“I am undone by grief,” I said to my husband this week. “There is just too much suffering in the world.”
This is not what I wanted to write about, but it is the truth. Underneath every joyous celebration, lurking behind every success, just around the bend from every milestone, is the terrible knowledge that life is not without pain. And there often seems very little we can do to alleviate that pain in our own lives or in the lives of others.
It is hard to reconcile the terrible things that happen to us with God’s great love for us. Yet, those who I admire most have found a way to keep loving and trusting God anyway while working to lessen the suffering of others. My children and I have been reading about David Livingstone, known to many as the Scottish explorer who mapped the source of the Nile River. But what some might not know was that Livingstone was also a doctor and missionary whose main interest was helping to end the slave trade.
“The Nile sources,” he reportedly told a friend, “are valuable only as a means of opening my mouth with power among men. It is this power which I hope to remedy an immense evil.”
In the roughly four decades that Livingstone explored Africa, his beloved wife and three children died of malaria. His surviving children were educated in Scotland. At one point, when rumors of Livingstone’s death reached home, his 18-year-old son, Robert, sailed to Africa on his own to search for his father. Unable to locate him, he boarded a vessel bound for America where he carried on his father’s efforts to end slavery by joining the Union Army. He died in North Carolina prisoner-of-war camp.
Despite such personal losses, and having witnessed first-hand the massacres of entire villages by Dutch colonists and American, European and Turkish slave traders, Livingstone spent his entire life working to free others, until he too died of Malaria at age 60. So loved was he by those he served that three of Livingstone’s companions risked their lives to carry his body 1,000 miles to the coast, where one of them accompanied it on a ship home to Scotland.
But it is Robert’s story that moves me the most. Here is a son, bereft of his father, who in the face of immitigable suffering did the one thing he could to carry on his father’s work. He gave his life to free others. There is still immense evil in the world today. More than 40 million people still live in slavery. Perhaps the reason so much suffering exists is because we let it.
“Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good,” says Romans 13:21 (NLT). There are three ways we can be conquered by evil. We can join it. We can ignore it. Or we can become paralyzed – or undone – by it. Instead, may we, like David and Robert Livingstone, use our power and our voices to bring freedom to others.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Best Birthday, the third book in her Lantern Hill Farm children’s picture-book series, is available now.