Ordinary Suffering/ Suffering Is Ordinary

Last week I was writing about suffering. I have been writing about suffering for years (because that’s a fun way to fill a notebook, right?) but this year I churn when I sit to write about suffering, with impatience to reach conclusion about what I see in the world, what I see in dear friends’ lives, what I feel in my body and mind. When considering others’ losses, I wonder if my own suffering is selfish. Does God care to comfort me when I am sad for nothing much, compared?

A few weeks ago, after a family suffered the death of their baby girl, my friend Sabrina listened to my very wandering thoughts about everything and said to think about what I am learning from the people in my life who suffer much. This circle of suffering friends includes Sabrina, in her first year of widowhood, her first year of single parenting. So last week when I was writing about suffering and a colleague asked what I was working on, I told him and he quoted an Auden poem – “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The old Masters: how well they understood” – which I looked up. Which sent me to Pieter Brueghel’s painting “Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus.” I read the poem, looked at the painting and found a way in.

The Fall Of Icarus

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Ordinary Suffering/
A Response To “Musee des Beaux Arts”
Sarah Marslender

I was on the way to the airport to fly to Australia
when my grandfather died in Wisconsin,
but I read the news at the gate, leaned against
my husband. I thought, Grandpa knows everything/
I was at my work study when a plane flew into
the World Trade Center – we turned the radio on,
we thought it was impossible but true, returned
to our work/ Two weeks ago, I was walking down
a school hall when I checked my messages to
learn a friend’s baby died. With the time
difference between here and there, I couldn’t
remember what I was doing when this baby girl
left all of this world

I think about that – what I am doing when a
plane explodes in the air, or barrel bombs rain,
or the earth shakes foundations, slips mud, eats
half a mountainside town. I think about where I
am when, as if it matters at all

to join the suffering. We do not all turn away
from the boy who falls from sky. The fisherman
with his slender rod, the hawk on its slender branch,
the shepherd staring at sky – we do not all turn
away from ordinary suffering but you cannot
see our heads turn, our feet move before we
think, or how we lay that night seeing it again,
you cannot see what paint dried

Ordinary suffering/ suffering is ordinary, not
less than/ greater than, only part of being here
where people may fall from sky, or wake with a
mouthful of mud, or witness the brightest/ most
excruciating light before dark, or walk the next
day with empty hands

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