The Practical Application of Suffering

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John Crist has been killing it with these millennial spoofs. Church Hunters was sheer brilliance, of course, but this latest one surpasses them all. In fact, it was forefront in my mind as I trundled my poor child off to have a root canal on Friday.

Now, before you shrug, let me describe my own root canal for you. Better yet, put yourself in the dentist chair along with me at the tender and innocent age of six, recumbent in the face of an angry French speaking Belgian dentist who has to fill six of my young teeth. Moment by moment he bellows, ‘Ouvre la bouche!’ And I, whose bouche is as wide as any six year old can possibly widen it, try, unsuccessfully, to stretch it a little wider. Traumatizing. That’s the word I’m searching for.

If you were looking for a trigger that would send me immediately into sadness, anxiety, and the powerful desire for a safe space, all you would need to do is whisper ‘Dentist’ in my ear and I would crumble to bits.

But, by the grace of God, after years of neglect and therefore teeth that needed exorbitant attention from that terrifying profession, I fell into the hands of a calm person who cheerfully keeps me from experiencing pain and from throwing up on her. Moreover, she did all that she could to hold off a deep menacing cavity from needing to be torn out by its root. Eventually, though, I had to face it, and so off I went–and I’m pretty sure it was literally Good Friday by the actual date of the calendar–for a root canal.

So, when I say I was trying not to be unduly overwrought about the prospect of my child having a root canal, you might be able to imagine what a struggle it was. I am not the most affectionate mother who has ever lived. I have never had my whole self absorbed into the ego of the child. Each baby came into my arms with an abiding self-differentiated quality that perseveres even to this moment. I don’t have any trouble letting them be who they are, or who they wish they could be. But, you know, I’m not completely detached. If you poke them with needles, I flinch every time.

As we were driving along to the appointment, my child whined (as all children do), ‘Why does everything bad have to happen to me?’ He went on to enumerate in detail all the bad things that have befallen him, and to compare his life unfavorably with those of all his siblings and friends. ‘Bad things never happen to any of them,’ he said. I disabused him of his revisionist history with a litany of catastrophes such as I could remember from all his friends and relations. And then I lectured him about the great gift of suffering.

‘Truly,’ I said, ‘those whom God does not afflict, God does not love very much. What sort of person would you be, if you never had to suffer? What kind of compassion would you have, if you never endured pain? What kind of work would you do, if you never had to struggle? Pain is essential,’ I said, ‘for making you into a decent kind of person. This root canal is God’s mercy on your soul.’

He seemed dubious. It is better not to suffer. That’s what we all think. I shouldn’t have to go through this terrible thing because its not fair, and if God really loved me he wouldn’t let me be uncomfortable. But the trouble is, no matter who you are and what you think you’re on about, you’re going to suffer one way or another. And if you yourself don’t suffer, you will always be in terrible place of being willing to cause others suffering. Having endured something intolerable yourself, your heart should warm with grief when you see someone in a similar situation. You might rise up and try to help, to relieve the pain of which you yourself know the quality and characteristics. Suffering, in its essential quality of breaking you apart, does the work of eventually, when you have had time to glue all the pieces back together, making you kind, of helping you to notice other people, and ultimately of making you grateful to God for saving you from the devastation of eternal suffering.

You know this, of course. And I always think I know it. But I never really do. When I swallowed down my terror and went to sit in the same chair as my child, all those years ago, I was offered ‘laughing gas’, a misnomer if ever there was one. It was supposed to make me woozy and relaxed, I guess. But everything produces the opposite effect on me. Coffee makes me tired, Dramamine wakes me up. Laughing Gas clears my mind and heightens my senses so that I am more present in the moment than is even humanly possible. I lay back, my head towards the ground like Peter at his death. Every movement, every sensation, every sound, every smell indelibly marking itself on my memory. ‘So this is what its like to die,’ I said to myself, weeping silently out of the sides of my eyes.

When I finally emerged from the chair, a broken sniveling shell of a person, I felt that God had been truly unkind for putting me in such a furnace. But also, the fire had been strangely purifying. I had been cast down, and yet, here I was, raised up enough to walk out of the office. My compassion was increased. My zeal for relieving the suffering of others took on a more fervent quality because God, in his mercy, had delivered me out of my distress.

And so, having seen over and over that it is good and right that I should suffer, that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces hope, and hope does not disappoint, I try not to entirely shield my children from experiencing this gift. It is ok for them to suffer, to be sad, to be sometimes anxious, for them to endure trials of various kinds. If the endurance of pain, however tempered by the fact that their lives are completely charmed, can produce in them a humble concern for the suffering of others, I will be relieved. But also, I’m not showing them that video because they will get ideas.

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