To learn what suffering has to teach requires that we protect the time and space we need to regard, reflect, and pray. Suffering calls us one by one to walk a dark valley. As Flannery O’Connor suggests, “”¦ sickness is . . . a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow” (163). To speak from that place of exile is to forego the clichÃ©s and enter into what Marianne Paget called a “complex sorrow.” In her “Mastectomy Poems” Alicia Ostriker issues a practical corrective to those who dramatize her suffering in a way that would belie the daily experience of life-threatening illness:
Spare me your pity,
your terror, your condolence.
I’m not your wasting heroine,
your dying swan. Friend, tragedy
is a sort of surrender.
Tell me again I’m a model
of toughness. I eat that up.
I grade papers, I listen to wind. (93)
Ostriker’s spunky resistance to stereotypes calls to mind the comment of an Auschwitz survivor I know: To call the Holocaust a “tragedy,” she insisted, is to falsify it and to oversimplify the mystery of the evil that took place. Tragedy is an art form in which the hero “suffers into truth.”