Iconography and Suffering
July 11th, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

A few months ago, I discovered the writing of feminist author and essayist Nancy Mairs, a woman who has lived with multiple sclerosis for over 40 years. I stumbled across her essay, “Sex and Death and the Crippled Body: A Meditation,” and found a passage that resonated with me in ways I am only able to begin to articulate now:

Perhaps because I have embraced a faith with crucifixion at its heart, I do not consider suffering an aberration or an outrage to be eliminated at any cost, even the cost of my life. It strikes me as an element intrinsic to the human condition. I don’t like it. I’m not asked to like it. I must simply endure in order to learn from it. Those who leap forward to offer me aid in ending it, though they may do so out of the greatest compassion, seek to deny me the fullness of experience I believe I am meant to have. (Mairs 2002, 169)

I want to preface my comments by noting that I am Jewish, and that the crucifixion is not at the heart of my own theology — although certainly, thousands of Jews (including Jesus) were crucified by the Romans, and the question of suffering has always played a large part in Jewish history and consciousness. I feel the need to note the ground on which I stand in order to guard against any notion that I might be about to engage in proselytizing (perish the thought, truly), and in order to provide the context for the depth of my response to the passage.

It’s difficult and painful for me to write about my response. I have been feeling, of late, a great deal of emotional and spiritual anguish, largely the result of profound losses I’ve experienced over the course of my life. Perhaps because of these losses, I have become the sort of person who generally looks to power through difficulty; I might cry and rage over my pain, but in the final analysis, I rebel against the notion of it, and if I accept it at all, I try to put it to good use. I was born with a healthy sense of outrage at the suffering that human beings cause one another, and growing up in Jewish culture, I was taught to heal the world of that kind of suffering. In all my years as a practicing Jew, I have lived by the faith that my purpose is to work to end suffering. I have rarely felt the ability or the inclination to simply accept it as a given.

But I recognize that as I age, and as I consider my status in society as a middle-aged, disabled woman, there is a great deal of suffering that won’t be ameliorated in my lifetime, including my own. The social exclusion, the stigmatization, the lack of understanding, and the loneliness that attach to both aging and disability will not go away while I am still living and breathing on this planet. In many ways, for me, this is the most difficult part of aging and disability: the realization that progress is slower than a snail, if it exists at all, and that the position of elderly and disabled people in my society will not change for several generations hence. So I am left with how to deal with what I have been given.

Over the winter, I spent two months in California in order to visit my kid, a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. One day, I was feeling particularly low and, given that there was no synagogue in town, I walked up to a UCC church and went into the sanctuary, looking for some peace. The centerpiece of the sanctuary was a large cross — not the kind that hangs on the wall, but the kind that is rooted to the floor and literally large enough that one could imagine a person hanging on it. It was directly in front of me. In fact, it would have been impossible to sit anywhere in the sanctuary and not feel its hovering presence.

I sat in the sanctuary crying, looking at the cross, and for the first time, I realized why I had always felt a pull toward Christianity, even though so much of the theology does not work for me: it was the visual symbol of suffering. We don’t do visual symbols of suffering in Judaism. We don’t do a lot of visuals at all, because our notion of God is that God is beyond the visual, beyond the verbal, beyond symbol, beyond thought, beyond reason. In fact, we worry about visual symbols moving into the realm of idolatry, and we proceed very carefully with them. In Torah, as a fail-safe against idolatry, we don’t even have a pronounceable name for God; when I read Torah and see the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, the Unpronounceable Name, I feel as though I’m ceaselessly reminded that all my thoughts are only thoughts, only approximations, and I feel myself falling headlong into the mystery of all being. It’s humbling, and for me, it’s necessary.

But I am also a visual person deeply held by the tactile reality of human life and deeply entranced by the metaphors that flow from it. And as I sat in front of that cross, I realized that it was grounding me, because it was a visual representation of suffering — not of someone else’s suffering, but of my own. I am certainly not likening my own suffering to crucifixion — not at all — but noting that, for me, the crucifixion became a symbol of all human suffering, particularly unjust human suffering. Suddenly, I felt, I was no longer alone in a world that insists that I deal with suffering by pretending to be happy, or by being perpetually angry, or by trying to outrun it in the hopes of a brighter day. Suddenly, it was shared. Suddenly, it was the pain of what human beings go through, all the time, every day. It was all there, all around me, because I was looking at a visual symbol. The representation was crucial, and let me tell you that, as a Jew, that made me enormously uncomfortable.

And so I wondered: Why is this visual symbol in the middle of a place in which to find peace? Up to that point, I’d always rather smugly felt that Christianity was obsessed with suffering; otherwise, why put a torture device up on the wall? It had always seemed a bit perverse. But then I thought about what my first rabbi had said to me about God — that God is a force who cares for us and loves us, and that knowledge of this loving God was the gift of the Jewish people to anyone who sought it. And I realized that in Christian thought, that cross is about the love of God for the world. Now, as a Jew, I don’t believe that Jesus was God, or that Jesus had to die to save the world. But without accepting the theology of Christianity, I felt the message of Christianity very clearly at that moment: profound suffering and profound love can coexist as one. The knowledge that at the place of the greatest suffering is the greatest love hit me like a force of nature. I didn’t quite know what to do with it.

So when I happened upon Nancy Mairs’ words about suffering and the crucifixion, it all came back to me. Truth be told, I still don’t know quite what to do with it. Do I like suffering? No. Does it piss me off? Yes. Can I accept it? I’m not sure. Can I endure it? I have so far. Can I find the larger love that lives inside it? I hope so.


Mairs, Nancy. “Sex and Death and the Crippled Body: A Meditation.” In Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, edited by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, 156-170. New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America, 2002.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


15 Responses  
  • Jayn writes:
    July 11th, 20123:08 pmat

    “profound suffering and profound love can coexist as one”

    One thing that’s always struck me about happiness and suffering is that they exist largely in relation to one another–knowing one gives us more room to know the other. It’s the people closest to us who have the most power to hurt us, and it’s the people who aid us to whom we are often the most grateful. Sometimes we don’t realise how fortunate we’ve been, or how much we’ve suffered, because we don’t have a counter-example to measure it against. I wonder if, if we ever managed to create a world where no one suffered, we would truly be able to be happy.

    • Rachel writes:
      July 19th, 20128:46 pmat

      Jayn, that’s an excellent insight, and I think you’re right. If we never suffered, we could never be truly happy, either.

  • Emily writes:
    July 11th, 20124:07 pmat

    Beautiful, Rachel! When I was growing up (Protestant) and asked similar questions, I was told that the cross is a reminder of redemption, that God never wills suffering but is with us working to redeem any situation.

    • Rachel writes:
      July 19th, 20128:47 pmat

      That has always been my belief as well — that God doesn’t create unjust suffering, but helps us bear it and bring the blessings out of it.

  • wjpeace writes:
    July 11th, 20127:08 pmat

    Did I tell you I spent a week in Santa Cruz? Bikedalong coast and to the university. It it was aweome. Mairs is a brilliant writer.

    • Rachel writes:
      July 19th, 20128:48 pmat

      No, you didn’t tell me that! That coast road is extraordinarily beautiful. I walked on it a lot when I was there.

  • chavisory writes:
    July 12th, 201212:12 pmat

    So much like for this post, Rachel.

    • Rachel writes:
      July 19th, 20128:49 pmat

      Thanks, chavisory!

  • Atomic Geography writes:
    July 12th, 20121:26 pmat

    Well done.

    The combination of profound suffering and love is as good a definition of compassion as I’ve heard. The appeal of anger in times of suffering is I think it’s clarity, but that rather quickly devolves into something much less useful.

    • Rachel writes:
      July 19th, 20128:50 pmat

      That’s certainly true. I think that there is a lot of compassion in anger at injustice, but it takes a great deal of mental and emotional discipline to keep control of the anger and use it to power oneself toward good.

  • Brenda (mamabegood) writes:
    July 16th, 20128:12 amat

    Loved your thought process. As a wise friend said: Life is joy and sorrow intertwined.

    • Rachel writes:
      July 19th, 20128:51 pmat

      That’s the wisdom of all the great traditions, I think.

  • Sheila writes:
    July 19th, 20128:12 pmat

    I feel speech-less so why leave a comment. I guess I leave one to tell you that I appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking cross. Also, I have read little bits of Mairs before and she is very insightful or at least she makes me thing. Thanks for your post.

    • Rachel writes:
      July 19th, 20128:52 pmat

      So glad the post resonated with you, Sheila!

  • Sheila writes:
    July 19th, 20128:13 pmat

    Oops. I meant to say post not cross. That is also kind of interesting.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>
»  Substance:WordPress   »  Style:Ahren Ahimsa