I used to do this thing in college. I guess in some way I’ve always done it, and I probably still do it now to some extent. But college was the first time I really recognized it as a daily habit, as a part of my personality and temperament. Whenever someone would ask how I was doing, even if the question’s context was because that person knew I was NOT doing well, I would deflect to good old fashioned perspective. The conversation would go something like this: “how are you doing, jules?” and I would respond “I’m fine, there are so many other problems in the world mine really aren’t so important.”
Or sometimes I would get specific, and say things like “I just keep thinking of those who aren’t as fortunate as I am to be going to college,” or “I’m just so blessed to have supportive friends and family when so many others don’t.” You get the picture.
And even in the times when my suffering seemed heavy and unbearable (after a breakup, a difficult time with a friend), I would still try to deflect the pain. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel the pain myself, it’s that I didn’t want to burden others with my suffering. I felt that by diminishing my suffering for others, I was being humble. I was doing the right thing by recognizing there were so many worse things that could be going on in the world.
Which is true, of course, but what I didn’t realize is that I wasn’t actually expressing solidarity with those suffering. In my deflection of my pain, I made other people’s sufferings about ME.
And this pattern continued until one day, a dear friend and roommate finally had the courage to call me out of this horrific habit. She said plainly and bluntly, “Jules, you have to stop doing that. Suffering comes at you like a gas, and no matter it’s form, it fills you all the same.”
Suffering comes at you like a gas. By deflecting, by trying to justify not addressing my pain because of other people’s pain, I wasn’t actually letting myself feel everything I was supposed to feel. And that only hindered my healing, and frankly my faith.
When we discerned the theme for this Lenten season, “love your neighbor as yourself,” none of us could have predicted just how much God would be calling us to love our neighbor this year. That we would be called, entirely out of love for our neighbor, to isolate, to separate, simply for the good of the other. Perhaps in one of the most tangible and frankly hard ways He could, God is asking us to completely change our lives strictly for love of the other.
Today is Good Friday. Every year as a family, we sit with our kids and we ask this one question: Why do we call this day GOOD? We look to our crucifix and we show our kids that in the most painful moment of all of history, Love saves us all. We talk about the story of the Passion, but we always end with this one line: “but guys, is that the end of the story?!” And our kids passionately and excitedly shake their heads no, because we know the Miracle that will soon take place. We know that Love truly wins.
But before we can even get to that moment, Love stretched out, arms opened wide, we have to also acknowledge the very real and human moments of Jesus’ before. Jesus demonstrates that we are allowed to acknowledge our pain. In his heartbreaking prayer in the garden, so intense and strenuous that he literally sweated blood. In his acknowledgment of being alone, abandoned by those who were his closest friends. In his begging the Father to take the cup, while also submitting but “Thy Will be done.”
Jesus entirely and completely gives up his life for the other, but first he must openly embrace the difficulty of such a task. It is not easy. He gives himself permission to feel everything He is supposed to feel: the physical pain, the loneliness, abandonment, and despair.
For us, in this time of separation and social isolation, this very literal distance between us and our neighbors, the acknowledgment of our pain and suffering will look different for all of us. It looks like young people losing their final sports seasons or starring roles in the Spring musical. It looks like moms and dads reconfiguring their entire lives to figure out childcare or educate their children. It looks like men and women losing their incomes and wages because of their stores closing. It looks like small children desperate to see friends, to go to the park, to go back to school. It looks like every day loneliness and stress, wondering if the isolation will end before the arrival of a baby. It looks like the horrific, devastating moments of watching from a distance as your loved one struggles through sickness. It looks like losing that loved one to a virus which seems to have no boundaries in its ability to swiftly take over one’s body. The grief and pain look like all of these things, and while there are some instances certainly more painful or devastating than others, suffering still comes at us like a gas. We must give ourselves permission to feel it, to embrace it, to let it fill us, to literally pick it up and carry it with our Lord to Calvary.
This day is good, the Church tells us. This day is good, I tell my children and my husband. Through the suffering, through the acknowledgment of our suffering, it is still good. Through the pain and the loneliness and despair, it is still good. Suffering comes at you like a gas, but so does love. Love stretched out, having an evermore powerful effect. While suffering can fill us temporarily, love fills us eternally. It fills every inch of our being. It is salvation itself.
Jules Miles is a wife, mom, and holds undergraduate and Masters degrees in Catholic Theology. She is the creator and host of the podcast, Mystery Through Manners, and the co-founder of Ruah Storytellers.