Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thoughts on Love and Suffering

The great philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, 1729-1786, was one of the most esteemed minds in the Age of Enlightenment in Germany. Referred to as "the Socrates of Berlin," his intellectual brilliance and moral superiority were renowned and he won many prestigious prizes. Unfortunately, he was also notably unattractive as he had a grotesque hunchback.

One day, while visiting a merchant named Gugenheim in Hamburg, he glimpsed the merchant's beautiful, blue eyed blonde daughter, Frumtje, and fell hopelessly in love with her. Her father, eager for a match, had told her of Mendelssohn's reputation, but the first time she saw him she was so repulsed by his misshapen appearance that she burst into tears and hid in her room to await his departure.

Moses gathered his courage and climbed the stairs to speak with her one last time. He had never seen a woman as beautiful as she, but all his attempts to engage her in conversation failed. Finally, he softly asked her, "Is it my hump?" She nodded.

"Let me tell you a story then," he said. "Do you believe marriages are made in heaven?"

"Yes," she answered, still looking at the floor. "Do you?"

"Yes, I do," he replied. “As you know, when a child is born, proclamation is made in heaven of the name of the person he or she is to marry. When I was born, my future wife was also named, but at the same time it was said that she herself would be humpbacked. ‘O God,’ I said, ‘a deformed girl will become embittered and unhappy. A woman should be beautiful and well-made in every way. Please, Lord, give me the hump and let her be fair and perfect.’”

Frumpje was so touched that she looked into his eyes and saw his loving soul shining out at her. She gave him her hand and soon became his devoted wife. They enjoyed a blissful marriage and had six children, all of whom were brilliantly successful in their various fields.

This story always makes me cry a little. I find that there is much to cry about these days, both in my personal life and in the world at large. Every day I sit at Flip's bedside and bear witness to his ongoing disintegration as his illness claims him at a shocking rate. I have begun to wonder if perhaps I was the one who was supposed to be so afflicted, but that Flip begged to take on the disease himself to spare me, and because he knew that I could not endure it with as much grace as he does.

The Buddhist practice of Tonglen, assuming another's pain, is also very much in my mind. Its purpose is to awaken our compassion by connecting with suffering, our own and that of others. The practice dissolves the armor of self-protection we create around ourselves by reversing the usual avoidance of suffering while seeking pleasure. If we can accomplish this, we become liberated from the self-imposed prison of selfishness. We perceive a larger view of reality and learn to use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.

I am trying to teach myself to take on Flip's suffering, to somehow ease it for him, but this is way beyond any capabilities I presently possess. But did Flip, like Moses Mendelssohn, take on the terrible infirmity intended for me, and is he even now breathing in my pain, doing Tonglen for me? I cannot know the answer but I do know that if he could, he would. And perhaps he did.


Jo said...

Oh, Susan, I think you might be right. When my Dad was dying of cancer of the pancreas, I happened to walk past the bedroom one day, and my Mom was holding my Dad like a little child, and she was rocking him back and forth and comforting him, and saying, "I wish it were me instead...". I do believe that is what Flip did for you.

That was a lovely story about Mendelssohn. I had never heard it before.

Anonymous said...

Its also a Christian concept in that Jesus was born to take our place, to spare us from suffering the consequences of our own sins.

Isaiah 53:2-5
"He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed."

It is the ultimate demonstration of God's love for us that He sent his son to take our place.

We might not be able to actually physically take on someone's suffering and spare them but we can certainly lighten their burden by sharing the pain and soothing it with love you have been doing for Flip. God bless.

the walking man said...

Susan do not torture your self. Flip is ill because of his genetic code. That is sad enough without you finding a way to take blame for whatever scientific thing as yet unexplained came upon him.

Do not add this kind of thinking, though noble enough, to your already heavy load.

Maria said...

I believe that grief is clouding things up a bit. Susan, it is natural to want to take someone's pain away. I think that most parents feel this way about their children ("Give it to me, God! I can handle it better than she/he can!") and that most lovers feel this way about their partners. It is a psychological fact that the one who has to watch their partner suffer often is left with incredible psychological torment. Your mind wants to fix the "error." Right the wrong.

Maybe this will make you smile a little: When I was reading your story, my first thought was that he was incredibly silver tongued and a bit devious! It's all in how you read it.

I think you are bearing up remarkably considering that this is a day to day torment for you with no way of knowing when or how it ends. That is the killer, you know..the watching and the not knowing.

I think this sounds glib and I didn't mean it to be...I need to get to work, but I want to send an e-mail later. Hope you'll read it.

Paula said...

Susan, I have been very concerned, knowing that your lack of posts was probably a sign that things were not well. You and Flip are in my thoughts and prayers. And lgsquirrel, I appreciate your comment, too!

Sextant said...

Love is the most beautiful emotion that we can possibly know, but love and life are also impossibly cruel. In my relatively sheltered life, any notion of what you are going through is purely theoretical. I do not believe that any of us can possibly understand the magnitude of your grief until we walk that grim path ourselves. I fear the loss of my wife far more than my own passing, and I hope that somehow we can make that passage together. My belief, perhaps better stated as my hope, is that love is eternal, and our suffering here is brief.

Take what comforts that you can, and may the Divine within you give you the the strength and courage to face the days ahead. Very beautiful post. My heart aches for you.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


You are lucky to have had parents who deeply loved each other. I think it makes a huge difference in ones life.

Part of me is horrified that Frumptje was so shallow, but she was very young and sheltered, and Moses must have been incredibly charming.


I think that all great religions share many concepts. Since we are not God, all we can do is try to help. Thank you for a lovely reminder.


I know I am engaging in magical thinking. Because I am a rational person (usually,) I look for reasons. Besides, we don't really know, do we? There is so much we don't know.


I prefer to think of Moses as charming rather than devious, but part of me thinks she must not have been too bright. Which somehow (oddly) does not detract from a lovely story.

Your comment doesn't sound glib, and of course I'll read your email. Bring it. :)


You've cracked the code. My lack of posts means exactly that, plus of course, I'm lazy.


I think that our inability to really understand the pain of others is why the Tonglen practice is needed. But someone like me attempting it with no training or background is like a bicycle rider trying to fly a jet plane.

It may be that the pain of loss is worse than the pain of dying, but it's impossible to compare.

Thank you for a very lovely comment.

Taradharma said...

a wonderful story of Moses and his bride -- a gateway for us to know empathy and compassion.

I have been on both sides of the suffering with serious health problems, and being the one who comforts. I tell you the truth, for me, it was easier to be lying there close to death than it is to watch someone lying there close to death. It's the ultimate in suffering and pain to watch someone you love deteriorate. I think I've mentioned it before, but I hope that you are engaged in some kind of support group -- if you are at all disposed to that sort of thing. It can really help lift the load.


Anonymous said...

An enchanting story that posits some intriguing questions, Susan. I'd never looked on love in that manner and I must read it again to understand that I have the gist of the wisdom correct in my mind.
Meanwhile, my heart goes out to you both. We've never met in person, but that's irrelevant.

meno said...

My mother recently told me that she would take on my pain for me if she could. Since she is incapable of actually saying the words "I love you" maybe this was her way of saying it without saying it.

It's a nice thought.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Yes, it's much harder to watch than to be the sick one. We used to attend an Alzheimer's Association support group but it turned out to be mean-spirited because the facilitator was. We haven't been in over a year, maybe two years, and now Flip is in a facility. But thanks for an idea which in theory is excellent.


I love the story even though I don't really believe in heaven (or hell.) I think they are both right here on earth, but stories in which love overcomes obstacles are always beautiful.


Your mother may not be able to say those precise words, but what she said does mean exactly that. She loves you more than she loves herself and would gladly take on your suffering if she could. I would definitely go with that. There are many ways to say "I love you" besides those three little words we are all so hung up on.

e said...

A lovely story with some interesting points to ponder. I hope that you are taking care of yourself and getting the support you can from others.

Molly said...

Ahhh. I was afraid your silence meant exactly what you have here confirmed it meant. I agree with The Walking Man, you should not add needless guilt to your already heavy burden! You are so loyal, and so patient, and there for Flip every day. Someone with a lesser capacity for love would have baled long ago. He may not be lucky in health, but he won the jackpot in love!

la cartonaria said...

I believe watching others suffer, especially those we love profoundly, is one of the most difficult things in our lives. Yet I also believe the practice of Tonglen can help: not to relieve or lessen the suffering, but to keep our hearts open & tender, & to have the considerable bravery it takes to be able to be right beside your Flip day after grevious day. Tonglen can also remind you, however horrific your days are, you are not alone. I include you and Flip in my practice everyday. Much love from a stranger.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank you!


Your sweet comment warms my heart.

La Cartonaria,

Your explanation of why Tonglen helps is itself most helpful. Thank you for those kind words, and for including us in your practice.

I tried to comment to one of your posts but was unable to. I wanted to know if it's possible to grow lotus in a pot with soil as I don't have a pond.

mischief said...

True love, when you would willingly take on another's suffering to ease theirs. He would do the same for you, of course. The world is terribly unfair sometimes, and I'm so sorry for his suffering and yours. My love to you both. I wish I could carry a piece of this pain for you. xx

secret agent woman said...

When my younger son was was going through everything connected to his brain surgery, I remember wishing over and over that I could take it on for him. But we don't get to make that choice - things happen as they happen. I do believe that the love that propels that wish makes a difference though - your constant and abiding love for Flip matters.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Enormous love and peace to you; I wish I could take some of your pain and heartache away, too.

Perhaps we all do this, when we share burdens of the heart and soul with friends and loved ones... take just a bit of the grief away and give comfort and brief respite from the difficulties that are ours in life.

Love to you in abundance.


la cartonaria said...

Re: Lotus in a pot. Absolutely. I'll post information on the poor, neglected blog soon.
More about tonglen: Are you familiar with Pema Chodron? I recommend her books highly. She's an excellent, friendly guide - wise & earthy. I find her very helpful.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


None of us can ever do that, but kind thoughts such as yours help so much. Thank you.


There is truly nothing worse than watching your child suffer. I'm so glad he (and you) came through his illness and he is now healed and healthy.

I also believe that love matters. It may even be all that matters.


Good thoughts and kind wishes always help, and I am blessed to have yours.

La Cartonaria,

Please do! I also love them but assumed they needed to be water plants. (I once tried to grow watercress in a fishtank, an experiment which failed horribly. The pump kept the mud swirling around the tank constantly until I realized that my brilliant idea was not at all brilliant, or even workable.)

I love Pema Chodron and have several of her books. The Shambhala Sun also prints articles by her regularly. She is wonderful!

Los Angelista said...

I have tears pouring down my cheeks and I wish I could give you a hug. Truly, thinking of you.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Virtual hugs are almost as good, and so very welcome. Thank you!

consuetudinis magna vis est said...

A very Merry Christmas to You and a very happy New Year to you and family and everyone around you !!!

Molly said...

Under the circumstances it would be crass to wish you a Merry Christmas, or Hannukah, but I do hope the season brings some peace to your over-taxed heart!

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank you so much! I wish the same to you and yours.


You couldn't be crass if you tried. I know what you mean, and appreciate it.

Merry Christmas to you and your delightful and beautiful family.

Jocelyn said...

You have made me cry, with something like a mixture of love and joy and sadness and heartbreak. To know love is to know pain, yes? I am so sorry. I don't know how else to articulate the respect and compassion I have for you--more, even, for Flip. Were I able to take even a small percentage of your load right now, I'd shoulder it gladly. Please feel my love.

David said...

Oh my goodness, Susan, this makes my heart ache in so many new ways.

Hugs to you, to Flip.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I do feel it! Thank you.


Hearts are tricky like that. But if we couldn't feel pain, joy would also be lost on us. I much prefer joy, though.

NoRegrets said...

I actually didn't read it as guilt as some others did. I thought it was more trying to make sense of it all, and remembering how he is.
I hope you find peace in the new year.

PeterAtLarge said...

Sorry I came upon this entry so late. It's a lovely story, and the connection with your own life is so beautifully and precisely made. Tonglen is a noble practice, and a rewarding one for one who takes the risk with sincerity and fearlessness. I also think that all of us who are parents have experienced that wish--that we might be able to suffer in our children's place. Thank you for this profoundly meaningful observation.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


You are right. Even conditioned to feel guilt as I am, I cannot take the blame for Flip's dreadful illness, but I constantly try out different theories in my attempts to make sense of it. This is undoubtedly a fruitless task as there is none to be made.


I was hoping you would read this post because I know that you are further along the path than I. You are absolutely right about wishing to take on the sufferings of our children even while knowing that they are a necessary part of their life's experience. Thank you for always being so very kind.

nick said...

I agree with Walking Man. The cause of Flip's illness lies inside himself and is in way connected to you. It's more than enough that you care about him so much and do everything you can to relieve his pain and suffering.

CiCi said...

It has been a long time since I have been around to see your blog and lots of others too. I was going through my own life changes and am ready to reach out to others once again. I hope you are doing ok. Of course you are not. I am here for you if you want to talk. Or email.

Donna B. said...

Oh Susan...what a touchingly beautiful post... I had never heard that story is beautiful.

I understand your grief, as my Dad also has Alzheimer's. I live 250 miles from him and visit every couple of months. I am his advocate being the first contact with any changes to his treatment. I write the blog about our experience with him and I keep records of his medications and health issues. We mostly have phone conversations, which are extremely frustrating in getting him physically on the phone. He knows who I am, but our conversations get shorter and shorter...

As you know, we adopt any philosophy and mindset we can to keep us positive and grateful for the moments we are able to share with our loved ones.

Laura Lee said...

what a lovely story about Mendelssohn! whatever IS possible regarding taking on the suffering of another, methinks it surely must have been, as in the story, bargained before birth... I dunno. it's something to think about other than what we go through watching our loved ones. my mom has non-specific dementia and lives nearly a thousand miles away, and I don't know what's worse... watching a loved one in this state, or not being able to.

either way, I appreciate your position, your blog, and your thoughtful thoughts.

nick said...

Hi, Susan. You've been away a while. How's everything going? (Jan 26)

Dutchbaby said...

A wonderful, thought-provoking tale with a Brothers Grimm feeling to it. You sharing this tale tells me that you have a great capacity for empathy. I wish you and Flip well.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I changed my phone service and have been without internet for over a week. I'm at the library trying to catch up on emails, mostly, but will respond to your kind comments individually as soon as I am back in service.


heartinsanfrancisco said...


I guess sometimes it doesn't feel like I am doing enough because there is no visible result. I want to cure him and this is doomed to failure.


I'm happy to see you back. I hoped you would favor us with another post after the first in your new blog, but then I lost my internet for a very long time. Ready to reconnect now.

Anonymous said...

Susan, it's Pam (Australia). I'm so sorry to hear everything that happened, so quickly, just so damn words I can think of console any of what life has been dealing out to you guys. But I have jettison'd my email/laptop, not sure it can be retrieved, so I need to get a new 'transportable' email. (Thanks Josie). My mother is still able to live at home with her dementia, it's fragile. What we think we have is indeed fragile. I've read back over your writings, heartfelt, sad, funny at times, a tribute, so many things, just so many...sounds like you are having computer troubles too, I'll check back in. Love from Pam xx

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Pam!!! I'm so happy to hear from you! I almost deleted your comment automatically because I still get about a dozen "Anonymous" comments daily which is why I installed comment moderation. (Today's batch included a chlamydia med as well as the usual Viagra, etc.)

Your observation that what we think we have is indeed fragile is so very true. I'm glad your mother is still able to enjoy enough quality of life to be at home, and look forward to catching up with you on everything when your email is working again. Are you on Facebook? That also provides a way to communicate with messages that are, hopefully, private.

Much love to you!!!

Molly said...

I was glad to hear from you Susan. I often wonder how you and Flip are doing. Wishing good things and courage for both of you....Hugs from Molly

Ian Lidster said...

You are one very brave lady, Susan, and I feel privileged to have at least this sort of connection to you. You actually give me a lot more hope about life and courage than you might think.