Letter from the Rectory December 2018
This letter first appeared in the December edition of Itchen Valley News
As I write this letter, I am still rather reeling from the emotional overload of Remembrance Sunday this year. The film They shall not grow old by Peter Jackson, if anything, made the whole experience of Remembrance Sunday this year even more traumatic. The extraordinary images of suffering of a whole generation have impressed themselves on our minds. The mainly young men going off to their deaths, or wounded returning home to live out the consequences of the horror that they had experienced, have had a profound impact on all of us this year. It’s easy to assume that nothing in our experience could be that bad.
Speaking recently to someone in the Valley I was told that in her family, she had only had two years free of major crisis since the 1990s. However, she went on to say ‘but at least we don’t live in Syria….we are not being bombed…we can get bread in the shops’. As if her suffering was not the totally encompassing thing which it is. She might as well have said ‘at least, we were not born in the World War 1 generation’.
I have been thinking a bit about this reaction. It is of course highly desirable to see our suffering in the context of other people’s more serious experiences. This can help us to cope with our own grief or pain, but can also enable us to be compassionate to others. This is a very good thing.
But it seems to me that there is also a danger is that we see our own suffering as trivial in comparison and tell ourselves ‘we should be able to cope – at least we are not being bombed!’
But so often we cannot cope. And this can make us feel like failures. ‘Come on, buck up’ we say to ourselves. Or we feel that others are implying that in what they say to us. We feel everyone is looking at us and (making that classic error) thinking ‘what on earth can they be depressed about….?’
Part of the problem is living in such a wonderful place as the Itchen Valley. Surrounded on all sides by stunning beauty, delightful neighbours, a wonderful community, ease of travel to Winchester, London and the rest of the country, this really should be one Happy Valley. Somehow we look at others and think, ‘if only I had their trouble-free life….their beautiful compliant children….their loving spouse…their wise and generous parents and siblings’.
Of course, the Who Cares survey last Summer revealed a lot about the internal emotional architecture of the residents of the Valley. We learned so much about the pain encountered by so many. But it’s not just that. The more I meet people in the community, I find the more I hear about their suffering and their fears. I don’t think I have come across anyone who doesn’t have something going on – some coping with bereavement, some with addiction issues, some with money worries, others with children going off the rails, others with marriages on the rocks, others with terrifying diagnoses. Still others are beside themselves with worry about their parents, children or siblings who are going through these issues.
I am beginning to wonder (and you may think ‘how is it that it has taken you so long to wake up to this, Rector’) whether suffering is actually a normal, part of life. That the life of success and happiness and comfort which other people seem to enjoy and we seem to enjoy only briefly, is a glimpse of the Sun on an otherwise cloudy Autumn day.
So the question is, should we just get on with it, gritting our teeth, showing all those others that everything is perfect, when in fact we are paddling like anything under the surface? Or can we use our suffering as an opportunity to engage with the Creator of the universe, who loves us and wants to help us through our hard times, even if we think we should be able to cope. That person, whose birth in Bethlehem 2000 years ago we are getting ready to celebrate in this month, who suffered as we do, knows exactly what it is like for us in what we are going through today.
How do we engage with Him? I have heard so many stories of people whose perspective on their situation and then their entire lives have been entirely transformed by simply calling out to Jesus ‘if you are there, please help me!’
As we do so, the story of the Nativity will become real in a way which it never has been for us before and we will encounter that peace and joy which the world cannot give.