In the last few days, I’ve found myself haunted by an image. It appears to be unforgettable — as it should. Recently, I was shown a picture of a child in Africa. Taken in 1993, the image displays a starving child collapsed on the ground. Those familiar with the area indicate she is struggling toward the direction of a nearby food center. Next to her body, a vulture hovers awaiting her death.
The photographer, Kevin Carter, won a Pulitzer Prize for this impacting depiction of the global poverty existing in our world, most poignantly taking place in Africa. One year after receiving such an acclaimed award, Carter committed suicide. Reports indicate he couldn’t move beyond the devastating images witnessed during his time in Africa.
I can only pretend to understand how difficult it was for this photographer to carry the pain of his experiences — the ways he was touched and forever changed by the suffering he witnessed. Like so many, I am not alone in wishing such an impact could have been directed toward creating change in the world rather than the ending of his life. I suspect a great deal of healing could have taken place — not only for those starving in body, but those devastated in spirit.
To be human is to know the experience of suffering. For some, suffering is rare and felt in small doses. For others, it is steady and strong and deep. Suffering exists on a continuum both within our lives and within our world. It varies in shape and size and presence across time. Perhaps suffering comes in the form of illness, a broken heart, the loss of friendship or marriage, the death of a loved one. Perhaps there is frustration in the workplace or disappointment at school. Perhaps there is pain from the past and suffering seems far too heavy.
For the person experiencing suffering, the pain is genuine and significant and cannot be dismissed simply by being compared to another kind of suffering. Having said that, I do believe remaining aware and connected to the suffering of others can be a powerful remedy lessening our own personal suffering. When we are open and engaged with the needs of others, we experience perspective about the array of pain existing in the human experience. In this perspective, we learn we are not alone in our suffering. We learn there are greater pains in the world. While honoring our own experience and all the emotion it entails, we also learn to not stay stuck in the dwelling of our own circumstance.
While suffering through circumstance is deeply painful while it exists, it has the potential to leave a tremendously valuable legacy in our lives and in the world. Ideally, where we have known pain and suffering, we come to develop deeper compassion and empathy for the needs of the others. We connect more fully to the suffering of others. We are more fully impassioned to bring restoration and healing.
As a note to parents, the suffering your family may know is a meaningful opportunity to teach your children well. By moving beyond one’s own experience of suffering and pain and looking toward another, there is an incredible opportunity to discover perspective that may be life-changing — for others and for those in your family.
Explore community service programs in your area. Contact your local school or church. Reach out and ask to serve where there is need. While meeting the needs of others, you might be pleasantly surprised at how your own burdens seem easier to carry.
Again, I am struck by the image I described earlier of the child being stalked by a vulture. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were all so moved in the world as to hover like the vulture — seeking to surround with anticipation where there is pain and suffering? Instead of waiting for death to arrive, we are waiting for opportunities to bring life to another, to bestow joy, to deliver healing where needed. That too is an image worthy of becoming unforgettable. Let’s work toward this new kind of picture. Together, we might just find our own healing.
Shannon Renae West is a licensed family therapist serving families on the Eastside. She can be reached at (425) 415-6556 or via e-mail at ShanWest@msn.com.