Simcha Fisher: On being less zen about suffering

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I forget what it was I was offering up, but I told the Lord, “I’m offering this up to you, and I’ll try to be zen about it.”

Then I heard what I said. So what? So I hadn’t had any coffee yet, and I momentarily forgot what religion I am. I only wish it were the dumbest thing He’s ever heard me say.

It made me stop and think, though, and I realised I had to do a little recalibrating of what I meant by “offering it up.” It’s fairly easy to start thinking of it in pop psychology terms: Something is bothering me and weighing me down, so I’m going to just mentally release it. Imagine it like a bright red balloon that sails up, up, up into the sky until it’s just a little pinpoint, and now — poof! — it’s gone, and no longer my problem.

This is . . . okay. It may very well be the most emotionally healthy thing to do at some particular moment. But it’s not precisely offering it up to God, for a couple of reasons. For one reason, God is not the wide blue sky. He is not an amorphous, impersonal, placid largeness whose function is to swallow up small things until they don’t matter anymore. (That’s not even what the sky is, either, but never mind that now.)

What do we mean when we say “offer it up?” Sometimes people will distort the concept, and use the phrase as shorthand for “suck it up” or “shut up.” People will say “offer it up” when what they really mean is, “I’m going to remind you that the spiritual thing to do is to quit whining about your stupid problems.”

That, as they say, ain’t it. We have the option to offer suffering up to God precisely because even our small suffering IS real suffering, and God knows this, and even (in a way that makes more or less sense to me at various times) suffers along with us. It’s not that we’re not supposed to minimise our troubles. It’s that suffering doesn’t have to be a dead end. It doesn’t have to stay entirely with us.

People sometimes say that Catholics are obsessed with suffering, or that we have an unhealthy fascination with death and pain. And sure, anything can be overdone or twisted or made unhealthy. But Catholics (when they’re not being crazy) don’t seek out suffering; they just do a good job of acknowledging that it exists. And they offer at least the possibility of a plan for what to do with it.

At its core, the Catholic understanding of suffering has two components: Suffering is real; and suffering doesn’t have to be wasted. This is one way that a Catholic concept of suffering is actually quite psychologically progressive. While meme-style pop psychology tells you to deal with suffering by having more positive thoughts, or choosing joy, or following your bliss, or naming and claiming your reward, the Catholic Church has a much more humane approach.

It says, “Hey, that bug bite on your toe that’s making it hard to sleep? That disappointment you feel when your fun day trip got cancelled? The stress of having to move cross country? That worry you have over your children’s future? That crushing grief over the end of your marriage? THESE ARE ALL REAL. Your pain is real, your suffering is real. It affects you in a real way. It’s heavy. It hurts. If you feel like you can’t manage it on your own, that’s not because you’re weak or silly. It’s because you shouldn’t have to.”

And then it gives you something to do with your suffering — or, more precisely, someone to go through it with. Someone to give it to. Someone to witness it; someone who can transform it. Not the wide blue sky, but a real person with real hands, that are really outstretched to help carry the load.

If visualisations help you understand what is happening when you offer something up, there are many ways to conceive of it. Some people talk about dashing their burdens against the foot of the cross, or nailing them to the cross. That doesn’t do much for me, but I’ve more than once imagined heaving something heavy at the ascending Christ, who catches it neatly on his way up from the grave.

Or one time I had a very clear picture of gingerly picking up some unpleasant burden with two fingers, and wincingly asking the Lord, “Did you . . . want this?” Good news: He did. He always does. If that’s too weird for you, that’s ok! The point is to remember that when you’re suffering, God knows it and sees it. He has felt it. He doesn’t want it to be pointless; he wants to help you.

The point is to remember the cross. That is how we know what to do with our suffering. It’s all pictured right there: Suffering is real; and suffering doesn’t have to be wasted.

I am not saying that God will take your suffering away. I’m not even saying that you will immediately feel lighter, or more capable, or even more hopeful, after you offer things up to Him. You might! I have found that, when I make a constant practice of offering bad stuff up to God, they begin to feel less crushing, even when circumstances don’t change. But it might take a long time, even a lifetime, to see what it is God does with our burdens. But even then, what do you have to lose? What’s the alternative? Following your bliss to the grave? I was promised better.

Don’t resolve to be more zen about your suffering. Resolve to be more Christlike. Jesus acknowledged that he was in pain; Jesus offered it to the Father so it wouldn’t go to waste. There’s our model.

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