the overwhelming burden of human suffering”. What is worse, you are not the subject of this new normal. An innocent 11 months old is; you are simply an ill-fated onlooker.

So why are you surprised that I am angry? That I am bitter? Cynical? Even self-destructive? How does one cope with such a brutal reality that is not even his? I make mistakes, yes. Big ones indeed. I hurt people. More than that, I hurt myself.

Am I punishing myself, feeling irrationally guilty – believing that this has happened because of me? Perhaps he is paying the dues that I was supposed to pay? A relic of this or a past life. Or am I too harsh on myself?

Maybe you are too harsh on me (the generic you, lest be misunderstood)? How do you expect me to live like you do? I know that your lives are not easy either; that everybody has issues, some bigger than ours. But what is the point of comparing? This is my “normal”, that is yours. I cope with mine in certain ways; you do with yours in other ways. Some work; some drink; some do drugs; some fall in love; some simply run away. But we all make mistakes. One way or another. And we pay for them. One way or another. We are not exempt from the rules that are binding over others.

Should we pay for them “forever”?

How on earth could you think of accusing me/us of using our predicament to seek redemption? As an excuse? As an explanation even… This is our condition; we live and breathe in it. We cannot survive outside it. We cannot spend a moment without thinking what is going to happen the next day. And you’re wrong, we cannot always cherish the good moments while they last without reflecting on tomorrow.

You want to help? Don’t judge!


(Benedict Anderson in Amsterdam, ca 1958)

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