Ever since finishing A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, certain passages have been on my mind, and so I feel compelled to revisit Brooklyn and share some of my thoughts.
One of the themes I noticed throughout the book was the nature and purpose of suffering. When Francie begins to go to school, all is not as she expected with her teachers or her peers. One of the more physical problems is lice. Conditions being what they were, the lice flourished and was passed from head to head from week to week. Francie's mom, Katie, had her own vicious method of combating this problem, which still resulted in an isolating effect on Francie. The response, however, that I was particularly interested in was that of the other children towards the child with lice. They were cruel and mean and did little to comfort the afflicted, even though chances were good they'd either had lice already or would have it soon.
I was especially struck by this passage: "It might be that the infected child would be given a clean bill next examination. In that case, she, in turn, would torment those found guilty, forgetting her own hurt at being tormented. They learned no compassion from their own anguish. Thus their suffering was wasted." (p. 161, emphasis added)
I've thought so much about that phrase: Thus their suffering was wasted. What things am I going through right now that will be wasted if I don't learn from them and change my actions?
When I was 14 and 15, I went through a trial which was rather personal in nature. About a year into it, I remember thinking: What have I learned from this experience? I took a sheet of paper and wrote down every lesson I could think of (and there were many!). Somehow, looking at the long list, the trial did not seem so bad; in fact, it seemed almost worth it. Since I'd already gone through it all once, I didn't want to have to go through it, or something similar, again. I didn't want my suffering to be wasted.
I want to make sure my experiences count for something, that my energy and heartache and time are not given in vain. But suffering is rarely completely personal. Usually it involves others. And when it does, suffering has the potential to bring us together in a tender way that nothing else can.
At a later point in the book, Francie is outside and witnesses the way a young woman is ostracized because she gave birth to a child out of wedlock. Her name was Joanna, and she was a kind and attentive mother, but she had no friends or mentors because of her immoral actions. One day as she pushes her small baby in a stroller, the other women literally begin to throw stones at her, and they even end up hitting and hurting her baby.
Francie then makes this observation: "Most women had the one thing in common: they had great pain when they gave birth to their children. This should make a bond that held them all together; it should make them love and protect each other against the man-world. But it was not so. It seemed like their great birth pains shrank their hearts and their souls. They stuck together for only one thing: to trample on some other woman...whether it was by throwing stones or by mean gossip. It was the only kind of loyalty they seemed to have." (p. 237)
This made my heart break. They could have built such a tight friendship around their common suffering but instead they turned on each other and let the suffering drive wedges between them. There have been times in my own life when I've been on the stone-throwing end, maybe not in an aggressive, brutal way but by turning my back and not offering help or friendship.
Both of these examples lead me to this conclusion: Suffering is a tool. If we use it in the right way, it does so many wonderful things: It pushes us onward to the next bend in the road and makes us stronger for the next mountain to climb. It builds bridges and creates true friends out of mere acquaintances. And last, and this is my personal belief, it changes our very natures to make us more like Jesus Christ...humble and meek, forgiving and faithful.
Isn't it amazing that something that leaves us feeling weak and vulnerable actually makes us strong and unconquerable?