Purposeful Suffering

FYI: MCQ continues his guest-posting with us. He’s brilliant and witty in every way.

As I told you a week ago, some friends and I decided to run the 177 mile Wasatch Back Relay from Logan, Utah to Park City, Utah, in an attempt to memorialize and honor the family of my friend Chris and the example of forgiveness that he set for us. We started Friday at 9:00 am and finished Saturday at about 12:30 pm (in case you can’t tell: that’s not fast). Chris heroically insisted on running all of his assigned legs despite the fact that (unknown to him prior to Thursday) he had a lingering injury to his knee from his car accident. He will undergo surgery tomorrow to repair that injury.

Over the course of the race, we encountered temperatures ranging from over 100 to lower than 45 degrees. We slept less than three hours Friday night, after being short of sleep Thursday night as well. Some of the legs were at very high altitude; some were very steep, either up or down (some both). We experienced exhaustion and pain, dehydration and diarrhea. I got sick after my last leg and threw up in front of dozens of my fellow racers. I lost ten pounds in two days. It was fun…sort of, but there were times we may have asked (if only to ourselves), “Why are we doing this again?”

The tough parts of this effort were tough indeed, but we also got to spend some time together, which, for friends who have known each other for 25 years (some even longer) but who typically don’t see each other more than a few times a year, that was a real pleasure. All of the old jokes were still funny, though there are some new ones since the time that we were all freshmen in college (thank goodness).

After it was over, we hugged Chris and went our separate ways and I wondered whether this effort accomplished its stated purpose. Did we honor Chris’s family and his example, or did we just create enough lactic acid to power Las Vegas? What is it that makes us think that suffering is an appropriate way to honor others, especially the dead? Is it a Mormon thing? Does the Pioneer Trek[1] honor the Pioneers or just amuse them? Is this gift acceptable?

[1] A re-enactment of part of the journey of the Pioneers from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake
Valley; performed by hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Mormon youth and leaders every summer.

Comments

  1. Elouise says:

    McQ–You did indeed honor Chris’s family. Your act was symbolic, not functional (as would be, for example, racing the same distance with a medicine that might save a life). You didn’t decide to honor your friends by suffering, but by performing a symbolic act that turned out to be very difficult.

    People who stand all night long holding candles as part of a vigil, despite fatigue, cold, boredom, and perhaps ridicule, honor their cause by their presence. Those who stand in line for hours on end in order to spend less than a minute passing by the casket of a fallen hero are honoring the deceased by simply being there.

    A couple of years ago, when the national monument for Women in Military Service to America (in Washington) was dedicated, thousands turned out to pay tribute. Among those I saw were several dozen very old, very infirm women, some on crutches, others on walkers or in wheelchairs, some pulling oxygen canisters behind them. Getting to the Monument from states all over the country was very hard for them. They certainly endured pain to make the trip. Their suffering underscored, perhaps even dramatized, the depth of their feeling for the women they had served beside, in some cases seventy years earlier. But they came. And I think the essential thing was not their pain but their feelings of honor, respect, and pride.

    The fact that you finished the run despite its hardships underscores your tribute. Your gift was not the suffering, but the love that surmounted the pain.

  2. Dan Hill says:

    Thanks for the blog entry. It was great having you guys out there. Your entry resonated with some things that I’ve been thinking about lately. I had a brother die when I was young. I remember watching kids play and watching people go on with their lives and I just felt so hurt that the world could keep on turning for people when for me it had stopped. Nothing people said really helped. When people tried to say things like “you’ll see him again” or “he’s at piece” it just made me feel like they didn’t understand. The only thing I can remember helping was when I knew that others were hurting as well. Not that I wanted them to hurt or that misery loved company, but it was nice to know that for someone besides myself the world had stopped as well. A good friend of mine passed away from colon cancer a week ago. I spent a few minutes talking to her husband at her viewing. I felt so helpless to say or do anything that would help. I’m very touched by your way of stopping the world from turning by honoring him for over 24 hours.

  3. I was going to say something possibly cogent, then I read Elouise’s comment and I’m not sure what more one can say. Thanks for the post.

  4. Amen, Elouise. That is beautiful and transcendent and inspiring.

    My only addition: As a group, including Chris, you mourned with those who mourn and comforted those who stand in need of comfort. God bless you for that.

  5. Nice going MCQ. I am almost certain that your participation means more to Chris than you can know.

  6. makakona says:

    i echo elouise and mark iv.

    in april, my husband participated in the baker (california) to vegas law enforcement relay run, which seems similar to what you did. he and his friends ran in memory of the father of another friend. it meant a great deal to said friend that they took the time out of their lives to not only run the race, but to train and prepare for the trip. each step was a reminder of a great man and how nice it is to be remembered! i’m sure that chris appreciated your efforts.

  7. I applaud your efforts – I am training for a 5k which seems intolerably painful – but fun at the same time.

    I don’t know if suffering is good for the living or the dead – though I do believe it can build character, but I have also seen it destroy people’s lives – it all depends on the individual I imagine.

  8. lamonte says:

    MCQ – Thanks for this inspiring story and thanks to Elouise for your comment reinforcing the nobel act of MCQ and his friends. What a great way to let a friend know how much we love them – through the sacrifice of our time and our comfort.

    Elouise, your comment referencing events close to home in Washington DC make me wonder if we know each other. My friend and fellow ward member, also named Elouise, would be capable of writing the same beautiful words and thoughts found in your response.

    Thanks to all.

  9. Elouise says:

    Lamonte–

    Living many hundreds of miles away from DC, I don’t think I have had the good fortune of meeting you, but I thank you for your gracious words.

    This matter of what to say or do when someone has suffered a huge loss, or is in great pain, or enduring a terminal illness is one of life’s major riddles. Many people end up saying, “I didn’t visit her because I didn’t know what to say,” or, worse yet, “I don’t like hospitals.” (As contrasted with those who love to hang out there, I suppose.) All sorts of gestures, large and small, can bring comfort, but the bottom line surely is: be there. In person, or with a phone call, or a card, flowers, some fresh plums, homemade soup.

    As to “I don’t know what to say,” guess what: no one does. Possibilities: “Thinking of you,” “Our prayers are with you,” “This is my cell phone number; call day or night if you feel like just talking.” (Less is generally more at such a time.) I remember a short article by one of the GA’s, advising, “Don’t say to someone in difficulty, ‘Now if there’s anything I can do, let me know.’ Use your eyes; find something helpful, and DO it.” A casserole or a kiss, the touch of a hand or a tour-de-force relay race–it’s all good stuff.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking thread, McQ.

  10. Right on, Elouise. I remember when my husband and son drowned, a friend came over, so distraught herself that she couldn’t speak, and we just sat there and cried together.

    I always say, “looks like the dishes need washing, do you mind if I do it? I need to do something.” Or stuff like that. NEVER “call me if I can help.” Lamest words in Mormondom.

  11. lamonte says:

    Elouise – now I know there are at least (2) Elouises with a thoughtful heart and gentle demeanor. I’m afraid I used to be one who always said “I wouldn’t know what to say.” and so I would stay away from hospital rooms and funeral homes. But an event that touched my life several years ago changed that. A close friend was struck down with sudden cardiac arrest while we were serving as adult leaders at a youth conference. He had just finished a pick-up basketball game with some of the young men and after they went off to bed he was struck down in the parking lot. His wife was there and I accompanyed her to the hospital and I was there when the doctor came in with the tragic news that he didn’t make it. Just being there to hold her as she wept helped me so much and I was so glad that I could do that for her. I was the bishop of the ward at the time and my friend was the YM President and probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was to tell each one of the youth what had happended the night before as they woke up in the morning. The young men were particularly close to their leader. But I was also glad to be the one to do that as well.

    It has now been seven years since my friend died. His wife and family live in a nearby ward after moving from our ward. The youth that were there at the youth conference have grown up and gone but we still stay in touch and we share a love that was strengthened by our common need for each other’s kindness and compassion.

  12. Elouise: Your comments are perfect. Thank you.

    Dan:

    I’m very touched by your way of stopping the world from turning

    Thanks, that’s exactly what we wanted to do.

  13. What is it that makes us think that suffering is an appropriate way to honor others, especially the dead? Is it a Mormon thing?

    Fasting is a form of intentional suffering — in fact, any form of renunciation can be thought of as a form of suffering. But for me, describing those practices as intentional suffering seems to miss the transformational part of the experience. Sure, they can be nothing more than suffering, but whenever we confront pain and discomfort with a firm resolve not to indulge the almost-automatic standard aversion behaviors, we shift our minds out of the well-worn ruts they live in most days. And that, in turn, leads to opening minds and hearts.

    Once a heart and mind are open, lots of interesting things can happen. But one important one is that they can be filled with gratitude for and compassion toward others, whether living or not. And once the heart and mind are so filled, we without those other people cannot be made perfect.

  14. greenfrog: That’s an excellent point that I hadn’t thought of. I suppose that any attempt to overcome our physical needs results in an elevation of the spirit, which is what I have always understood as the purpose of fasting. I don’t know if that idea is uniquely Mormon, but I know that it works.

  15. Lent

  16. Renunciation as a practice to aid spiritual development has wide and deep roots through lots of cultures.

  17. As a postscript to this story, I got permission from Chris to post the following email which he sent to his teammates (note: Chris’s son Ben, whom he refers to in the email was one of his children that died in the accident in February. Ben was 11 when he died). For me, this email largely answers the questions I posed in the above post.

    I can’t thank each and every one of you enough for the privilege I had running with you! It was an amazing, inspirational and spiritual experience for me and a source of tremendous support.

    As I ran, I found my mind repeating a quote from Frank Capra: “No man is poor who has one friend. Three friends and you’re filthy rich!” Considering the 11 incredible teammates and
    friends I have – I am certainly one of the wealthiest men on earth (and richly blessed).

    I wanted to share with you what this race has done for me in blessing my life. In each of the previous 10Ks or marathons I’ve run, my son Ben
    would always be there at the end to run the last stretch with me. I had the honor of running an 8k beach run in San Diego with him last year from the crystal pier to the mission bay sea wall
    and back. Ben hadn’t really trained at all for the run; he was so self confident that he knew he could do it. I tried to persuade him to start with another race of shorter distance, but he would have none of it, so I entered him. One mile into the run he was struggling and I suggested he stop and wait for me after I had gone on to the sea wall and back, then we could just run back together to finish the race.
    He told me to go on ahead so I did. I reached the sea wall, turned around and started back up the beach and here comes Ben, still running, pressing on alone towards the wall. I was amazed at his
    perseverance and the grit of his character to not give up. He finished the entire distance. For me running each of the legs of this relay race was my way of pressing on showing that I had truly learned something important from the incredible example Ben set for me.

    Outside of praying for the team that we would all get through it without any incident or issues, and that my knee would hold out – I confess I did have one other heavenly request as I ran the race
    with each of you – I had requested that if it were possible for Ben to be there at the finish, and again run the last stretch with us, that he would be able to. I’m happy to report that the request was granted, and that was an experience I’ll treasure forever, made possible by the greatest friends anyone could be privileged to have.

    Thank you again – and as far as the 2008 race is concerned – I’M IN !!!

    Chris

  18. Wow! Beautiful. Thanks.

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