On Saturday this woman, Brittany Maynard, is going to take her life in order to end her horrible suffering. And while as much as I would like to condemn her decision, I have to admit that I understand her. I have never had to face something as terrible as terminal cancer. I have never had to contemplate the indescribable pain that she is experiencing-the physical and the emotional. I never had to look into the eyes of my sweet husband and know with certainty that he will have an entire life without me after I am gone. But before I rush to judge her, I have to admit that despite not having to endure the same suffering she has, that I can understand so much of her. I sympathize with the desire to control the uncontrollable, to have some sort of a say over your “own” life. I know all too well what it feels like to watch the darkness closing in and feel like there is no way out. Or to feel that the only way out is to curl up in a ball and die as the the suffering washes over me and dies too. I know some of what she is experiencing because I too have felt so deeply wounded that I don’t think I can survive it. I have felt so desperately exhausted that I know I cannot even muster another step or another breath on my own. I have felt overwhelmed by fear, by worry, by the unknown. I have felt broken by suffering. I have feebly looked ahead and seen only a a thicket of more of the same suffering. And then beyond that- a deep, dark woods of worse, unimaginable, but very real, very promised suffering. If this thicket is ensnaring me, how can I even make it through that woods? Wouldn’t it be better if I just laid down here in this thicket and let it all just end?
While in many ways I cannot even begin to fathom (or speak about) this woman’s experience, in other ways her story has struck a cord with me, and resonated through me. In many ways I feel that I can relate to bits and pieces of her story and what she must be feeling. I don’t want to pretend to compare my suffering to hers. And I most definitely do not want to start some sort of political discussion. But I can’t shake her story. I can’t shake the twisting feeling in my stomach made by words unsaid, thoughts unarticulated. I can’t shake the powerful, life-altering things I have been learning through my own (and my family’s) suffering the past year or so. And I can’t shake the thought that although it breaks my heart to to think that this woman has had to suffer, and that she chooses to end it this way,- it breaks my heart even more to think of how so many of us (myself included!) often view suffering.
Since my dad’s formal diagnosis on January 15th of this year, and since his Doctor and my mom had the “between you and me conversation” last November, I have become acquainted with a new kind of suffering that I was not previously familiar with, and one no one wants to meet, but at some point most of us will. Just over this past year or two I have seen several dear friends and family members experience the kind of suffering that rends a person -the kind of suffering that twists you up like a wet rag to wring out every last drop of liquid, and twists harder, and again, and once more, and then just when you think the rag can’t twist any more, by some force it twists around just once more until it is so tight and so empty that you are afraid it might snap. Alzheimer’s has brought my family and I pain I had never experienced, and only the promise of a deep, dark woods of worse pain. Whatever the tool of the suffering my loved ones have experienced, this kind of suffering begs a response, I feel. My heart couldn’t steer into it without some sort of guttural reorganization. I needed answers of behalf of myself and those friends and family I love. I needed direction. I needed to plot a course so I could press on through it. And in that reorganization, that “cleaning of my heart’s closet”, I have come to realize a few things. Not things that make me any sort of expert. Maybe not even things that offer much of any kind of insight. I am just beginning this long walk through this kind of suffering.
But I have learned there is a dignity to it, not the type of dignity Brittany Maynard is grasping for as she peacefully passes away in the arms of her loved ones. There is a dignity in suffering well. I am not entirely sure how to suffer and grieve well, so don’t look to me for an example of this dignity. But I am sure if we think each of us can come up with people who have suffered with this dignity. I am not speaking of pride or not accepting help. I also am not talking about denial or blindly pressing on. I see great dignity when someone allows themselves to be weak, allows themselves to be vulnerable, allows themselves to acknowledge the depth and ugliness of their feelings in their suffering, but still chooses joy. When someone chooses to not run from suffering, or to expect pity, or to label it something exclusive of God I believe they are an example of that dignity that can only come from some supernatural grace that God has given them in their suffering.
At first glance it may not seem that God is in those moments of deep suffering, but I have come to learn that He is. I know His love more now, in the past year, than I ever have before. It is not because He has withheld suffering from me, but rather because He has allowed it, and walked with me though it. Where the presence of God is in suffering, there is great beauty. And great holiness. Christ suffered. He promised we would suffer too. So when I suffer here on earth, I recognize that I am not alone. I am experiencing God in ways I never would have without these horrible circumstances. The holiness in suffering does not take away the pain. It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t still love to escape it, to duck from under it, or to cave inside myself and shut it all out. No, the suffering is still suffering. It is still awful and at times unbearable. I wish so much that my dad would live with his “right” mind until he is at least 80. I desperately long to pause time and let us live together in this moment before something more slips away. While I am here on this earth nothing will ever alleviate the pain in enduring all that Younger Onset (Early Onset) Alzheimer’s brought to my family. But if I am able to share in Christ’s suffering (as in: connect to my Savior in a way I never would have been able to otherwise!), if I am able to be part of God redeeming something awful for His glory, if I am able to experience His holiness in suffering-then I choose not to run from it.
The temptation is always there. Our culture always tells us pain in bad. Suffering is bad. Sickness is bad. And they are. But not exclusively. I have learned that wrapped up in suffering is something awfully, ruggedly, heart-rendingly beautiful. I will never approach my God the same way now that I know, really know, the comfort that comes from knowing that He “collect(s) my tears in His bottle and record(s) each one in His book” (Psalm 56:8). I feel a new closeness to Jesus as I read that he wept as Lazarus lay in his tomb. Despite knowing that later He would raise him from the dead, despite knowing the hope that lay on the horizon, Jesus: the God-man, still shook and sobbed in His holy-human grief. The verse about “God’s grace being sufficient” and “His power being made perfect in weakness” ? (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is not a trite cliché hanging on my wall. It is a verse that I grab ahold of as my legs buckle underneath me. As the voice in my head berates me for not being able, I quiet it with this truth as I revel in the reality that it is in my very weakest moments that God is most glorified. Because when I am weak and unable, any good is not of my own doing, but His. Any victories can only be credited to His grace and strength. When I am empty, without even an ounce left to give, I know that it is He who works in me, who fills me up to over-flowing with joy and peace. And without suffering here, Heaven would seem much poorer. If the arms of my loved ones were always open wide to me, and I had the promise of lifetimes full of their embrace, the tender and powerful arms of my God would not so easily draw me away.
The truth is that suffering sucks. As much as it is a universal part of life, it sucks. And because we hate “hard” and we hate “pain” and we want to be in control, we try to manipulate it and escape it. Because we are weak. I used to bemoan my weakness. Now I am thankful to be weak. I am thankful that I have to battle against caving in underneath the weight of suffering. I am thankful that in many ways I can relate to Brittany. It is in my weakness that Christ is glorified. If bringing Christ glory is the goal of my life, than what better way to do it than to be weak. And what better way to be weak than to suffer. It may sound backwards or even unloving of my God to use my weakness to bring himself fame. But honestly, there is nothing more right in all the world. I AM weak. God doesn’t make me weak. He uses suffering to make me see my pre-existing weakness. I have been praying for years for God to let me see myself as He sees me. I order to see myself the way He sees me, I needed to see myself weak. I needed to see Him as He is-compassionate, gracious, wise, powerful, full of loving-kindness. When I see how weak I am, and see how much he loves me still, I see things as they really are. I am weak. He is strong. I am loved by the one who IS love.
I have rambled on and this post has gone to places I didn’t see when I first began typing. I am not even sure my thoughts are cohesive. I guess what I am saying is that I still have so very, very much to learn in my life, and in this area of suffering in particular. But if I have learned anything this past year or so, it is this: suffering without Christ is pointless and endless. There is no end game. There is no hope. And I actually believe the suffering will never end for those apart from Christ. Jesus is like the missing piece to the puzzle-the piece poor Brittany is looking for, the part we are all looking for. He makes suffering make sense. He makes it mean something. He makes it achieve something greater. His grace makes is easier to endure. His peace surpasses understanding. His hope gives us the light we long for now and “at the end of our tunnel”. And His love, oh His love, is carries us. It sustains us. It directs us. It spurs us on. It chides us. It corrects us. It comforts us. It strengthens us. It defines us. It saves us.
So when I want to run from suffering, I will run to Jesus. When I want to cover myself with blankets and hide, I will hide my heart in His Truth. When I am crippled by weakness and cannot stand, I will kneel prostrate at the foot of His cross-where His blood and love poured out of suffering, where His screams of anguish in the darkness communicated He feels my pain, where suffering had eternal purpose so that my suffering now could achieve an eternal glory. And it I do all because when I cannot even stand, His strength carries me there.