Suffering Isn’t Sexy, But It’s Been Good For Me

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Wedding-8I was twenty-five when I got married, and I thought I was coming into it really late. By modern standards, of course, twenty-five is early, if anything, but I didn’t know that.

In point of fact, I didn’t know much of anything when I got married. About, well, anything. I thought I was a pretty smart, well-equipped young lady, but the truth is I just had a lot of opinions. And a lot of them were pretty smug and screamed “young” and “inexperienced.”

When we’d been married about six months, I got up early to make Christian breakfast on a Saturday, and when he wouldn’t get out of bed to eat it, I threw an almighty tantrum of weeping and resentment that makes me cringe to remember.

During some fight in those early months, I think I smacked him.

Sometimes, thinking back, I don’t understand how we managed to stay together, let alone create a marriage that has weathered so much and become so strong and life-giving, in every sense of the word.

But I think the answer is in the “weathering.”

Photo by Bo Insogna, via Flickr

It doesn’t happen often anymore, but there have definitely been times in my life when I’ve shaken my fist at the heavens and given God a piece of my mind about his version of “fair.” Anxiety. Infertility. Disability. ICU stays. We’ve dealt with more than our share of marital and family drama. But suffering through those difficult circumstances–and in the case of disability, the permanent reality—matured us. Both of us, but in particular I reflect upon it in myself. When I got married I was incredibly self-absorbed, with a child’s black and white, all-or-nothing view of the world. Suffering is the vehicle that gave me depth and wisdom and understanding, and whatever modicum of patience I now possess.

Christians wrestle with the concept of suffering, and non-Christians even more so. We get all twisted up in whether good can come of it or whether it’s utterly useless. We do everything possible to avoid it ourselves, and run for the hills when casual acquaintances face it alone. We view it by turns as a test from God or punishment from God, or proof that He doesn’t exist at all.

But the truth is that suffering is the only way we grow as people. Suffering is what sensitizes us to the beauty of the ordinary—what puts into perspective the things that really matter and the things that don’t. It’s what teaches us empathy.

Suffering is what makes us better people—as long as we approach it with openness and an eye to learning, instead of rage and resistance, which lead to bitterness.

I wouldn’t go back to those hard times in my life. But I wouldn’t trade them, either.

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Reflections Following a Mom Meltdown

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Photo by Total due, via Flickr

I had a meltdown on Saturday night.

It was one of Those Weeks. Four baseball games and one practice on top of the ordinary two nights of lessons (Christian’s), one night of choir practice. Piano. Dance. School choir. Oh, and Christian had to stay late at work twice. Oh, and Julianna’s school spring festival. And I woke up at 2 a.m. on Friday and went, “Oh, (redacted), I have a column due today, and I haven’t even started it.”

I tried a couple of times to catch up on the dishes & laundry, but abortive attempts to clean end up making you feel worse, not better. I had to tell my kids five, six, and seven times to do the same thing, finally resorting to shouting because they were completely ignoring me. And Michael kept bringing Tonka trucks and Duplos upstairs, and disassembling Nicholas’ light saber, and they were fighting over the new Matchbox car mat, and complaining every time I told them to do a chore instead of watching TV.

I just wanted to scrapbook for the first time in three weeks. Was it so much to ask to scrapbook for one hour in peace?

Apparently so: the boys were eating candy in the living room, stepping (and kneeling) on my scrapbook materials, bickering about who was going to be a Decepticon and who an Autobot, and throwing couch cushions. And the dishes were still not done, and although Christian had given baths (thank God!), when I got upstairs I found dirty clothes all over the floor…

Well, you get the idea.

There are times when it just seems hard. Like you keep having to give and give and give, way past the time when it is reasonable to do so. You know going in there are going to be tough times, but you’d think once you’ve been in the hospital with kids a few times, the piddly stuff wouldn’t get to you. Except it all dumps on top of you at the same time, with unreasonable tag-alongs like, yanno, hubby having to stay late at work to make it all feel even worse.

Nicholas was begging me for a walking in the woods story, and I’m telling you, reaching inside and pulling out a piece of myself in the form of a made-up story was already an unattractive proposition even before I got upstairs and found the pigsty of dirty clothes on the floor.

After the ensuing maternal meltdown I was leaning against the chest of drawers in the big boys’ room and thinking, Please God, help me to be bigger than myself. Awkward and ungracefully-phrased it may be, but in the madness of life this is my go-to prayer, because I am constantly having to give when I think I have a right to receive, to forgive when I think I have a right to hold grudges, and to show love and affection when all I want is to send somebody to their room until their next birthday. (In case you’re wondering, the next kid birthday in our house is at the end of November.)

Why is it that all of the effort has to come from me? Not only the effort to give the instructions, but the effort to teach how and to enforce and supervise the carrying out. Take the initiative to bridge the cracks in relationships that were CAUSED BY SOMEONE ELSE, DAMMIT. Why is it MY responsibility to bridge the gap?

I think I’ve quoted this line from Grand Canyon before. It goes something like: “All the good and bad things in life are so close together. I see it in you and me, even, in our marriage.” I can be laughing at a kid funny one moment and ready to tear my hair out the next. I love them with a fierceness that eclipses anything I’ve felt before, and yet most of the time I just want them to leave me alone for a while, for the love of all that is holy!

It just feels friggin’ hard right now. I don’t want to be “bigger than myself.” I want somebody to think about me for a change, instead of me serving everybody else’s needs, real or perceived.

These are the days that bring home with such excruciating clarity how parenthood does indeed model the love of God—the gift of self, the self-emptying, the continual bearing of a cross that carries both suffering and glory in one package. And I don’t feel one whit better to say so. I always want blogging to be a nice, neat package tied up in a “There, all better now” bow, but the reality is that I’m on this roller coaster for the long haul, just like a whole bunch of you who read these words. So I just put these messy, scattered-ended posts out there so we all know we’re not doing it alone.

Guest Post: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Week 2, This Little Light Blog Tour)

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I met Barbara Shoeneberger through the blogosphere, as we both participate in a weekly Catholic carnival. She has approached her chronic health issues with a beautiful attitude of faith. I hope her thoughts today will illuminate the sufferings in your lives as well.

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Barb Feb 2010 resizedNobody gets through this life without mourning. Mourning implies loss of something we value.  Whether it is a dear one, a body part, a capability diminished or extinguished by age, infirmity, or accident; a job, financial security, or innocence; loss can pierce the heart, grind away the stomach, or leave one in a state of emotional and physical collapse.  With loss of what we value comes suffering unique to each person in expression and duration.

Often we are tempted to question God when suffering deeply: “Why me?” That is our first mistake, albeit a natural one. God permits us to suffer for reasons we cannot always see at the time, but by faith we know that He only wills our good. In fact, one of the best ways to suffer well and eventually joyfully, is to seek an ever deepening faith in God. “Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Next we can begin to look for God’s blessings in the heart of our misery. This is essential to avoid getting stuck in suffering. The finishing phrase of this Beatitude: “…for they shall be comforted,” contains the key. The Greek word for “comforted” is the same origin for the word “Comforter” that Jesus uses in John 14:26 when he tells the apostles, ” But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things…”.

Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit (Photo credit: Glass.Mouse)

When we are mourning or suffering, our Father sends us the Holy Spirit to teach us and to show us that He is with us. The Holy Spirit not only enters into the receptive heart Himself, but He comes also by others to help us find peace. We are comforted in our anguish by kind words and sometimes the simple silent being of a friend sitting with us, touching our hands, fixing a meal or doing a chore we can’t do. He puts new people and information into our lives to help us and show us ways to be in a changed existence. Often we describe these people as “Godsends” and indeed they are.

Suffering with joy is my motto for the rest of my life. When we pray “Thy will be done” in the Our Father we are affirming our submission to the good that God desires to do for us. I am joyful in suffering because I have seen how God is reshaping me, redirecting my life, changing my focus from myself to Him. That doesn’t mean that I am not in pain or that I don’t have moments of doubt or panic or rebellion or that I won’t have to start all over again at times because I’ve started to focus on myself and my misery. I just know now that He has a purpose for me, that I am to be faithful to that purpose, that I am not alone, and that I must take life one day at a time. It is enough for me.

O Lord, thank you for the hardship in my life. Thank you for the people you have sent to help me in my difficulties. Thank you for helping me grow in faith, hope, and charity, and for making it possible for me to help others. Please teach me what You want me to know. Give me the grace to understand what You want from me and the strength to do it. Give me submission of heart and will to execute Your plans for me for the good of all.

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Barb Schoeneberger blogs at Suffering with Joy. She serves on the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval committee, provides copy editing and proofreading services to writers, and is working on a book on sin.

When Prayer Feels Empty

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Photo by Carlos 90, via Flickr

I seem to be collecting a lot of prayer intentions lately. Not that there’s anything strange about that–it’s just that for some reason, recently they seem to be hitting a lot closer to home. In times past, I used to promise to pray and then forget all about it. (Yes, I was one of those people, I’m sorry to admit.) Eventually I learned when someone requested prayers, I had to stop whatever I was doing and pray then and there.

But these days, it seems I can’t get these people out of my mind. At odd times during the day I surface from the depths of my own affairs with a heaviness in my chest, a heaviness surrounding a name or two.

We are urged to be specific and forward in our prayers–in other words, to expect miracles. But I’ve grown suspicious of this kind of prayer. The longer I live, the more I see the value of the process. I believe God can work massive, instantaneous change, but most often He doesn’t…because there is value to the process, to the change wrought in us that would not happen if we were miraculously and instantly rescued from suffering.

So for the past several weeks, I’ve prayed for healing from my lingering ear infection, from the leftover fluid and hearing loss…but with no expectation that it will vanish overnight, despite a friend’s prayer for exactly that. Maybe that shows lack of faith. But on the other hand, through this process I’ve learned empathy for the elderly as they are slowly robbed of their hearing–a lesson I would not have gained otherwise. This experience reaffirms a different approach to prayer–one that focuses on grace to endure, on strength and understanding instead of relief from pain. Change my heart, this time. That, after all, is the purpose of prayer: not to force God to do our will, but to open our minds and hearts to accept God’s. I’ve learned to stop asking God to “fix it,” and to ask instead for the grace to accept what is. To say, “What do you want me to learn from this, Lord?”

But it’s one thing to embrace the search for wisdom and insight through suffering in myself. It’s altogether different to try to philosophize away someone else’s pain. I pray grace and strength and insight for them, too…but mostly I beg God to identify a quick exit from their suffering. And the words seem empty. Isn’t a pithy “Lord, please (fill in the blank)” just a pious platitude unless I put action behind it? Shouldn’t I seek some way to ease a friend’s suffering?

I’ve never wished I had Godlike powers so much as when I hear pain and confusion in the voices of those I care about. Yet the reality is that I have no control at all. I can’t heal broken bodies or broken relationships. I can’t remove the circumstances of another’s suffering.

So I pray, recognizing that only God has the answers. And maybe that’s the point, after all: that hurting with those who hurt binds me not only to them, but to God.

(Sharing with Michelle’s community on week one of focusing on the pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.)

A Good Year

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Jesus Christ suffers in love us so much.

“Every marriage has it’s good years and bad years.
We ended on a great year.”
–Robert Duvall, as Spurgeon Tanner in Deep Impact

This quote really struck me when I first saw the movie Deep Impact in 1998, mostly because I didn’t really get it. I could only assume that he meant they got along better some years than others—that some years were fraught with discord, while others were like a honeymoon. In the early years of our marriage, I pondered this quote often…until the year 2003. Sometime late in that year of disappointed hopes, when life seemed determined to batter us with bad news on every possible front, I came to understand that quote in a new way.

We’ve had two “bad years” in our almost-twelve years of marriage. The second was 2007, which began on an emotional sucker punch with the diagnosis of Down syndrome and continued through a year of hospitalizations, overwhelming familial adjustments and grieving.

As I get farther out, though, it’s easier to see the big picture. There were many times during that year when I felt I couldn’t even draw breath between one wave of bad news and the next. Embroiled and embattled, I wanted nothing more than to wipe the entire experience off the map of my life. But 2007, despite its heartaches, contained a deluge of blessings, too—moments of heart-catching beauty, moments of such tenderness and pure joy that in retrospect, it would be ungrateful to want to wipe it off the map. And besides, how much did I learn during those months?

There are two basic ways to look at pain, suffering and hardship. One is to lose faith, to curse Heaven or fate or karma, and to get angry and bitter. The other is to cling to the Rock as a lifeline while the storm lashes your face, and in between the swells, search for what is beautiful and holy and worthy of thanks. Because there’s always a lot to be thankful for—more than there is to be depressed about. In near-death hospitalizations I discovered the blessing of medical staff who care and the power of a delicious salad to buoy the spirits through a long morning of spent listening to the sound of the hospital. I learned to appreciate the chance to enjoy fresh air on a gorgeous spring day, even in the noisiest, most traffic-congested part of town. I learned the value of Christian community and what a true blessing it is simply to have our children at home. And I learned so much more about patience and faith.

In the midst of trial and pain, it’s not easy to focus on the beautiful and holy and gratitude-worthy. But I have learned that while striving to do so may not change my heart from bitterness and resentment this instant, the efforts will bear tremendous fruit down the line. There is no fertilizer for the soul like suffering. And as long as we can cling to faith, we’ll discover that in the long run, there are no bad years. Only good years waiting to come to fruition.

Today I am grateful for ordinary life:

  • Rain
  • Julianna’s lovely giggle
  • Spiritual insights
  • InSpiration
  • Two boys who adore each other
  • A 1 a.m. snuggle with Julianna when the wind and rain woke her
  • Cricut work waiting to be enjoyed with Alex
  • A good day for toilet training
  • Poached eggs, hollandaise sauce and English muffins
  • A 2-year-old who is so eager to help that he goes and gets out the canisters of sugar and flour without being asked, and brings them over saying, “Beah, beah” (bread).

What are you grateful for today?