Culture and Suffering

Don: Sharon is going to give us the leadoff thoughts this morning, about culture and suffering. She’s lived in many different cultures.

Sharon: Let me talk a bit about the various cultures I’ve lived in. I grew up in Michigan, specifically in Pontiac, before my parents became missionaries in Pakistan. Those formative years in Pakistan exposed me to a rich cultural diversity, and I developed a strong bond with the indigenous culture, particularly among Islamic women. This experience ignited a lifelong passion for addressing issues related to Islam and Islamic women.

As an adult, I adopted four boys from Guatemala and lived in Belize for several years to immerse them in their Mayan heritage. I’ve also taught in over 15 countries and have had the opportunity to live and work in West Africa. There, I served as the Country Director for Adventist Development and Relief in Guinea, a Francophone country. I initiated Adventist development work in Iraq and was on the second flight into the country post-invasion. I’ve also managed a $24 million Food for Peace project in Madagascar.

I’ve lived in Kenya and Tanzania and traveled extensively in Thailand, which, along with India and Pakistan, represents the Asian cultures I’m most engaged with. Currently, I’m in Tennessee but plan to return to Malawi in a few months, where I’m deeply involved in the local culture.

I’ve also enjoyed teaching in the Rio Grande Valley for the University of Texas, where I still teach. The students there, often first-generation college attendees, hold a special place in my heart.

Today, we’ll briefly discuss culture, suffering, and pain. As we touched on a few weeks ago, culture is often characterized by shared symbols and groups. These symbols can represent anything from values and beliefs to physical landmarks like rivers or mountains. Culture shapes our thinking and behavior and is passed down through generations.

I’ve observed various cultural practices around the world. For example, in an African witchcraft culture near where I live, people often dress in elaborate costumes to celebrate various events. In contrast, Tibetan women wear special hats as a part of their culture.

In America, our mainstream culture may seem a bit dull compared to the vibrant cultures we’re exposed to. Fortunately, America is a melting pot, enriched by diverse cultures that we, as Eurocentric people, might not otherwise experience.

The Bible also speaks to the concept of socialization. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Culture is learned through socialization, a process by which individuals acquire the norms, values, and customs of their society. This learning is in contrast to genetic traits, which are passed down through heredity.

Culture not only shapes how individuals experience and talk about their own pain and suffering but also influences how they understand and respond to the suffering of others. We have our own internal response, but then we have our interpersonal response. It’s vital to be aware of the cultural differences and similarities in pain and suffering, especially with communication and respect to preferences, and the choices of people from different cultures and different backgrounds. 

There are religious and cultural implications to suffering. Deep-seated philosophical or religious beliefs can also explain cultural norms about pain and suffering. For example, modern Jews, Christians, and Muslims have varying ideas about the origins and the purpose of pain. They generally believe in a standard duty to relieve suffering within ourselves where it exists. We have groups that occasionally see pain and suffering as perceived to be spiritually cathartic. 

The way we learn to cope with suffering and pain comes through our socialization process and our genetic heritage, both nurture and nature. Modern society no longer has any practical ways of coping with suffering, especially chronic pain, or of finding meaning in it and exploring some of the ways that people in the past learned to live with it. Pain is understood now not so much as an enemy in human lives which ought to be pain-free, but as a part of life that has to be lived with, which can be meaningful in itself, not just a deprivation of meaning. 

But people in pain are subject to how their cultures have trained them to experience and to express their pain and suffering. Different strategies have been developed over time. The strategies and resources to cope with pain and suffering are highly impacted by culture. Some cultures may seek to relieve pain and suffering through medical interventions—traditional healers, in my current home country of Malawi, would be the first stop for any human suffering. The local witch doctors have flags over their houses. Every time they heal somebody, they add another flag, so the more flags that the witch doctor has, the more likely he is to be successful in treating you. 

Then we have spiritual practices: “Let’s pray about it.” “Let’s deal with it through the process of spiritual support and spiritual nurture”. Some cultures, especially non-European cultures, have many people who come to support you. When my husband passed away, my house was packed with people who felt called to come and grieve with me. I had to go hide in the bedroom to be by myself because my need was not for social support but to be by myself. But my house was packed because, culturally, social support and social resiliency are critical to them to demonstrate their love and support. So I was in a cultural dilemma because I needed to be alone. I’m an introvert and I needed to be alone. But the house was packed full of people at the very time that I didn’t need to have anybody be with me. 

Pain and suffering can be accepted as inevitable or even desirable. In Pakistan, when we were growing up, my father took us to a fire-walking experience. It stuck in my mind because all of these people were singing “doula, doula” for an hour or two and they were hypnotic, and then they started running through probably 30 feet of coals in religious atonement for all of their past mistakes. So in some cultures, pain and suffering are part of the religious catharsis and cleansing. 

But cultures can and do change. Until about the 18th century, Christians in Western Europe had a broadly fatalistic view of pain. Genesis 3:16, “Thou shalt bring forth children in pain and in sorrow,” supported the perception that pain was heaven-sent, a concomitant to our human experience. It parallels the idea that if you’re having a human experience, then you will have necessary trials and unpleasantness, and those things precede some greater good, maybe our punishment or our reward. 

Responding to pain was medicalized in the past two centuries, and as a result, the relation of pain to cultural values and expectations underwent a change, at least in developed nations. Pain was subject to human intervention and treatment and was not necessarily the result of sin or evil deeds on the part of someone. 

Some cultures encourage the expression of pain and suffering, especially in the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Others suppress it, as in many lessons to our children, especially boys, about behaving bravely and not crying. In contemporary Anglo-European cultures, we tend to try to soften pain by sharing it with others. Confucian cultures, covering much of Southeast Asia, advocate that people should quietly keep their suffering to themselves and maintain their dignity by being brave and holding in their pain. 

The Bible has over 240 verses about weeping culture. 

  • Numbers 14:1, “Then all the people gave loud cries, not low cries, of grief. And all that night they gave themselves to weeping.” It wasn’t just some people; it was all people in their culture, and they wept all night. 
  • Numbers 20:29 extended that to 30 days: “And when the people saw that Aaron was dead, all the children of Israel gave themselves up to weeping for him for 30 days.” 
  • Revelation 5:4, “And I began weeping, not just a little bit, weeping greatly, because no one could open the book and look at it.” 
  • Luke 22:62, “Peter, when he realized what he had done, when the cock crowed the third time, he went out and wept bitterly.” 
  • And by no means least: John 11:35, where Jesus’ own soul was wrenched, and “Jesus wept.” 

Weeping appears to be not only our contemporary culture but a condition of the human experience. We laugh, we cry, and we come together around the challenges on both extremes of our emotional experience. Jesus wept. Another verse notes that when Jesus saw a woman weeping, he felt deeply for her. So, Jesus feels with us when we are having these human experiences.

One of Nietzsche’s pithy sayings is, “He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how’.” This “why” is often cultivated by culture, but its fruits are reaped by the individual. He who has a purpose to live can bear almost any circumstance. This purpose is often shaped by culture, but its benefits are reaped by our children, our grandchildren, and by the messages we transmit about who they are and what their purpose is in this world. So now, let’s move to our discussion. I have several questions we might tackle:

  1. How can we, as grace-endowed believers, leverage cultural resilience more proactively to nurture the pain and suffering of God’s children?
  2. How can being deeply moved by the pain we see around us in the world motivate us to act?
  3. Does our biblical orientation transcend culture?

I’m opening the floor to whatever questions, thoughts, and comments you’d like to make.

David: I’d like to ask you, given your extensive experience with various cultures, how has your biblical orientation affected your cultural perspective? For instance, you expressed great sympathy for Muslim women and their suffering. To what extent has your own outlook on pain and suffering been influenced by being exposed to so many cultures? Also, as the world becomes a global village, do you think the diversity of culture is becoming bland, like Chinese cuisine in the American melting pot?

Sharon: My biblical orientation is part of my socialization. My family, particularly my parents, taught us to appreciate the diversity of people. If God wanted a monoculture, He would have created only one type of flower, animal, or person. Some teachers use “culture” as a cop-out for unacceptable behavior. I think that biblical values should transcend cultural excuses. So, in answer to your question, there are times when our biblical values should outweigh cultural norms.

Michael: I think it’s interesting that you’re not just comparing past and present attitudes toward pain but asking us to find better solutions. That’s a much better way to look at it.

Sharon: The idea here is that culture brings meaning and resilience to people. When I work in the emergency room with people in crisis, I ask them, “When you’ve faced trauma before, what spiritual resilience has been helpful to you?” It’s not about what brings me meaning, but helping people find what brings them meaning. To do that, I need to get close to someone, sit beside them, and talk with them to find out what is meaningful to them.

Reinhard: The impact of Christianity on Indonesian culture is significant. Parents try to indoctrinate their beliefs into their children. Over the years, I’ve seen that Christian principles are becoming more deeply ingrained in people, affecting how they handle suffering and loss. I think the belief in Christ helps people cope with challenges and strengthens their faith. The biblical principles are increasingly affecting people’s hearts and lives.

Sharon: I think that even the Bible verse that says, “We don’t grieve as others do,” reflects this. In African culture, if you’re wealthy, you can even hire mourners to cry loudly at a funeral to show how sad you are. Also, in Africa, if you haven’t attended church, they won’t allow church people to come and sing at your funeral. So, there are cultural issues that override, but I do think that Christian culture has made an impact over time.

Anonymous: I wonder if people from the same culture do a better job comforting each other due to common culture? Grief is universal. You can look at someone’s face and tell whether they’re sad or happy. People want to help those who are grieving, but it doesn’t always work. Even though I rely a lot on God, nothing could comfort me in my deepest sadness except crying to God. Paul says we don’t grieve like others, suggesting that we have our own way of grieving. For me, it’s relying on God’s comfort and word.

Sharon: Those are critical points. Even within a culture, there are differences in the needs of people, perhaps due to personality. The intensity of grieving can also vary depending on the context.

Carolyn: In our culture, when people are grieving, they’re often referred to therapy. What’s your take on that?

Sharon: Therapy can be helpful for some, though I prefer helping my clients find a social support system for the long haul rather than relying on a therapist. I think an ongoing community of support is more beneficial in the long run. There are traumatic experiences where therapy may be important, but I believe a supportive community is what makes for healthy functioning and relationships.

Don: Is our response to suffering influenced by a cultural understanding of God, or is there something more innate that shapes our reaction?

Kiran: I used to be Hindu. The Hindu mindset tends to fear the gods. If something bad happens, Hindus immediately think about karma and which god might be angry with us. To make amends and alleviate the suffering or trial, people go to the temple, give alms, and make donations. They might also consult a Jyotisha (astrologer), a kind of futurist who performs certain rituals and then might say, “You’ve angered this planet, and there’s a misalignment in your planetary positions. To fix this, you need to do specific things.” He might advise wearing a gold ring with a red stone, a silver ring with a green stone, or some copper ornament. 

Over time, after becoming a Christian, my view of God and how I approach suffering has changed. I now see God as someone who knows I’m sinful but has already paid for my sins, which has influenced how I deal with suffering.

Sharon: I believe there’s an experiential and existential relationship with God that can transcend cultural influences. Every culture has both healthy and unhealthy aspects. As individuals, it’s our responsibility to sift through the messages and biases we’ve been socialized with to determine what resonates with us on a deeper level.

David: Reflecting on what Kiran said, the main takeaway is that you should always listen to futurists ;). But seriously: What seems to be developing from both Anon’s and Sharon’s comments is the idea of a personal walk with God. Both expressed a need to be alone in their grief and suffering, finding closeness with God in those moments. They acknowledge that their culture and religion have shaped this approach. 

The group approach to suffering reminds me of Babel, which was an attempt to reach heaven and understand God. Presumably, one motivation for this is to gain the power to alleviate suffering. God, however, shattered this attempt, dispersing us into our various cultures. Each culture is like a mini Tower of Babel, attempting to penetrate the mysteries of God and understand suffering in its own—culture-specific—way. 

These attempts are as doomed to fail as the original Tower of Babel. Ultimately, the issue of suffering is personal and individual. It comes down to a private relationship with God, as the Bible suggests when it talks about going into your closet to pray. In my view, your experience of suffering, regardless of your culture, is ultimately between you and God.

Don: That’s a good segue into future discussions. Sharon will be talking about personality, suffering, and genetics in the coming weeks.

Michael: It’s a complex topic, and there’s a lot to discuss. I’m not entirely sure what we aim to achieve, but I agree that different cultures have their own approaches to suffering. For instance, some cultures may not even try to change their situation. While they may have a better approach to handling pain and suffering, they might lack in other areas.

Reinhard: I’d like to add something about therapy. Social support, like what we have in this class, is invaluable. For those who are part of a community or church, that’s a great benefit. However, for people who don’t have that support or don’t believe in God, therapy becomes the medical standard. I think our class discussions are beneficial, not just for discussing suffering but also for addressing other challenges we face.

Don: Michael’s question about our objectives is crucial. We’re examining the human condition of suffering from various angles to better understand how we can help others and ourselves. There’s more work to be done.

Michael: I agree. The topic is both important and fascinating. One thing I’ve learned from Sharon is that many cultures don’t deny pain and suffering. Perhaps our culture tries to avoid it, and shining a light on that is important.

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