Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Love and “suffering with”

In common parlance, the word compassion is taken to mean exceptional niceness, or an emotional state of unusual sympathy. That’s true, I suppose, but it shortchanges the real meaning of the word. Compassion comes from the Latin roots meaning, “to suffer with.” To have true compassion, then, is to in some sense share the suffering of another. And that implies not just having the right feelings, but doing the right actions. Yale surgeon and professor Sherwin Nuland, M.D., is not a religious man, but in an appearance on Krista Tippett’s excellent public radio program “Speaking of Faith,” Dr. Nuland talked about how suffering calls forth love. Excerpt from the interview, on what humankind does with the knowledge that pain and suffering is a universal part of the human condition:

Dr. Nuland: I think we make use of that knowledge to perpetuate love. There is a book that I wrote called Lost in America, and there is a quotation in that book. It’s the epigraph of that book, and it’s attributed to Philo. Nobody who’s a Philo expert has been able to find it for me, and I certainly can’t find it. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.” Well, that’s the philosopher’s stone. When you recognize that pain and response to pain is a universal thing, it helps explain so many things about others, just as it explains so much about yourself. It teaches you forbearance. It teaches you a moderation in your responses to other people’s behavior. It teaches you a sort of understanding. It essentially tells you what everybody needs. You know what everybody needs? You want to put it in a single word? Everybody needs to be understood. And out of that comes every form of love. If someone truly feels that you understand them, an awful lot of neurotic behavior just disappears. Disappears on your part, disappears on their part. So if you’re talking about what motivates this world to continue existing as a community, you’ve got to talk about love. And you can’t talk about — oh, I’m going to get into hot water for this, you can’t talk about this phony concept of love that so many of the religious throw around based on God’s love. You’ve got to think about this in terms of human biology, including emotional biology. Ms. Tippett: Right. I mean, love is such a watered down wishy-washy word in our culture. Dr. Nuland: Well, sure. It’s misused, it’s bastardized. Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Dr. Nuland: And it becomes somebody’s slogan. Ms. Tippett: But, I mean, I’m thinking when you talk about — if you approach everyone, as you say — I love this epigraph, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Dr. Nuland: That’s it, fighting a great battle. Ms. Tippett: Is fighting a great battle. Dr. Nuland: Yes, that’s even better. Ms. Tippett: I mean, that — but, you know, what that also engenders, the qualities you spoke about: patience, hospitality, compassion — virtues that are at the heart of all the great religious traditions, right? Dr. Nuland: Of course. There’s the universal again. And my argument is it comes out of your biology because on some level we understand all of this. We put it into religious forms. It’s almost like an excuse to deny our biology. We put it into pithy, sententious aphorisms, but it’s really coming out of our deepest physiological nature.


Read the entire transcript or listen to the interview here. Or, buy Krista’s new collection of her interviews, “Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit.” It’s a wonderful book, and I’m pleased to note that at least some of these radio interviews were supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. A note about Dr. Nuland’s cracking on the bastardization of the word “love” in our culture. He’s onto something. St. Paul was surely right when he wrote:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.


But this underscores Dr. Nuland’s point: love is hard. One reason so many of us who know my sister are marveling over how she’s dealing with her cancer, and are rushing to help her with whatever active love we can muster, is because we recognize that she has, in her life, embodied St. Paul’s ideal of love as patient, kind, hopeful, protecting and persevering. Maybe we didn’t notice this, or at least didn’t give this love its due, because her love has never boasted. But now we see it — OK, now I see it — and it’s life-changing. So much of what I call love in my own life has been a matter of tendering the emotions appropriate to love. But that’s easy. Love, real love, demands suffering with. I’m thinking about the people who came to visit Ruthie the other day, who annoyed me with their insensitivity. Ruthie gently chastised me over that, and talked about how they have suffered so much, and what their suffering had to do with the way they behaved. She was willing to be patient and kind to them because she could imagine that they have been fighting and do fight a great battle. That’s love, the kind that never fails. And the only way to it is humility. UPDATE: Or, to state this entire blog entry in musical terms, here’s an REM song I never have much liked because I thought it too sentimental. But boy, does it mean a lot to me right now:

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posted February 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Dear Rod,
Thank you so much for all of these posts. Every day I come here because I know there will be another lesson for me on love and loss. But mostly on love.
My prayers are with your sister and your whole family.

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posted February 24, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Humility is the negation of pride. Pride results from the knowledge that one is capable of gaining one’s values and is deserving of them. Likewise, love is related to values; it is a response to value in another person. Where you find no value, there can be no love. Therefore, the idea that love results from humility is an error. It is a contradiction to say that not keeping and not deserving of one’s values allows one to properly respond to value elsewhere.

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Franklin Jennings

posted February 24, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Isn’t it amazing how it takes an objectivist a few seconds to completely suck the humanity, the life, out of anything?

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Rod Dreher

posted February 24, 2010 at 2:55 pm

I thought the same thing, Franklin. Just like doctrinaire Marxists, they are. It’s in the ideologue’s DNA.

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posted February 24, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Thanks for your posts, Rod. Forgiveness can get complicated when the person you’re forgiving refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing. There’s a sense of incompleteness that never seems to go away. In my case, it is my father, and given the harm he has done to my wife and kids, I’m unwilling to risk any resumption of relationship without some indication that he isn’t going to continue his abusive ways. I wish and pray it wasn’t that way, but he isn’t willing to go there and so reconciliation is but a distant hope. I wonder if this is very common, of if the act of forgiving more often than not prompts a change of heart in the other person…

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Grumpy Old Person

posted February 24, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Why is being nice to others such a bad thing anyway? Isn’t it the embodiment of the “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” principle? That is “the sum of the laws and the prophets” according to Christ, and it is the central tenet of the world’s 13 major religions.
Whodathunk being nice to others would be such a burden to people who follow the Christ. Or at least say they do.

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posted February 24, 2010 at 7:44 pm

I like what the speaker says about the christian ‘watering down’ of love. After 50 years in christianity, I’ve pretty much decided that I don’t care whether people, or god, love me or not. I want something better; I want them to *like* me.

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Christopher Mohr

posted February 25, 2010 at 4:36 am

Ah, indeed. Compassion means to suffer with. But don’t tell that to my fellow Buddhists – they only see the word, not the meaning. I’ve argued that point every single time they try to tell me that there shouldn’t be Buddhist chaplains (like me) in the military, and when I bring up the more centrist part of Buddhism (since most assume it’s a playground for their ultra-liberal friends only). One City here on beliefnet is full of them.

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Anglican Peggy

posted February 25, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Rod, I am glad you had a chance to rethink the REM song. I agree that at first it seems sappy. It seemed that way to me when I was younger and before I had suffered much (isnt that the story for everyone?) Then I had a chance to hear it after I had suffered a loss and was able to appreciate the brilliance of it. Its one of those perfect songs that can be so easily overlooked, the kind of song that ends up on the cutting floor but for some passionate advocate who truly gets it.
I think its interesting that songs like this one usually come later in a bands career. REM never could have done it earlier than they did.
See also U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Some people panned it when it was first released as being too mushy and sentimental. I thought at the time, that those people probably hadnt suffered much yet in their lives and that once they did, they would really get it.
I took to it instantly because I was abjectly miserable when it first came out and was able to instinctively understand that it was a grown-up album in the best sense of the word and probably one of the best grown-up albums ever. It was because it came out of great suffering and life experience on U2’s part.
If you havent resorted to ATYCLB, I would give it a go. If Everybody Hurts is offering you a great deal of comfort, then this album should do wonders for you. Esp Beautiful Day. Dear Gawd! :-) Hope it helps
You have my prayers for your sister and your family.

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posted February 25, 2010 at 3:10 pm

I identify completely with what you are saying. It is actually kind of amazing how succinctly your words describe my exact situation. Especially when you say ‘there is a sense of incompleteness that never seems to go away.’
I am still going to work on forgiveness, though. Maybe you could work on trying to forgive your father for failing/refusing to acknowledge or see his faults.
I know with my Dad, one of the key issues for me, to make progress is trying to remember that other people’s weaknesses are different than mine, and they are just as beholden to or limited by their weaknesses, and that they are just as painful, and real, as mine are to me, and thus to have mercy.
This is a new line of thinking for me, and not easy, but I am going to give it a try. It feels right, even though hard.

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