When I began drafting this article, I had to pause and really think about suffering. It wasn’t a theme that flowed readily from my pen. “What is suffering?” I wrote repeatedly in my notes, unsure of how to even define the term.
We all suffer in some way, but many of us don’t endure the bloody trials of the martyrs, the fear of refugees torn from their homes, nor the utter poverty thousands of children grow up in. When we think of all these great sufferings, we realize how incredibly blessed we are. We also write our own sufferings off as minor, insignificant, or – in so many words – not “real suffering.” But if it’s not “real suffering,” then why does your heart still hurt?
I brought that very question to Our Lord one night in prayer. I had just come home from attending a lecture on the poetics of joy. The talk was beautiful and inspiring, but as I sat down to my evening prayer, I suddenly felt morose and lethargic.
Was I Really Suffering?
Discomfort as small as a pinprick had infected my mood. As insignificant as it may seem, awkward questions at the lecture had left me feeling out of place at my own alma mater. People had asked me, “Are you visiting? No? Then why are you still here?” I felt somehow incompetent, as if they were implying that I couldn’t get out on my own. Even worse was the follow up question:
“So what do you do these days?” they asked. “How much time do you have?”
I could have replied, ‘I teach for 6 hours a week, maintain our library’s coin collection for 10 hours, and regularly babysit for at least two families’—but who wants to explain all that? It was embarrassing to spell everything out; it sounded like I was desperate to make ends meet. Why couldn’t I just have a normal, steady job like everyone else?
That night, I allowed myself to mope about my current situation, missing my friends and regretting that I wasn’t already in grad school, chasing my dreams. “Count your blessings instead of sheep,” Bing Crosby crooned from my computer, but I didn’t want to count or even acknowledge them. I wanted to feel sorry for myself, and I wanted to tell Christ to take away this heartache.
Was I really suffering in this moment? Yes. My cross was loneliness, anxiety, and a lack of direction. It wasn’t anything life-threatening, but it was real. As I sat down to my daily prayer, I prepared this long rant that would ask Christ to take away the pain of loneliness as if it were some great tragedy.
Can You Suffer Well?
As I began to pray and my emotions gradually gave way to reason, He slipped this question into my heart:
“Can you suffer well?”
The question evolved with my prayer as I started to see that suffering is undergoing any kind of pain or distress, whether it be physical or emotional or spiritual, intense or slight. Everything from annoying co-workers, loneliness, losing a job, losing a home, to battling cancer is a cross. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the size or extent of suffering didn’t really matter to Christ. All these things are forms of suffering, and all are meant to bring us closer to Him. Great or small, Christ wants to know if we will suffer well.
Why Do We Complain?
I want to suffer well, but more often than not, I complain. When someone makes a thoughtless remark, I feel offended and want to lash back. It’s harder to just let go because humans delight in being offended (oh, the injustice of it all!). When I have a bad day, I rarely have the courage to greet my family with a smile, instead of barging in with a mouth full of complaints. I know complaining makes me more miserable, and I don’t really feel better afterwards, so why do I do it? I reject solutions because I don’t really want to fix the problem – I just want to pity myself and get other folks to do the same.
Though it’s more harmful than good, complaining is also a defense mechanism that tries to create a wall between me and the actual experience of suffering. By focusing on how I feel, complaining allows me to avoid directly dealing with my suffering so that I don’t have to hurt so much. Or at least, that’s what we want to think it is.
In reality, complaining brings us no relief and certainly no redemption. In fact, we’re often too busy whining about little pinpricks that we can hardly hear Christ say, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” Or when we do hear Him, we complain that our “cross” isn’t that much of a cross, just an emotional perception – and so we don’t have the right to say we’re suffering. That, perhaps, is even more dangerous because we not only reject those pinpricks as “unimpressive,” but we also thereby deny that those little crosses are actually innumerable opportunities for love and bravery. We must understand that even if our suffering is small, it’s still an opportunity for courage.
How Did Christ Suffer?
Suffering bravely doesn’t mean immunity from pain or fear. Think of Our Lord’s courage during the Passion, especially when He said, “If it be Thy will, let this cup pass from Me.” No one could dare accuse Him of complaining or self-pity in this bitter moment of agony. We can only weep with Him as He prepares to begin His precious Passion, taking all our sins upon Himself. His human will quivers here, dreading the agony that lies ahead, but His prayer does not end there. Immediately after “Let this cup pass,” He continues, “Yet not My will but Thine be done.”
In this moment, Christ Himself – God – teaches us how to embrace suffering. He shows us it’s natural to resist suffering, but necessary to submit to it. The Passion demanded that Christ suffer bravely without quitting. Even though His knees were shaking and torn by each fall, and His precious feet sliced by the rocky road as the cross buried itself into His bleeding, broken back, He kept walking. Even as blood streamed down His sacred face, He pressed on out of sheer love for us. He was determined to bring about what we needed most: salvation.
Ponder that for a moment. Let it wash over you, overwhelm you as it does me. Experience His pain, experience His love. Christ taught us how to suffer well, and now He personally invites us to join Him, to take up our crosses and follow Him all the way to Golgotha to offer ourselves out of love.
Remember How I Complained About My Jobs?
That was what I realized during that night of prayer. I saw that suffering is participation in the Cross, and that the Cross was an act of love. When you offer yourself up and let go of your ego, everything suddenly becomes clear.
Remember how I complained about my jobs? After some serious prayer and self-surrender, I’ve realized how much God has used my work to bless others—and to bless me! In my past month and a half of teaching, my middle schoolers have read To Kill a Mockingbird, memorized eight poems, and learned how to write a paragraph. I get to watch my students’ eyes light up the moment they comprehend, and I bond with the little children I babysit.
I read books to my heart’s content and learn Russian, while still finding time to work on my grad school applications. And how wonderful it is to work with the library’s coin collection where for two hours every day I hold these little fragments of history in my palm! Rome, Greece, and China become so tangible, so personal. I never thought I’d be able to enjoy such a variety of work. Most importantly, I’ve been able to reconnect with my family.
I still experience disappointments, frustrations, and disillusionments, but uniting these sufferings to the Cross gives the pain meaning. That union enables me to remember that suffering is an opportunity for courage and an opportunity for love. If I rejected an unhappy pinprick as insignificant, then I would be spurning an opportunity to offer that suffering up to God.