And almost no one knew. Most people envied them. They seemed to have the greatest lives. I only knew the inside story because I knew them well or their friends blabbed.
These were men I had known years ago, and I thought of them when one day I got a string of emails from friends, middle-aged and older, that made painfully clear there’s a lot of pain in the world. People you would think have it all, enjoy lives of rare comfort and success, carry a world of hurt, and hurt that isn’t going to be undone in this world.
If they wrote about suffering without sharing their own story, you’d think, “What do you know about it?” Only the people who knew them well enough to know their private lives knew what they went through. We tend, many of us, to take what we see as the basic story. If a man looks happy, he is happy.
There’s a lot of pain in the world. People you would think have it all, live lives of rare bliss, are carrying a world of hurt, and hurt that isn’t going to be undone in this world.
That would be true of my old friend Roberto Rivera, who wrote yesterday about his deep struggle with depression, which Lent only makes worse. He’s a gifted man with a great job for a writer, as the long-time writer for Chuck Colson and then for his successors. Yet he fights an unrelenting darkness few of us can imagine.
It’s something to remember when you pray. I tend not to think to pray for the successful people I know, because I don’t think of them as needing it. When you’re looking at a hospital bill or a house repair, it’s hard to think the guy with a car that costs more than your house needs your prayers. But of course he might. He might need it much more than the people whose needs I know.
I’d think that was obvious, but for the conversations in which someone was judging someone whose story I knew. Without giving anything away, I’d try to suggest that the one being judged might be suffering too, and deserve sympathy. The critic would often blow off the idea, sometimes scoffingly. The target of his judgment looks happy, he must be happy. I might have done that, when I was younger and less scarred by life.
And it’s something to remember when you’re dealing with one other group of people we tend not to pray for, because they don’t seem to deserve it: the ideological jerks, especially on Facebook or Twitter, but often enough in real life. (“Jerk” is the polite term, but not the most accurate.) They started the fight. Why should we pray for the guy who’s throwing punches at good people and good causes?
The jerk may not be a jerk at all, but a guy in pain — or a jerk and a guy in pain. It can be even more complicated than that. When I wrote about this once, my friend Beth Impson added: “Sometimes people are mean and angry because they don’t know how to deal with their pain.” They might be the best guys, if they didn’t suffer so much.
Many troll even when saying something they believe. They want to upset their readers or proclaim how brave they are in saying the hard and unpopular truth. That only amplifies the jerkness, which makes sympathizing with them much harder.
Many of the jerks assert beliefs only jerks would assert. The ugliness and frequent stupidity of their ideology is one reason we see them as jerks. Because we react to the ugly ideas, it’s hard to see the ideologue as a person, as someone who might be in pain and deserve our sympathy more than our censure.
It’s hard to remember all that, at least for me, because the jerkness is so annoying, and often so aggressively annoying. Many troll even when saying something they believe. They want to upset their readers or proclaim how brave they are in saying the hard and unpopular truth. That only amplifies the jerkness, which makes sympathizing with them much harder.
I know I should see past the image, but it can be very hard. They get right in your face and scream, and my reaction is to shove them away and yell back. It’s hard to see them as men who need prayer.
I’d like to think the jerk is someone I can ignore. Just a jerk on the web. At most he’s an enemy combatant, someone with whose life I don’t need to be concerned. He started it. He set the rules. That’s how I feel, and the feeling isn’t exactly wrong.
We may say, rightly, “They have done bad things and this impoverishes people, impoverishes humanity,” Pope Francis says in one of his morning homilies from 2013. He speaks of them in terms of Jesus’s command to love our enemies, which I don’t think is quite true — they’re not enemies — but makes sense of our natural feelings. “How can we love those who seek only those who seek their own interest, their own power, and do so much harm?” he asks. Francis tells us to pray for them.
Thinking that they may suffer more than we see makes that easier. It dims the political passions that make care for them so hard. As does remembering that for others I’m the jerk on the web, the enemy combatant, the one whose private life may explain a lot. I’d like them to give me a break, so I must give them a break.
One may have to remember that they may suffer pains we don’t see to pray for them, but praying for them makes remembering that easier.
David Mills is the Senior Editor (US) of The Catholic Herald. His previous article for Chapter House was Games Catholics Play and his previous article for the homepage was When Catholic Puritans Ruin Lent. He is also the “Last Things” columnist for the New Oxford Review.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.