In the novel The Secret Life of Bees, May Boatwright’s sisters, June and August, must conceal any upsetting piece of news from her because she is unable to emotionally distance herself from it.
Whenever May hears a sad story on television or the radio, she writes it down on a little slip of paper and stuffs it between the stones of her “wailing wall,” which runs along their property. May is not the main character, but she is the one to whom I relate most.
Sometimes I feel like I need a wailing wall.
This past May I was sitting on my bed in York, England, where I spent the spring semester. I was reading an article about the devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri. As I read story after story of injury, destruction, and death, I was overwhelmed. Tears flowed down my cheeks.
How unbelievable that I could be sitting in a comfortable chair in a nice warm apartment in a beautiful country, while at the same time hundreds of people were suffering.
My family calls this “world sorrow,” and every so often I am overcome by it. The band Mumford and Sons captures my feelings perfectly in their song “Roll Away Your Stone.” They sing: “Darkness is a harsh word, don’t you think? / Yet it dominates the things I see.”
I struggle to distance myself emotionally from the suffering in the world: human sex trafficking, famine, war, malaria, earthquakes. These issues are too vast, systemic, and complex for me to fix.
Yet I often think about my role as a Christian. I know that Christ will come again to make all things new and that he is the only one who can fix perfectly the devastating realities of the world. Some people use that as an excuse to do nothing. But if our physical world and our short lives have true weight and worth, wouldn’t it be important that we do something?
Often I feel impassioned, yet I lack the courage to act on my convictions. I am not feeding villages in Africa; I am not becoming a missionary in Asia. I’m a middle-class college student working toward being a teacher. What’s so courageous about that?
Whenever I find myself sliding down this spiral of uselessness, I think about what my grandmother used to say: “Brighten your own little corner.”
For some reason that idea sticks with me, and I imagine one of those cell phone commercials showing a map of the United States or Canada with lights indicating nationwide coverage. The tiny dots come together to illuminate the whole screen.
My bouts of world sorrow are relentless and inevitable, but despite the darkness, I envision thousands of small acts of love illuminating the world.
You must be men and women of ceaseless hope, because only tomorrow can today’s human and Christian promise be realized. . . . Every human act, every Christian act, is an act of hope.
—Walter J. Burghardt