James Baldwin, the great African-American novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet, once reflected on the pain the artist has to face, and wrote these words:
“And what is crucial here is that if it hurt you, that is not what’s important. Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain…”*
Yes, he wrote these words for you singers, songwriters, poets, actors, painters and writers, but his message applies to us all. We may want to debate with him the idea that our pain is ever trivial, but I think his point is that we allow our pain, be it physical, emotional or spiritual, to be trivialized unless we squeeze meaning out of it, meaning which comes from connecting with other people’s pain.
Pain, by its very nature, has a way of drawing us inward to focus on ourselves. In pain, there will few, if any, who will fail to go there, at least for a while. We are led to say such things as “You can’t imagine the pain I am in.” All we can think of is, “how much I hurt.” But to stay inside our little world is to allow our pain to be made a small, meaningless thing.
To let it, as Baldwin suggests, connect us with other people’s pain is to allow it to become larger, and at the same time, much more significant and meaningful. It would seem this is the same idea we find in Paul, who wrote that our God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). James Baldwin was on the right track. Paul completes the picture by showing us God’s part, where the Father of all compassion connects us with others.
Is our pain, with all its real hurt, just little and about us, or does it become big by leading us to a connection with God and other people?
* The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings