This essay was originally published in The Well, InterVarsity's online magazine for women in the academy and professions.
It has been a week of heartbreaking news — brutal persecution in Iraq, the murder of a fellow Anglican clergyman, the ongoing Ebola epidemic, the Michael Brown shooting, the suicide of an American icon. We live in a world where bad news is beamed from every dark corner of the earth onto glowing screens in our homes in record time. And this week, I’ve felt undone by it all. I am grieving the darkness and sadness in the world.
For me, the news about Iraq is a particularly deep ache. Amidst the worldwide horrors that deserve to be grieved, this news hits me closer to home somehow. I am a priest. If these Iraqi children who are being murdered were in my parish, they could rightly call me mother. This evil against people who I call brother and sister — who I truly feel are my family — feels sharp and painful and overwhelming.
In the face of such horror, shouldn’t the regular rhythms of the world stop? Shouldn’t we all pause and sit and pray and weep? And yet, my daughters need a mother who goes about her ordinary day. So as children face death on the other side of the globe, I take photos of my eldest as she begins her first day of Pre-K. As an Iraqi mother weeps over her son or daughter, I push my toddler through the produce section of our hippie grocery store.
I have prayed for the people of Iraq. We are giving money to organizations that help. But it all seems so small. Going about my ordinary day feels somehow selfish. Why should I go about normal life so normally when others are suffering so extremely?
I want to do more. Something more. But I don’t know what can be done. I want to talk to an Iraqi mother, to make contact, to tell her I’m praying for her, to say I’m sorry, to ask her what she’d have me do. In frustration and desperation, I say something crazy to my husband like “Why can’t we all just get on planes and head over there?” and he stares back blankly. So I change the photo on my Facebook profile to show ‘solidarity’ with believers around the world and it feels cheap. I fail to see how changing my profile photo affects anyone at all.
Neil Postman introduced the idea of the “low information to action ratio,” the concept that technology has made it possible to know details of suffering so remote from our everyday lives that we seemingly can do nothing in response — we have information without any clear action with which to respond. A low information to action ratio leads to callousness — we desensitize ourselves to suffering — or to despair because we are overwhelmed by the scale of world-wide suffering. We are small people who, for the most part, live quiet lives, but we have access to endless stories of pain and brokenness.
So I’ll make little gestures toward peace. I’ll buy the fair-trade coffee. I’ll hang the laundry on the line. I’ll walk instead of drive. I’ll pass the peace on Sunday.
I’ll read my daughter a story believing that by doing so I’m honoring other mothers who are suffering, and that I’m raising a person capable of being a peacemaker. I’ll sweep up the raisins that she dropped on the floor as a tiny, insignificant way to push back the chaos and bring order and beauty.
But none of this will help stop the persecution in Iraq. Even my small donation to an organization will only aid victims. I cannot stop evil men from hurting strangers I love on the other side of an ocean. My ordinary day feels ridiculous and futile.
In this world where news of torture and death runs like a ticker through my day, I’m realizing in a new way that I must learn to pray. I must learn to sit in silence with a God who is all-powerful and all-loving in the mystery of horrendous suffering. I must learn to lift up my sisters and brothers without ceasing. I must learn to pray ordinary prayers for them in my small way and believe that God makes those prayers matter. I have to stretch toward the belief that prayer is more powerful than death, that God can change evil men or stop them more certainly than violence can, that there is a Rescuer for those who suffer.
When I was just out of college and working among the poor, a friend, an older and wiser chain-smoking Franciscan friar, commented on the intensity of my life and work at that time and said, “You don’t have the kind of prayer life and rhythms of contemplation to sustain the work you are doing.” He warned that I was going to burn out. I was surrounded by too much suffering to be able to subsist without more rest, more prayer, more quiet days, more solitude, more silence, more listening. He was right. Within a few years, I was spent.
It’s getting to the point that I can’t even read the news or go on Facebook without needing a sustaining life of prayer, the kind of robust contemplative life that allows me to remain vulnerable and hopeful in a world of suffering.
Prayer is not merely a pious consolation prize, something we do when we don’t know what else to do. It is not the property of hermetic saints and propriety. It is earthy and gritty and groaning and vulnerable and fierce. And it is sustenance. I want to learn to cultivate a life of prayer in the midst of a suffering world.
I may never get to tell an Iraqi mother that I am so sorry for her loss, I may not be able to hold her hand or pray with her, I may not be able to stop this kind of evil. But in my daily life, I need to learn to cling to prayer and lean into silence even as I read news.
Tish Harrison Warren is a transitional deacon in the Anglican Church in North America. She and her husband Jonathan work with InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministries at The University of Texas at Austin and have two young daughters. Tish writes regularly for The Well. She has also written for Christianity Today’s her.meneutics and was featured on the White Horse Inn. She's newly on Twitter @Tish_H_Warren.