Yesterday I was talking to my therapist about a situation giving me grief right now. He said, “Why do you still let yourself get involved in those stressful conversations?”
I thought for a second, then said, “I guess because I expect justice.”
He smiled. “But you learned last year, when you were reading Dante, that you can’t expect justice in this life.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s hard to let go of, though.”
This morning I’m looking to Charles Featherstone for enlightenment. Here’s material from his new memoir The Love That Matters. In this passage, Charles writes about how discovering Solzhenitsyn in high school helped him cope with a relentlessly abusive environment. He concedes that it’s absurd to compare high school to the gulag, but the lessons of how to think about suffering and injustice still applied. Read on:
First and foremost was the matter of suffering and power. Inflicting suffering was just something that power did. It couldn’t help it. Because of that, there was no inherent meaning to the infliction of suffering. “Why, O Lord?” is a question asked of the silent darkness:
[Quoting Solzhenitsyn] If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm?
But the darkened mind is incapable of embracing these displacements in our universe, and both the most sophisticated and the veriest simpleton among us, drawing on all life’s experience, can gasp out only: ‘Me? What for?’
And this is a question which, though repeated millions and millions of times before, has yet to receive an answer.
Because there is no answer.
Charles says what he learned from reading Solzhenitsyn is that “the only salvation that can come is reached by accepting suffering.” More Charles:
You can accept that your lot, your life, your conditions will be hard and your path long. But you wont’ take from others. You will lay down whatever privileges you think you should be entitled to, and do the hardest work. And take the toughest path.
A very good friend at seminary once told me she found me oddly fatalistic. And I think I am. I take to heart a concept not much used in our mass democratic modernity: lot. It was my lot in life to suffer. Because of this, I have never been an activist (just a loudmouthed malcontent), and I’m willing to suffer a great deal of what many people would call injustice.
Because I never lived as a child, as a young person, with any sense that the world could be changed. Little would work in my favor. There was no cavalry, no knight in shining armor, no guardian angel waiting to save me. That never happened. There was no justice. Just loneliness, shame, fear, and violence. The world was a fundamentally unjust place, and it had to be endured. Because surviving in the face of the brutality, the indifference, the loneliness — and not becoming part of it, not succumbing to power and privilege and the cruelty that necessarily came with it, and all without resorting to cruelty and violence — well, that was what counted.
And a life of suffering could bear witness to the world. Of what, at the age of sixteen, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps my soul was being refined for a purpose, though that purpose wasn’t clear either. All I had was a very rough faith in something I couldn’t even begin to see.
Solzhenitsyn helped me understand there could be dignity in enduring suffering.
Being truly Christian requires even more than the Stoic virtues of enduring suffering without complaining. It requires you to develop the ability to be an alchemist of the spirit: to take suffering and turn it into love. None of us can do this on our own. Shoot, my own suffering is less than nothing compared to what Charles endured, much less compared to what most people on this earth endure every single day. But it is no less painful, in its way, for that, and the principle Solzhenitsyn discerned in the gulag, and that Charles Featherstone discerned both in Solzhenitsyn and in the halls of his high school and under the roof of his childhood home, can help all of us, whatever our circumstances. Because everybody faces injustice. Worse, everybody at some point will inflict injustice on others.
None of us will be sentenced to the gulag. None of us will serve as guards at the gulag. But in some way, each of us will face the same spiritual and moral forces at work in the gulag, in whatever attenuated form. And we will be tested by them.
I believe that Charles Featherstone has taken the suffering he endured as a child and as a teenager, and at last turned it into love, of which The Love That Matters is a particularly moving and beautiful fruit. This, by the way, is what Dante did with the Commedia. When he let go of any expectation of justice in this life, he was able to trust God and write that poem. Like St. Francis, who chose radical poverty, he was free in a way that eludes most of us.
Buy the book. There are many of you readers who know exactly what Charles is talking about. This book is for you.