How Suffering Made Me Whole
Imagine sitting in a large reclining chair while two nurses plunge needles into your bicep. Your arm starts to swell and blood starts to pool into your lap. It's your first day of dialysis because your kidneys failed a month prior and you're coming to terms with your new way of doing life. It's a lot to take in because you're only 21 years old and people are shocked that you're in their office for treatment. They get the bleeding to stop and it's all under control but you're shaking in fear and the shame of all the eyes watching you sets in. You ask for a blanket to cover your head and ask your family to leave because you're embarrassed. You're embarrassed that you're about to start sobbing and you feel shame. You don't know why you feel shame but you really hurt on the inside. You take the blanket they gave you and drape it over your head and bite into the fabric. Nobody needs to know that you're in so much pain. Your soul hurts. You're disappointed. You realize for the first time that you are suffering.
I realized in that moment that I was suffering.
Unfortunately, some people never get the opportunity to see the aftermath of their own suffering. We must remember those people in our prayer daily. My suffering saw a resolve. On July 22nd 2009 my life was saved by a woman (and a Saint in my heart) named Judy by way of organ donation. Overnight my suffering ended. I should say my physical suffering ended. I want to make that distinction very clear because I don't talk about it much that suffering emotionally is long term.
It's hard to find words to describe suffering while you're in it. It's something you have to process and come to terms with. It's the elephant in the room that people want to know what it's like but know not to ask. There's a period that I can only describe as vacant after your suffering ends, where you don't feel much of anything about it. I thought that everything was in the clear emotionally until one day I was trying to take a nap in-between classes in college. I remember leaning the car seat as far back as possible, placing a jacket over my head and then I just broke. The car was quiet and I was in one of the far corners of campus and I remember this feeling of "finally I'm alone" and I let it out. All of this trauma that I had "forgotten about" came to the surface. That was six years ago and still happens from time to time today.
There's a philosopher named Kenneth Burke who is known for his contributions in rhetorical theory. He makes a claim that the world is motivated by guilt and that all acts committed are a way to purge that guilt. This includes doing acts of charity and other noble as a way to remove the guilt of poverty. Contrary, there is also the act of purging guilt justly felt internally onto others in the form of scapegoating. Guilt is a powerful tool. What about suffering? If we take this notion of guilt and switch out the wording or create a sub-point dedicated to suffering what do we find?
"The world is motivated by suffering and the desire to purge suffering."
For a long time I wouldn't confront the trauma of my suffering because I couldn't constructively release it. I didn't know what to do with the physical and emotional energy built up inside my body. Those tears in the car that day were an overflow of something deep inside that needed to be let out. Slowly I learned how to let it out. I would go to downtown Detroit and pray with and feed homeless people. There was a ministry that would put on events for inner city families that I would participate in. I would hang out with my mom who would help setup prayer stations for people walking the streets of Detroit. Through all of these things I traded my suffering for empathy. I was no longer releasing my suffering for my benefit but instead the ability to feel with others became a labor of love. My heart hopes to never be the cause of suffering but to be a resolve to it.
In all of this I learned what it meant to live an incarnate life. A life where though my flesh and my heart (kidneys) may fail God is present in it. I learned that Jesus was a man of many sorrows because the human experience is most magnified in suffering. In a strange way suffering made me whole. This is not to say that we should seek to suffer but that suffering reminds us most marvelously the work of the cross. We do not partake in the cross with a clenched fist but with an open hand ready to be received in glory! I say this not as somebody who doesn't know the sorrow of the world but as somebody who has taken heart in it.
For those who proclaim Christ, we should look upon the suffering of the world with a posture of sacrificial love. What I most appreciated was the small gestures by people. My brother would wake up at 5 am and come with me to my dialysis appointments 3 days a week. I had no appetite except for lemon flavored hostess fruit pies and friends made sure I had one for every day of treatment. People would send me cards and well wishes from across the U.S. who heard of my struggles. My friends and church family would stop and pray for me. It all made me feel beyond loved and though I was still weak in my body I was strengthened in my spirit. When I started processing the trauma emotionally people would check in on me. When I couldn't control my tears for sometimes no reason they would hug me tight. Get into the mess with people even if it means sharing in their pain in the most profound ways. That's what Jesus did and is doing.
May we all be crucified with Christ and may we all gain the empathy of the cross. Amen.