Brace yourselves. Here comes another post about suffering…
The majority of my posts so far have been on suffering (The Advantage of Suffering and The Sorrowful Mysteries, for instance) because it’s something that goes hand in hand with mental illness. Since it keeps coming up again and again, I’ve decide to create an ongoing series specifically devoted to it.
So here goes…
Why do we suffer?
It’s a question worth asking, and it really has no hard and fast answers. C.S. Lewis wrote a brilliant book on the subject that’s well worth checking out titled The Problem of Pain. I’m not going to try and rehash what he already addressed. Instead, I’d like to put forward just one of the many answers to the above question for consideration.
Because suffering is part of the human condition, it’s one of the few things that any person, anywhere, from any culture, can bond with a fellow human over. Suffering brings people together like nothing else can–at least when the suffering is shared. Suffering allows you to understand and empathize with others who are going through the same, or similar, experiences. Yes, suffering can and does destroy some people. But on the flip side, it can and does move other people to heroic action. The very act of fighting to stay strong as you endure your own trials can bring hope and encouragement to others who desperately need it, without you even realizing it.
A little vignette from my life is illustrative of this.
During the winter of 2012-2013, I went through a very rough patch. I was hit with multiple episodes of severe depression, interspersed with some mixed episodes, and virtually no stability between any of them. While this was going on, I was also having some physical health problems that would have left me feeling miserable all on their own. Adding them to severe depression was really just some icing on an already large cake. But as anyone with depression knows, life doesn’t stop and wait for you to start feeling better. It keeps going. It becomes a matter of sink or swim. There really are no other options.
For me, one of the parts of life that keeps going regardless of how I feel is music ministry. Our church isn’t large. Back then, it was just me and a fellow lady parishioner who led the congregation in song. We both sang, but she was the cantor and I was the pianist. Her job would turn into an absolute nightmare if I failed to show up–it’s a tall order to lead an entire congregation without any instrumental accompaniment when you have no musical training. The result usually isn’t terribly pretty, though perhaps its mildly better than a dry mass (a mass with no music). Suffice to say, I couldn’t simply bow out, even though curling up in a corner and dying felt preferable to leaving the house. So I pulled together some hymns that weren’t too hard, and that I felt drawn to in my misery, and trooped off to church.
I could barely focus on the notes on the page. I didn’t even try to hear myself singing. I just mindlessly forced the memorized words out with as much force as my blind discomfort allowed, not caring if my voice cracked or went off key–which it very likely did. I was in a state of utter resignation. The whole thing didn’t seem worth the effort. I was tired of life. Everything was way too hard, and I confess I felt more than a little bitter about it deep down. What was the point of having to go through all of it? I was more than a little frustrated with my Creator, though I hadn’t outright admitted that to myself yet.
The mass finally ended. The last hymn was done. I decided that crawling under the piano and dying probably wouldn’t be looked upon as socially acceptable, so instead I started gathering up my sheet music. As I did so, a woman approached my fellow singer. I almost failed to notice, considering how caught up I was in my pity-party. But when I turned my attention on them, I momentarily forgot myself. The woman was wiping tears from her eyes as she thanked us for our effort. There was no way she could know just how poorly I was doing–I’d never talked about it with anyone in my parish, and not even my fellow singer had clued in. But the music we made had touched this woman at a very personal level.
My fellow parishioners aren’t what you’d call an overemotional bunch. If they tear up during a mass, they cover it up and keep it to themselves. They also don’t usually hang around to chat with the music ministry. To have someone walk up to the front of the church and address us is uncommon. To have someone do so while in tears–well, it’s unheard of. I was so shocked I actually forgot how awful I felt. And for a severely depressed person, that is extremely impressive.
I went home feeling the least bad about things that I’d felt in weeks. The entire experience had been made worth it. Why? I suddenly remembered I wasn’t the only person in the world burdened with suffering. There were other people in my own community suffering too–and somehow managing to survive it. And I had just unintentionally reached out and touched one of those people by simply showing up and trying my best to hold it together as I fulfilled my commitment. And the fact that she was courageous enough to approach us and express how she felt touched me. I have no idea what she was going through, and she had no idea what I was going through, but by our mutual suffering we helped each other.
There’s something beautiful about that, no?
Take care and God bless,