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Posted September 21, 2004

Excellent Insights in Ministering to those who are dying.
Read carefully and meditate on the reading.

The Awesome power of the voice in suffering

Taken from: Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition

Faced with suffering, we need to recognize the critical importance of listening. In order to appreciate the importance of listening, however, we must appreciate the importance of the sufferer’s voice.

Nowhere has the relationship between the voice and suffering been better captured than by Elaine Scarry. In the first chapter of her book, The Body of Pain, Scarry studies the relationship between voice and torture. She explains that the object of torture is not to learn information, but rather to force the tortured person to accuse herself and thereby to recognize the torturer’s power. Torturers derive their understanding of power from the voices of the tortured. Thus the torturer aims to make tortured persons convict themselves. This happens when the tortured persons’ body is so broken with pain that she is unable to keep her voice from submitting to the fictive power of the torturer. The aim of torture, then, is to tear the voice from its body: to make the tortured person capitulate to the torturer’s authority. Scarry writes, “The goal of the torturer is to make the one, the body, emphatically and crushingly present by destroying it, and to make the other, the voice absent by destroying it.” At the end of torture, the tortured person is finally left voiceless; once the voice in agony acknowledges the torturer’s power, it falls into shameful, isolating silence.

Scarry notes that the tortured person’s most difficult wound to heal is also the voice. For this reason, Amnesty International assists the tortured, unable out of shame to tell their narratives, to read and understand their records so that one day they may articulate or give voice to the truth of the atrocities they endured. Scarry’s work convincingly demonstrates the centrality of the human voice in attaining healing integration. Likewise, together with other writers she highlights that silencing and other forms of exclusion are physically and personally destructive acts.

Here we should consider how violent the act of silencing is. Through the voice we express our fundamental concerns, maintain relationships, organize our world, and locate ourselves among others. But when we suffer, our dependence on the voice is itself troublesome particularly because the terrors and trauma associated with the threat and the loss experienced in suffering often inhibit the sufferer from intelligibly articulating the cause and/or depth of suffering. Moreover, the voice itself, not merely the sufferer’s intelligence is also, especially in times of pain, muted. Thus when the voice is unable to express itself, the sufferer loses finally the most integral way by which a sufferer can communicate and remain in contact with the community that supports her. Progressively, studies show us not only the therapeutic function that the voice has in the life of the sufferer, but conversely the compounded suffering that occurs when the voice is ignored, lost, or silenced. For like torture itself, the act of silencing a sufferer, or worse, of making a suffering person speak against herself, is a violent action.

Here I think of not only the tortured but of the sick, and I think of the many instances when we try to keep those who are sick from telling us how badly they feel. We think in our exercises that we are encouraging the sick to look on the so-called brighter side, when actually we are only telling the patient, “Don’t, please don’t tell me what you’re worrying about. I can’t bear to hear it.” Of course, the sufferer is the one who has to bear the reality that we only refuse to hear.

I think particularly of those patients — who facing their own mortality — find that same violence in the habitual acts wherein physicians and nurses as well as family and friends ignore, silence, translate, or belittle the voices of patients. How many times when a person’s death is near, the only one disposed to speaking about the future is the patient, but the discomfort of the others is so great as to inhibit, diminish, or worse, contradict the very person who wants to speak about her forthcoming death.

The sufferer’s voice is their lifeline to the world from which they find themselves progressively isolated. Thus, through the voice the one isolated in suffering is able to reach out to others. For this reason we need to consider not only the voice of the sufferer but the listening of those who seek to respond to the sufferer.