As I write this post, my city has been plunged into a two-week lockdown as we try to contain an outbreak of COVID-19. People are unable to leave their homes except for essential business or exercise.
Now, you might say it’s fine, it’s hopefully only for two weeks. And certainly, measures to contain COVID-19 are necessary. But the impact of this change, even though not permanent, is deep: families are forced to be together 24/7; people cannot work or are forced to work from home; businesses are closed; weddings and other functions are cancelled. Something intended for our good will inevitably cause hardship, even suffering.
Suffering is a difficult topic. That’s probably because there are so many unknowns, particularly regarding WHY suffering happens, that make it hard to deal with. There’s so much about suffering that can’t simply be justified or explained away, no matter how hard we might try. When I was having a hard day recently, I started thinking about Jesus’ suffering. I used it as a focal point of prayer, and then I thought about it in terms of how Jesus could teach me to suffer well. A sort of Suffering 101, if you like. I mean, if I’m going to be in this for the long haul, I want to try and get the hang of it!
Here’s what I found.
Suffering is isolating.
Jesus faced the incredibly painful reality of knowing he would suffer very deeply and that this suffering would eventually lead to his death. But he also had to contend with his closest friends not only completely missing the point, but also deserting him when he was most vulnerable. I picture him in the Garden of Gethsemane, finding his friends asleep and realising there is no one who can really understand the depths of what he’s going through. And then, to top it all off, a guy he’s trusted betrays him openly. One of his best friends denies him publicly. His mates all run away. He turns to God His Father but, even then, he cries out words of abandonment. He is painfully alone, and that’s the darkest and most vulnerable place to be.
Suffering can draw people together and tear them apart. When you’re suffering, you’ll meet people who will try to explain your pain or give you advice, mostly out of their own goodness and desire to help. You may hear things like “everything happens for a reason”, “God is testing you”, or “your suffering is a grace”, which could leave you feeling bewildered from trying to answer for yourself what the reason must be, why God has to test you in this particular way, and why you’re clearly so ungrateful and inadequate that you’re unable to draw a deeper, grace-filled meaning from your experiences. You might find someone who can relate to what you’re going through, or who knows a bit about what it’s like to experience whatever hardship you’re experiencing, but the reality is that while everyone on earth suffers at one time or another, we all do it uniquely and alone. That’s just part of the incredible, yet painful beauty of being unique.
Suffering isn’t pretty.
Jesus was in so much agony, he sweated blood. He was tortured, beaten, left naked and nailed to a cross. The “servant song” of Isaiah says he was so disfigured he didn’t look human. Probably the furthest thing from pretty. But even though his body was left broken and vulnerable on that cross, his essence was not broken. There were those who still saw his beauty and wanted to remain with him. His mother. The beloved disciple. The women. His mother Mary STANDS at the foot of the cross. How she had the strength to stand, I don’t know, but by doing so she unites herself with Jesus, as much as she can. She says to him, and to the world, “I am with him, and he matters”.
When I think about it, I’m reminded that even when my own hardships make me feel really undesirable, broken and “ugly”, they do not take away from my essence. Feeling those things can make us isolate ourselves and push others away. We don’t want to hurt or worry those we love, and perhaps we also want to protect and even hide the broken parts of ourselves. But there are people around us who will willingly stand by our crosses, who will say “I’m with her. I’m with him. I’m with them. And they matter,” if we let them. Allowing people to stand with us and for us when we are the least pretty, the most vulnerable…I think that takes real humility.
Suffering does not take away our choices.
When we go through pain, it’s sort of like we’re presented with two living spaces. We can live in the realm of self-pity and isolation, or we can live in freedom of spirit. Think about Jesus in the Garden again. Until the end, he’s been totally upfront with his friends that things are going to get ugly. He admits he doesn’t want to suffer – let this cup pass from me, he says – but would he really be fully human if he did? Yet he doesn’t start throwing a pity party among the olive trees. He doesn’t urge his disciples to feel sorry for him, saying “Guys, I’m going to die soon, let’s have a cry-fest”. He says “I don’t want this”, but then he also says “Your will be done”.
He makes that choice to turn his life, his wishes, his will, over to something so great and perfect.
Now, if I’m honest, a lot of the time I’m pretty much the opposite to Jesus here. I allow myself to feel sorry for myself, sad that “no one understands”, woe is me, and so on. Sometimes, I find myself wanting more from others than what they are able to give, or expect things from them I haven’t articulated. But what does that even serve? It definitely doesn’t make me feel better about myself. It definitely doesn’t improve my relationships – in fact, it potentially even creates bitterness and frustration, because my expectations can’t be met. Suffering might seem like it throws us up the creek without a paddle, but it doesn’t leave us without any way to steer the ship. We always have choices, even in great hardship: the choice of engaging with positivity or resentment, of being upfront and real that things are hard or of protecting ourselves, of admitting our limitations or of pretending we have everything together and trying to prove to others we’re okay, of leaving our prayer at “I don’t want this” or of adding that second line “Thy will be done”.
We all go through suffering, whether it be a broken bone, the loss of someone or something we love, or even a lockdown. What might seem a minor inconvenience for one person may be exceptionally hard for another, so it’s important not to compare our levels of suffering. Suffering is isolating. It isn’t pretty. And it can leave us feeling like we don’t have choices, even though we do. But we don’t go through our struggles alone: Jesus understands completely what suffering is like. And, if we open our lives and our hearts to him, he will walk with us through our own Suffering 101.
Sr Sophie Boffa csfn is a Sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth.
This article was originally published on the blog of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Republished with permission.