I’ve written several books about pain and suffering, and in 2013 I wrote yet another one, titled The Question That Never Goes Away. It recounted my visits to three grieving places: Japan after the tsunami; Sarajevo after the civil war; and Newtown, Connecticut, after the school shootings at Sandy Hook. The book had only modest sales, not meeting expectations. Last week, however, I received the following letter from my publisher in Ukraine, which gives a heartrending account of life near the front lines. As Dr. Paul Brand used to remind me, “A healthy body is not one that feels no pain, but rather one that feels the pain of the weakest part.” Right now, that would be Ukraine.
While I was editing the translation of The Question That Never Goes Away back in 2015, I immediately realized its relevance to the war which was rising in Eastern Ukraine. We donated hundreds of copies to army and hospital chaplains. People were not only scared, angry and disappointed, but often full of existential questions of how the Almighty had allowed what was happening to them. Well, back then they couldn’t even imagine what was going to happen in 2022.
Today Zaporizhzhia, a city in Ukraine with a population of 710,000, has absorbed about 200,000 refugees, many of them from regions where the battles are severe. Although they might not have a scratch on their bodies, they are all deeply wounded emotionally. The amount of sheer terror and anguish they’ve experienced exceeds the limits of human endurance. So, not only do they refuse to demand anything, they often do not talk at all. They stare ahead with glassy eyes, or periodically start sobbing without tears, apparently having lost any interest in every aspect of life and human connection.
Each of the families who meet with the Christian counselors in Zaporizhzhia every day has a heartbreaking, even unimaginable story.
There’s a young woman from the small town between Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol’ whose husband served as a captain in the army. When the Russians came to town, she was raped repeatedly for several days by the soldiers—before the eyes of her 13-year-old son. The boy has stopped speaking since then. Somehow, they both, the mom and her son, managed to flee from the occupation. “I’m going to divorce my husband,” cried the woman. “I just couldn’t stand this shame.” A few days after she’d settled in the new place, she received a “killed-in-battle” notice about her husband.
Another family arrived from the same area, a couple in their thirties expecting a baby in a few months. After six weeks of occupation, they were finally able to flee. All that time, the husband had been hiding in their house, to avoid being forcefully drafted into the Russian army. Meanwhile, his pregnant wife worked as a nurse at the local hospital. Each day she had to walk to the hospital and back via Russian roadblocks, ignoring the indecent glances and jokes from the soldiers. One day a recruit from Chechnya made a pass at her. He offered to marry her, and announced he would visit her soon.
Sure enough, he showed up at her house the next day. As he knocked on the door, the couple managed to escape through the rear window, cross the backyard, get in the car, and drive out of town under heavy shelling all the way up to Zaporizhzhia. They arrived safe but they’d lost the baby on their way. Later they showed to volunteers a tiny body wrapped in cloth in the trunk of their car. They haven’t spoken with each other ever since and the wife, who blamed her husband, wants a divorce.
How can you help all these people? How to ease their pain, and bring them back from the dead-end their anguish led them into? How to break through the heavy curtain of grief which blocks their souls? Moreover, how to tell them about God’s love and compassion, of His presence right in the middle of their situation?
As it happens, there’s a remedy.
The first and foremost task for volunteers is to get these damaged people to talk; otherwise, you have no access to them. At the beginning, nothing seems to work. The refugees just start crying. As you mentioned in your book, “We experience suffering alone—it ‘islands’ us—and for the people involved, scale doesn’t matter so much.” One of the main problems of the suffering person is that pain shrinks the whole world into a point. How do you expand their horizon back, to awaken any interest in the outer world?
And then our colleagues devised a trick. Instead of asking about their stories, they start telling stories themselves, true stories about other people who have suffered, including those you give in The Question That Never Goes Away. At the end, they give them your book with the encouragement to read more stories. In most cases, people agree.
For some readers, their enormous pain begins to gradually dissolve in the other stories of suffering they’ve heard or read. They start talking. They soften and even relax a bit. They start telling their own stories in more detail. They let the pain out and burst into tears. And then they start asking questions themselves… and even become ready to listen to answers. Not everything happens during the first conversation, but amazingly they seem willing to come back again and again.
It is hard, of course, to see the seeds sprout soon. Some of the refugees resettle in distant places, and we lose touch. Yet, most are fairly easy to follow: they want to stay near, and periodically visit the refugee centers for humanitarian aid—but also to grab further books, and to speak with a Christian counselor. Some show up in church in a week or two.
At least several people who ended up in the local churches can be traced back to reading your book, including those two families I mentioned above. The lady with a 13-year-old son has even started preparing for baptism this summer.
I hope these stories bring you some encouragement and warm your heart as an author.
Warmest regards from Ukraine.
(Letter edited for clarity and length)
I will keep this letter as a reminder, for days when writing goes poorly, or when I get slim royalty checks, or when I can’t rise above my own struggles to feel the pain of the weakest part. It will remind me of the 100 million people who are displaced around the globe today—including the 42 million children growing up with no place to call home—and of the faithful workers on the front lines who strive to bring a little compassion, some potential healing, and even joy, into their stories.
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