Monday night I posted about some of the recent events my family has been through. The response to the post was overwhelming. Not only have more people than I have ever imagined read this post, but the comments and emails from people who have been encouraged by the post have been beyond humbling. Over the course of the past four days I have wondered, “What about this post connected with so many people?” The conclusion I have come to is this: Suffering is universal, a good response to suffering is not.
As my wife and I have dealt our pain we have had to figure out what it means for us to suffer. How do we interact with each other? How do we let others in? How do we bring our feelings before God? How do we move on? While I don’t believe there is singular, cookie-cutter approach to dealing with grief and suffering, I do believe there are some practices that can help people process their experiences. Let’s be explicitly clear – these are not steps, these are practices. These are not a one-and-done, check them off the list activities. These are a day-in and day-out way of being in the world. Three, five, seven, or ten steps to anything is hogwash. If successful blogging could be achieved in 6 steps every blog would be successful. If a happy marriage could be achieved in 7 steps I wouldn’t have to listen to another divorce lawyer add on the radio. You get the picture…
Acknowledge you are suffering. It can be very difficult to even admit you are suffering. I don’t know why this is, but it is. It was difficult for me. I wanted to give off the impression that I was/am doing better than I really was. I think some deep part of me believed that I should be able to handle everything. That is why the lie is so insidious. If you believe “God won’t give you more than you can handle” then when you feel like you are about to be crushed you begin to believe that something is wrong with you. But you were never meant to experience suffering. The world God created was one void of suffering. Nothing changed after the fall in us that made us better equipped to suffer. If anything our brokenness handicaps our ability to suffer well. And so, because the world was not created to include suffering and we were not created to suffer, there is something redemptive and right about acknowledging our suffering. It screams the truth that the world is not as it should be. It is a cry for God to return to his creation and redeem and restore. And I believe, in order to experience God in the midst of our suffering, we have to begin by acknowledging we are suffering.
Be present to your feelings. Even if you are guy. Know what you are feeling. Are you sad? Are you pissed? Are you frustrated? Those feelings, while related, are very different. Be present to what you are feeling. This is more than just saying, “This is how I feel,” but it is actively applying thought to your feelings so that you can decide what action must be taken for you to appropriately deal your feelings. Admittedly, this is not something I have always been good at. But I am learning. And what I have learned is that being present to my feelings enables me to avoid destructive actions of numbing the pain. I don’t feel like spacing out for hours watching TV to get a break. It has reduced my propensity to project my anger from the thing I am upset with to innocent bystanders. Being present to our feelings is not just a coping mechanism. It is an acknowledgement that God created us to be physical, spiritual, and emotional beings.
Be vulnerable with others. In this highly individualized, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps culture one can believe suffering is something you need to be handle by yourself. This approach to life is held up as the ideal; the epitome of self-sufficiency and capability. In fact, being vulnerable is often equated with being weak.
The word ‘courage’ is French in its root and comes from the word for “heart.” In a very real sense, to live a life of courage is to share the story of one’s heart. Living in such a way that your heart’s story is told takes courage. It does not take courage to feign being okay and live under the pretense of being self-sufficient. It takes courage to be vulnerable and reveal the story of your heart. Living courageously, or wholeheartedly, is what allows us to connect with others and others to connect with us. When we connect with others we find out we are not alone. People are able to share in our suffering and truly “mourn with those who mourn.” If anything, the response to my last blog post exemplifies this.
Don’t run from God, run to God. God can take it. He can take your pain, he can take your frustration, he can take your anger. Take it to him. Are you angry with him? Tell him about it. Are you frustrated? Let him know. The Bible contains example after example of people who have done just this. Moses, Elijah, David, Jeremiah, and Paul all voiced their pain to God. And all found God to be sufficient. That doesn’t mean they got an answer and understanding about why they experienced suffering. But they did find God to be enough.
Celebrate what is good. Two weeks after we found out about our pregnancy we celebrated my sons third birthday. We were forced to celebrate. I am glad we were. Celebrating our son and who he is helped move me beyond the pain. It reminded me that in midst of all that is broken in the world there are still good things. Things that are worth celebrating. It isn’t just the big things that are worthy of celebrating. We can celebrate a friend who sat with us and cried. We can celebrate spring being around the corner. We can celebrate getting out of bed in the morning we didn’t feel like we could. Celebrating what is good opens our eyes to the broad spectrum of the human experience enabling us to see beyond, even if just a short distance, the pain.
What do you think? What practice would you add to this list?