When I was 15, I traveled to Manila, Philippines for a week for a missions trip. We did medical clinics in poor areas, checked blood pressure, and played with kids while they waited to be seen by the mission doctors. Once a day, one of the missionaries would take one of us to deliver powdered milk to the very poorest children in the neighborhood.
The day it was my turn, I followed a missionary woman through tiny pathways in a shanty-town village. The homes were made of plywood, with tin roofs. As I peeked around the doorway into one home, I saw a crude table, a small cooking area, and a sleeping area made out of dirt. There were no couches, no blankets, and nothing that spoke of comfort and home. If extreme poverty is a type of suffering, then these people were suffering tremendously.
And yet, as I was leaving this same shanty-town, located just outside a dump in Manila, I saw a group of kids playing with a dirty, tattered soccer ball. There were probably 15-20 kids, and one ball. Their clothes hung off them like rags, and they clearly had no possessions to their name, yet they kicked and ran and played joyfully.
I remember clearly wondering what gave them such joy in the midst of such suffering. And I remember realizing that their joy came from their relationships with one another in the midst of the daily difficulties of life.
There are a lot of problems with a collectivistic culture, yet one thing that those kids had that I knew even then that I didn't have, was a strong and deep bond to the community around them. They were connected to their families and their neighbors--connected in a way that you can only become connected in life when you are facing adversity together.
Community is one of the greatest gifts that suffering can bring. I know that it has been so for me--that the people I have walked through the last 10 years of life with are the ones that I see as my strongest advocates and my closest friends. And the depth of the bond that you have to forge with the people who are sharing your journey is not even comparable to the surface relationships that make up so much of our western, comfort-filled lives.
But suffering can also isolate. As we suffer, sometimes we become so inwardly focused that we are no good to anyone within our community. Sometimes we lash out from a place of pain and cause pain to others. Sometimes we simply allow our own suffering to prevent us from joining the community that's around us.
What do you think the difference is between building strong community in the midst of suffering versus allowing suffering to cause division and strife? I know this is an issue that my new book's characters are going to have to work through, so I'd love to hear from you...