How do you measure suffering? How do you measure the grief and the despair of the family and friends of the victims of the disaster with the MH 17. The downing of the plane of Malaysian Airlines with almost 300 passengers—of whom 198 were Dutch—was a national disaster for the Netherlands and a national day of mourning was more than fitting. But the mourners were, first of all, those men and women who lost a partner, or lost their parents or their children. And those who will never again see their friend, their colleague, their neighbor.
The past week saw a lot of other misery in our world. In Taiwan a plane crashed which left 48 people dead and another plan disaster, in Mali, took 116 lives. During the past week hundreds of Palestinians were killed, together with dozens of Israelis, in an eruption of violence for which there appears no solution. Will will this region of the world ever see peace?
But, apart from this large-scale misery there were many men and women, also during this past week, who are struggling with the tumor and the viruses that seek to destroy their body. And this week there were also many who had to attend funerals or cremations.
When in your own situation things do not go as smoothly as you wished , the thought of al this suffering–this large-scale suffering, far off and nearby–helps to relativize your own discomfort. Almost three weeks ago my wife broke her right arm (at a nasty place and very painful) and also the little finger on her lefty hand. We had to cancel our holiday plans. We had planned to drive to Sweden this past week to be for a few weeks with our son and his family. But rather than being in Sweden my wife sits, quite immobile, in her desk chair (which she finds at present the most comfortable) and the most she can do is typing e-mail message with two fingers on her i-Pad. And rather then enjoying the Swedish scenery, I am peeling the potatoes and attend to numerous other domestic chores that give me very little pleasure. However, even though I feel quite frustrated, I realize that my problem hardly qualifies as ‘suffering’—in comparison with the true suffering in the world.
And yet, in the midst of all the great problems and disasters we should not forget the real suffering that takes place also at a much smaller scale. For what may seem ‘small’ and ‘insignificant’ to me, may be insurmountable in the eyes of others. Earlier this week I made my customary morning walk—just a bit shorter than usual because of the circumstances I alluded to above. I met an elderly lady who walked slowly behind a walker. She clearly struggled to make her small dog, that was tied to the walker, move along. He (I will assume the dog was male) did not feel like moving. I asked her whether she would be all right. She responded at length. I was told that the dog was already 13 years old and suffered of various ailments That morning she had not given her dog enough of his medicines. The dog would probably not live too much longer. But, she was already 83 and at that age it would hardly be responsible to get another one. So, before too long she would be totally alone . . .
The incident of the elderly lady with her elderly dog was of a totally different order than the long procession of 74 black hearses with as many coffins, making their way along the highway from Eindhoven airport to Hilversum, where the forensic experts will do their difficult work. And yet, this was also real suffering . . .