You’re having a hard time right now because your life is hard right now
I didn’t even bother coming up with a little introduction for this essay to work my way up to that idea, because you’re ready to hear it, right? Everyone is having a hard time. Everyone on the globe is feeling the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic in one way or another, and it seems like everyone I know is also struggling with some unusual problem on top of that.
The only other thing we all seem to have in common is that an unusual number of people seem to be thinking poorly of themselves because they are struggling. So many of my friends seem to feel that there is something wrong with them because they are so sad and exhausted. They feel like there are so many other people with worse problems than theirs, or they ought to have adapted to a new normal, or they ought to be glad things are not as bad as they were in the past, or something.
Be careful of your inner voice
Not only are they having a hard time, they’re angry at themselves, embarrassed and ashamed because they’re even struggling. Everyone I know seems to be fighting terrible battles, and their worst enemy is their own self, who constantly sneers, “Oh, stop your whining. It’s not so bad.”
If you are hearing this voice, you should know that it’s not really your self saying it to you. Or that’s not where the thought has its roots, anyway. It’s an idea that comes from the evil one: This idea that your suffering is imaginary, not worthy of tears or attention.
Isn’t that strange, to think that the devil would want to deny suffering? If you look at medieval paintings, it looks like suffering is, as they say, extremely his jam: You’ll see bony, many-clawed demons gleefully cramming bushels of suffering souls into bubbling cauldrons, stretching them on racks, slicing them into ribbons, searing their flesh.
It’s important to call suffering what it is
But I’ve found that some of my most hellish mental states come when I’m unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to clearly and calmly identify my own suffering as real suffering. It’s counterintuitive, but there is something demonic about being unwilling to look suffering in the face. And there is something holy about calling suffering what it is.
I think that this is because of the cross. Since Jesus died on the cross, suffering is forever a place where Christ may be found, if you can sit there for a minute and look for him.
This sounds like pious platitudes, doesn’t it? It sounds like I’m saying that, if we just sit still for a moment, cast our eyes heavenward and get a mental picture of a white lamb in our heads, then our suffering will somehow become spiritual, and will in some way not bother us so much anymore. And that is not what I mean.
What I do mean is this: The one thing the devil wants you to think is that you don’t matter, that what you experience doesn’t matter, that what you suffer doesn’t matter, that what you’re going through isn’t any big deal. That’s part of the genius of the medieval concept of hell: Not only the gruesome detail of the fleshly agonies, but the horrible sameness of all those shocked and helpless bodies. All those rows of limbs bundled up like firewood, numberless, nameless. Maybe that’s something like what hell is: Where your suffering doesn’t mean anything anymore.
But we’re not in hell; not yet. We are, if I remember my catechism, the Church militant, which means the battle hasn’t been decided yet. It could go either way. We can still, every day, every hour, decide that the suffering we face will be a place where we can find Christ.
I’m not saying it’s easy! But it is simple. All we have to do is two things: Acknowledge we are suffering, and greet him there. “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is a prayer that encompasses both those ideas. You can do this. You can acknowledge you are suffering, and you can greet Jesus there. You don’t have to be happy to see him. You don’t have to pretend you understand why any of what you’re going through is a good idea. Just acknowledge you are suffering, and greet the Lord there. Now you know everything I know, and everything I felt compelled to tell you today.
You’re having a hard time right now because life is hard right now. I don’t know you, but I promise you that Jesus does, and he has not forgotten you.