“Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” ( Job 5:7)
I am doing something a bit different in this writing. I wanted to share the thoughts of someone who truly new suffering & affliction, and who not only suffered well, but died well, honoring Christ even in the last moments of his life. My son, Andrew, was the epitome of 2 Timothy 4:7—“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”. What follows is an essay he wrote for the Elie Wiesel Ethics Prize competition at age 20, one year prior to his death from cancer.
“Despite his doubts regarding the efficacy of his work and his fear that ‘we never feel the sufferings of others, and they never darken our temporary well-being, until they become our own’, Alexander Solzhenitsyn made numerous speeches during the years following his expulsion from the Soviet Union and addressed audiences ranging from members of the AFL-CIO to the United States Senate to the listeners of the BBC.
Although his audiences varied greatly, Solzhenitsyn did not change or temper his message to suit the sensibilities of his listeners; on the contrary, he desired for all to hear his story of ‘what it is like there, in the dragon’s belly’ where, despite their apparent differences, ‘all [Communist nations] are united on one point…[the West’s] social order must be destroyed’. As a survivor of both cancer and the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn was well equipped to share the suffering experienced, both individually and collectively, under Soviet rule.
Although Solzhenitsyn endured incredible personal hardship, it is clear from his speeches that he was never under the illusion that his experience was extraordinary. In his 1975 address to the United States Senate, he thanks its members for its efforts to declare him an honorary citizen, which he interprets as a gesture of support not only for himself ‘as an individual but also [for] the millions of…[his] fellow countrymen who have been deprived of rights’. Rather than wallowing in self pity or haranguing his audience with tales highlighting his strength in overcoming hardship, Solzhenitsyn used his story to draw attention to those who were still behind the Iron Curtain and could not plead their own case.
He implores the West to give consideration to those facing ‘forced treatment in insane asylums’, to those living where ‘electronic bugging…is a matter of everyday life’ and ‘any thought which is different from the state’s is crushed’. His speeches capture ethical suffering at its most active as he seizes opportunities to advocate on behalf of his countrymen and uses his own suffering as a tool in alleviating the hardship of others; furthermore, he does not indulge in self-congratulation with respect to his humanitarian activities because he understands that to speak out is neither optional nor something which merits commendation. It is a ‘duty’.
“As I reflect upon this duty as it pertains to my life, I am humbled by the magnitude of the sufferer’s calling. While I have endeavored to ‘suffer ethically’ over the past five years, the very act of articulating what I mean by that phrase has made me aware of just how inadequate my efforts have often been.
The months following my initial diagnosis of cancer were a period of intense self-examination and introspection. My chemotherapy schedule consisted of two weeks of in-patient chemotherapy in a row, followed by two weeks of recovery time at home. During my two weeks off, there would be a period of about 5 days where my immune system would be too weak for me to leave the house. The boredom and sickness of the hospital coupled with these quarantine periods forced me to truly grapple with issues of identity and faith; I had to reconcile my vision of my life and future with the reality of my cancer.
The questions with which I struggled were slowly answered as I began to see the relationships and opportunities which would have never been available to me were it not for my illness; furthermore, I developed an appreciation for the dangers of staking one’s identity on something transient like athletic accomplishment. Though I still wrestle with doubts and questions, I have only become more resolute in my Christian faith over the course of the past five years. Suffering provided the impetus to reevaluate my priorities and endeavor to hold fast to that which is of lasting value—faith, family, relationships—while dispensing with the extraneous.
Lacking the platform of being a Nobel Laureate like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, it is easy to feel powerless to effect any change, and I know that I have frequently succumbed to the belief that I am not important or powerful enough to truly make a difference on behalf of those who suffer. While I am extremely open about my illness and frequently field questions from strangers ranging from homeless men to professors who inquire regarding my limp, I fear becoming like the West as described by Solzhenitsyn, where ‘the proud skyscrapers stand on, jut into the sky, and say: It will never happen here’. In my case, it has already ‘happened here’, which makes indifference towards the imperative to advocate on behalf of those facing cancer a form of willful amnesia, an intentional effort to forget one’s duty to the suffering. It is my hope that this essay forms the basis for a renewed commitment by me to boldness on behalf of young people battling cancer.
Although I have experienced great pain at a young age, I am still a student when it comes to ethical suffering, and by no means do I claim that my experience is unique; indeed, I echo Moses Herzog in acknowledging that ‘so many…go down in terrible pain’. We do not choose our trials, nor do we choose others’ reactions to them. It is enough that we choose our response, that is, whether we will yield to self-pity and moral paralysis or suffer ethically. To choose the latter is to accept a heavy burden, but it is a burden with enormous benefits—benefits that I have reaped personally.
– J. Andrew Benecke
Grateful to God for the 21 years He gifted Barbara & me to have Andrew as our son, and looking forward to that glorious reunion (Revelation 21:4). Yours in Christ,