Jensen column: How will suffering change you?

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 9, 2012

Many comments in response to my column “When good things happen…when bad things happen” revolved around the question: How does one cope with suffering?
There is a parable that speaks to this.
The Chef and his Daughter
A daughter complained to her father, a chef, that life was not going well for her. It seemed as soon as one problem was solved, another would crop up. She was tired of struggling and was going to give up.
Her father took her into the kitchen. He filled three pots with water and placed each on a high flame until the water in the pots was boiling. In the first pot he placed carrots, into the second eggs, and into the third some ground coffee beans. He let them sit and boil without saying a word.
The daughter sucked her teeth and impatiently waited, wondering what he was doing. After 20 minutes, he turned off the burners. He fished out the carrots, eggs and coffee, putting each into separate bowls.
Turning to his daughter he asked: “What do you see?”
“Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” she replied.
He asked her to feel the carrots. She did and noted they were soft. He asked her to try to break the egg. After pulling off the shell she noticed the egg inside was hard boiled. Finally, he asked her to sip the coffee. She did and noticed its rich taste and aroma.
She said, “What is the point?”
He explained that each of the items had faced the same adversity – boiling water – but each reacted differently.
The carrot went in strong and hard but after being boiled it became weak and softened.
The egg had been fragile. The thin shell protected a liquid interior. After boiling, its inside became hardened.
The ground coffee beans were unique. After they were in boiling water, they had changed the water.
“Which are you?” he asked his daughter. “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond?
“Do you become weak like the carrot, hard on the outside like the egg, or do you change your circumstances, like the coffee?”
When my daughter was born at 24 weeks and given low odds of survival, I approached this in the same manner as I approached any hurdle. Very hard work and a lot of fear.
I researched everything there was to know about what was best for micro-preemies and spent many hours pumping more than a liter of breast milk daily. When I was not at the hospital, I was canvassing our neighborhood for blood donors and for people who could store some of the milk in their freezers. I was trying to be hard-boiled and strong.
Another woman, very wealthy, showed up impeccably groomed on her infrequent hospital visits. She started off looking strong and melted into boiled carrot weakness. She seemed baffled that any demands would be placed upon her, including the doctors urging her to try to pump breast milk. Hadn’t she suffered enough?
There were rare moments when we became coffee. One late evening, another mother and I were sitting by our babies. Carly was a full-term baby but had a rare genetic disorder that would lead to her death before she was out of diapers. Carly’s Mom turned to me and said, “No matter what happens tomorrow, we have this moment and we can enjoy it.”
And, for that brief evening, we did, a peace settling over me as I relished whatever time I did have with my daughter.
I hope the next time I am confronted with suffering I will still positively gear into action but with a more serene heart that provides some succor to those around me and to myself.
Someone who handled suffering as if he were coffee was Mattie Stepanek.
Mattie Stepanek (1990-2004) was the last of 4 children born with a rare form of dystrophy, all of whom lived short , painful lives. In his almost 14 brief years on earth, he was “a poet, a peacemaker, and a philosopher who played.” He published several books of poetry.
He was asked by Oprah Winfrey if he questioned why he was picked to suffer. Mattie said, “Instead of asking ‘why me?’ I think ‘why not me?’ My illness has given me an opportunity to be a messenger of peace to the world. I have had my own mission and I do not know if I would have performed it as well, or known God as well, if I had not been born with this illness.”
Mattie’s life philosophy was “Remember to play after every storm!” and his motto was: “Think Gently, Speak Gently, Live Gently.”
Mattie and his mother lived in poverty, in moldy basement apartments, with progressive terminal illnesses and yet had joyful, extraordinary lives.
Mattie faced exceptional challenges. Regular people, facing usual, day- to-day suffering, can also transcend their circumstances.
Years ago, when I first moved to Santa Monica, Calif., my car broke down. This was the day before cellphones and I was in a residential neighborhood without public phones.
I turned to a very sweet-looking woman who was entering a modest home, bundled down with packages and three kids. “May I use your phone?” I asked. In the most cheery voice possible, she said , “Of course!” The worn floors and furniture spoke to occupants who were financially strapped.
This single parent was relaxed, cheerful and only concerned about my welfare. After I called AAA, she invited me to stay and have tea while she set about preparing dinner for her family. She could easily have thought “Just my luck; why does she have to bother me?”
Instead, she was as welcoming and supportive as could be, waving away my offer to pay for the phone call. Accidentally, through passing comments made by her children, her story came out: her husband had divorced her for another woman, leaving her in very reduced financial straits.
Some people become bitter after a divorce.
This gal seemed to be enjoying every moment of her life, sharing her sunny disposition to all who crossed her path.Her kindness has stayed with me these past 30 years.
Handling life like coffee was well expressed by Dr. Tina Strobos, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a medical conference and then visited at her home. Dr.Strobos helped rescue hundreds of Jewish lives, all strangers to her, during WWII.
She said, “the purpose of life is to lose ourselves in loving others, not in having a life free of grief and suffering. No matter what befalls you, you can choose to connect with your fellow human being in a compassionate and caring way. Attaining this higher sense of self is the only thing that gives life meaning. Death is not frightening, for we are here for such a short time. Whether it is 10 years or 90 is of little consequence in the totality of eternity. What is frightening is a life lived in the half shadows of selfishness and fear.”
Suffering is an aspect of life most people will experience at some point. If we become oppressed by our suffering, we can gently remind ourselves that life can be very rich, no matter what happens to us or around us.
Which are you? When adversity knocks on your door, how to you respond?
Do you become weak like the carrot, hard on the outside like the egg, or do you change your circumstances, like the coffee beans?
• • •
Some of the readers who sent in their heartfelt comments might enjoy the books below.
“Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It” by Greg Jones
“When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Harold Kushner
“Arise From Darkness: What to do when life doesn’t make sense” by Fr Benedict Groeschel
“The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom
“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl
“Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand (the story of Louis Zamperini, WWII POW in Japanese camps)
Dr. Susan Jensen lives in Salisbury.