Suffering

Dorothee Soelle, German poet and theologian, wrote the following poem during the Vietnam War era. The poem, titled “Travel Notes,” has seven parts. Below is the first part, followed by my comments.

Hospital in Haiphong

Doan is three years old
in his head a fragment
of that handy bomb
that leaves buildings undamaged
never puts a factory out of production
doesn’t even harm bridges

Doan is three years old
in that handy bomb
are millions of tiny fragments
just for doan
meant for his feet
designed for liver and lung

Doan is three years old
his mother is gone
the president of the united dead
sent her an invitation
to a high standard of living and a lasting peace
he sent a handy bomb

Doan can’t write yet
so I’m writing this letter
to the workers in st paul Minnesota
asking if they couldn’t make
a toy boat out of plastic
instead of bombs because
doan is only three years old

Dorothee Soelle, from Revolutionary Patience, pp 71-72
English translation published by Orbis Books 1977
First published in German by Wolfgang Fietkau Verlag, Berlin 1969 and 1974

I discovered Dorothee Soelle’s writing in the late 1970s when I was studying theology in graduate school. As one of only several well-known women theologians (also a poet), she made her mark by teaching, publishing, and practicing what she preached.

All poems in Revolutionary Patience  are about the Vietnam era. So is one of her best-known books, Suffering. It’s her cry against apathy toward sufferers, and against views of God that accept suffering as ordained by God. She discusses the nature of suffering, how to recognize it, and how to listen in person to people who suffer. The goal isn’t to fix them, but to support their empowerment as change agents.

The most crucial skill Soelle  describes is silence. Listening without an agenda. A skill anyone can use with a child or adult so traumatized that at first he or she has no words. Sometimes it takes a long time to find the words.

When I read Soelle’s writing today I think of myself and every child, teenager, woman or man marked by childhood trauma. I ask myself whether I’ve yet ‘arrived.’ Or am I stuck somewhere, still under the unseen yet keenly felt power wielded by perpetrators or by their stand-ins?

The poem above also reminds me of migrant children caught in the web of our recent national and international humanitarian disaster. They and their families are already marked for more suffering. Not because God wanted it that way, and not because they deserved it.

I wonder how much we’ve learned from the Vietnam era. Do we know how to deal with suffering that’s taken place on our own soil since the beginning of our nation? Especially suffering hidden beneath piles of bureaucratic red tape, political expediency, finger-pointing, inattention, and rewritten history.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 8 April 2018
Photo of Vietnam Refugees at Guam found at afsa.org