I have labored over this post. I have many thoughts about suffering, yet it is such a sensitive topic that I find myself reworking the wording. This topic needs so much compassion and care to do it justice. My dear friends, please know that I mean to treat your own suffering with tenderness. Let’s begin:
There is so much suffering throughout the world. There is likely a great amount of suffering in your heart too, dear reader. We all experience devastating circumstances, and it is deeply personal and unique to each person. I am so sorry for whatever is causing you pain in this season. I hope that each of us (no matter what we are suffering with) are given the grace to process and grieve and bumble our way through this time. And I hope it inspires us to be more gracious to others in their suffering too.
My suffering has a name: Lyme Disease. I like to workshop phrases for the seasons of my life. It helps me know how I feel about them, and give words to something that feels impossible to explain. Recently, I found myself thinking this phrase. “Even though being sick is now ‘normal’… it is still traumatic every day, because the suffering is new every day.” There are just some things you never get used to, and it can wear upon a person. I know it has worn upon me, and I’ve seen it wear upon loved ones.
I’ve noticed a thought pattern amidst fellow sufferers. We can easily fall into the mindset of trying to avoid suffering at all costs. And why wouldn’t we try?… Suffering is awful. My dear friends, I so wish I could take away your pain and all the consequences of this disease. But since I can’t, I offer you what I do have… which is an encouragement to think freshly about suffering.
There was a time when I was completely consumed with my illness. Lyme consumed my body. Suffering consumed my heart and mind. It was miserable; I wasn’t me anymore. I talk about the story here in my last post, still being me… One of the things that started to change my perspective about suffering was watching the way two stellar women in my life handled their own chronic illnesses. They were downright miserable; they had the worst of circumstances… and yet they were so fun to be with. They were cheerful and peaceful. Each time I left their company, I felt refreshed and encouraged. They managed to be deep, rich, joyful, and generous in the midst of their suffering. These were women I wanted to be like.
Watching them helped me shift gears, realizing that having good health, having good circumstances, is not the most important thing in life. Suffering can be devastating… but it doesn’t have to strip you of who you are. It doesn’t have to put your life on pause.
We have a house-plant tree named Larry. At 6 months, he is my longest surviving house plant. I want to keep him alive like I want to eat 12 Kringles in one sitting (a whole cream cheese-filled lot!)
It’s been unseasonably hot in Santa Cruz, and as we have no air-conditioner, Larry is baking in the house. I’ve watched him slowly whither the last two months; each day more leaves fall. I assumed the problem was the heat.
I had a stroke of genius the other day. Fresh potting soil might help! (Remember, I kill plants… This was a big revelation to me). When I went to pack fresh earth into Larry’s pot, I was shocked to see a fist-sized clump of his roots exposed that had tried to grow outside of the bowl. I packed him into a bigger pot with tons of fresh soil, and already I can see him reviving. His roots have new territory to explore.
Larry’s roots need to be able to grow deeper before his trunk can grow taller. I assumed the problem was the heat because of what I could see. I never thought to look beneath the surface.
“Suffering” is like stifling heat. When we’re experiencing temperatures far beyond what is “good” for us, and we’re seeing our leaves drop, it’s easy to assume that the thing that is killing us is the “suffering”, and so we must get rid of it as quickly as possible. I think that the real problem is that we can be so busy fighting “suffering” that we forget to enjoy life and keep growing. It’s like we put everything on pause as we try to fight “suffering”, but in the end all of our roots are clumped up with nowhere to go, and our leaves start dropping.
And here is the point of our story: I have found that growth and beauty can still happen in the darkness of my suffering. My leaves don’t have to drop, as long as I keep expanding. I bumble around more because it’s new territory and dark under the soil, but my search for water (new life) is worth it. We tend to associate life with the part we can see, but there is also growth happening in the darkness as the roots search for water. I think growth in dark places provides great stability in the end.
I’ve done my best growing in the last five years. For me, suffering has been the circumstance that forced me every day to choose who I want to be. Will I be bitter or cheerful? Will I be self-consumed or fight to be others-consumed? Will I lash out or answer with grace? Will I let suffering rule my life? I don’t think I would have been confronted with these decisions in the same way had it not been for my hard circumstances. I’ve been a happier person as I fight to make good decisions (growth) in the face of suffering.
It comes down to this… I have learned to be more concerned with WHO I am than WHAT circumstances I am in. I want to keep growing no matter what.
That doesn’t negate my feelings about wishing I were well and fighting to be well. Oh I’m fighting! But, it does take the focus off of being consumed with health. Do you understand what I mean? All of my thoughts, all of my money, all of my time aren’t spent on getting well. My life isn’t about becoming well.
My life is about loving others, growing to be more like Jesus, enjoying hobbies, AND fighting to be well. I have lots to live for, lots to enjoy.
When we live our lives determined to avoid suffering at all costs, we miss out on the comfort, the grace, the contentment, and the growth. Being sick “well” makes you rich, and it gives you depth that can refresh others. Don’t miss that. Don’t miss all that good stuff. By all means, fight to be well. Fight hard. But also fight to get every inch of growth in the meantime.