Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems VIII” concludes with the lines:
Well, that’s finished. The woman who cherished
her suffering is dead. I am her descendant.
I love the scar-tissue she handed on to me,
but I want to go on from here with you
fighting the temptation to make a career of pain.1
I find that powerful. I’ve thought a lot about that temptation of cherishing your suffering, of making a career of pain. In my life, it’s been a seductive one—to define myself in terms of what I’ve suffered, to make that the center of my identity.
The theologian David Kelsey points out that all of us grapple with the question “what make life worth living?” We go about answering it in different ways. One approach is to focus on the things we do—if we do the right things, we’ll have value. This of course inevitably breaks down because it’s essentially salvation by works; it’s an impossible project.
Another direction to go is to find something about yourself that leads to respect. And “one way to potentially gain that respect . . . is to define oneself above all as a victim.”2 This then becomes the meaning of your life, what makes it worth living to you. But this is not without its problems. Kelsey writes:
A problem with defining personal identity in [this] way . . . is that it distorts one’s identity by binding it to horrible situations in the past. The problem lies not so much with the horror as with the pastness. If what justifies one’s life, what shows that it is indeed worth living, is surviving a set of horrendous events in the past, then everything that happens later and everything and everything one does later must be interpreted and shaped by reference to those past events. One’s future is defined by, and so in bondage to, an event in the past.3
Kelsey point out that those in that mindset could not “could imagine or allow any new joyful event, any new creative accomplishment, any new friendship to be more definitive of who they are than the terrible events to which their identities have been bound by definition. Theirs are distorted identities, frozen in time and closed to growth.”4
To define your life in terms of victimhood, then, leaves you in just as much bondage as it does to define it in terms of good works. If your worth is contingent on being a victim, you have sharply limited your options.
Is there an alternative? Kelsey proposes that we can ground our identities, our sense of meaning, in the redemptive work of God. This “is not just God’s way of understanding what we go through. It is God’s own odd way of going about loving us, God’s concrete act of loving us in the midst of the most terrible circumstances we can go through.” That love is redemptive, because for those in bondage, “it is only God’s concrete act of loving them in the midst of the most appalling situations that makes their lives worth living.”5 To take the love of God seriously, then, is to set aside a faith in one’s works or in one’s victimhood as the path to meaning and identity.
I have suffered from depression since I was a teenager, and I have at times let my identity be consumed by mental illness. It’s made me feel different and special; it’s been a way to assert some worth at times when I’ve felt utterly beaten down. I have to admit that sometimes I’ve picked up some of the cultural narratives about depression, that it’s linked to seeing deeper meaning in life, and thought of myself as a more profound person because of what I’ve suffered. But as Kelsey observes,
It is one thing to say that suffering regularly accompanies the changes in our lives brought by redemption and to note that deep suffering is sometimes the occasion for starting to learn to attend to others in their particularities and for their own sakes. It is quite another to say that suffering as such is inherently redemptive . . . Suffering as such does not necessarily have the power to perfect lives. Suffering can just as well disintegrate people and corrode their relationships.6
Part of becoming an adult, I believe, is realizing that everyone has suffered. I’m not saying that some haven’t suffered more than others. What I’m saying is that I’ve learned to be wary of thinking of myself as special because of my suffering, of seeing my pain as unique, and of letting my identity getting wrapped up in that.
I suspect that defining yourself in terms of suffering and victimhood is antithetical to self-care. I’m not saying you should ignore your suffering; on the contrary, to really care for yourself is to take the hard parts of your life seriously and in need of attention. But if your identity is centered in those challenges, you will have little motivation to seek ways to alleviate them. Seeing yourself in terms of victimhood short-circuits the possibility of healing.
I also note that suffering and victimhood can take on a competitive twist—the Suffering Olympics, as it were. Whoever has had it the worst is the winner. Instead of trying to out-righteous each other, we try to out-suffer each other—again, I think, in an ultimately futile quest for identity and meaning. One of the points that the theologian Karl Rahner makes that has often stayed with me is that grace is no less wondrous because it is universally offered. And that universal offer means that we don’t need to compete with each other for the things that really matter.
It is too facile a statement to say that we live in a culture of victimhood. I am suspicious when people dismiss real problems as just people wallowing in a victim status; I note that all too often, it is the people on top of the hierarchy dismissing the people on the bottom as being too sensitive and needing to get over it or pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I think we need to take suffering seriously, to look at its causes, to fight the injustice that gives rise to it. As followers of Christ, we can do no less.
At the same time, I think we think hard about some of our narratives of victimhood, and ask whether they are really doing anyone any good. I can only speak for myself, but adopting those narratives has been destructive in my life. I have tied my worth to being in pain, and have been terrified of who I might be without that identity. And when I think about what has made a difference, it has been not pity or a paradigm of victimhood, but rather nonjudgmental love that accepts where I am—love that doesn’t require that I be doing all the right things, or that I be hurting enough to earn it—love that stays constant throughout everything. In other words, the love of God, often mediated through other people.
Suffering is of course inescapable in this life. And I’m not proposing that we just have a positive attitude about it. But I do think that we can let it destroy us if we make it the center of who we are. I struggle a lot with this, especially when things get darker. But when I have managed to shift away from that identity, it has given me a sense of real possibility, an openness to life. I’m thinking of some lines from Mary Oliver:
But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
and that happiness,
when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive7
- Adrienne Rich, “Twenty-One Love Poems VIII,” The Dream of a Common Language (W.W. Norton 1978), 29. [↩]
- David H. Kelsey, Imagining Redemption (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 57. [↩]
- Ibid., 59 [↩]
- Ibid., 60. [↩]
- Ibid., 61. [↩]
- Ibid., 54. [↩]
- Mary Oliver, “Poppies,” New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press: Boston, 1992), 39-40. [↩]