When I was nineteen, I worked as a drugstore cashier for a while. I usually took my breaks alone, so I always kept some reading material in the back room.
Two of my favorite magazines to read in the break room were Cosmo and Scientific American—sex and science. Since I was only about a year out of my fundamentalist church, I had some information gaps in both areas. (Don’t worry. I did know enough not to believe Cosmo sex advice.)
I don’t remember if it was Scientific American or some other science magazine, but one night I read an article about multiple universes.
After that, I was in love with the idea of multiple universes and read everything I could reasonably understand about them. I was especially attracted to the idea that if anything could have happened, it did happen in some universe. If that was true, there was another universe out there where I had never suffered at all.
Where I’d never been the new kid who got bullied.
Where an older man had never gotten obsessed with me.
Where I’d never been abandoned by my church.
Where I hadn’t had to give up in my full scholarship just to stay alive.
In some other universe, I was happy. I was safe.
Of course, that meant in some other universe I was also dead. Or I had never existed because my parents never met. But I clung to this alternate me who had it good.
I keep coming back to these other Kristys. What was down all those roads I never took? The older I get, the less I wonder how life could have been different for me, and the more I wonder how life could have been different around me.
We don’t live our lives in total isolation, no matter how much we intentionally might isolate ourselves. We’re all connected, in big ways and small. Sometimes those small ways ripple out into waves.
What ripples have I created in this universe?
Yes, I know, it’s all sounding very It’s a Wonderful Life right now.
But it’s more than “what would happen if I didn’t exist?” It’s about what would happen if we didn’t live the lives we’re living now.
I have a complicated relationship with my own suffering.
I want to be clear here: I do not believe God causes any suffering I experience.
Suffering itself is evil. We may be able to turn it around and use it for good, but it exists as evil. Nothing evil can come from God.
Having said that, the older I get and the more life piles up on me, the less angry I am with God for not intervening in my life. I mean, if God is God, then he could intervene. He could heal my DNA and remove all this physical pain from me. He could have struck down the man who wanted to murder me.
He could have done those things, but he didn’t.
Because God did nothing, as a teenager, I lost my home, my educational opportunities, my church, and my entire community. As an adult dealing with chronic health problems, I lost every bit of ground I’d gained in rebuilding my life when I had to give up my career.
There was a moment, about three years ago, when I realized I didn’t have anything left to lose. And that meant I was free.
I’ve been writing for a long time, but always kept my head down about it. I didn’t want to say anything that might be too controversial and come across as unprofessional in a way that would interfere with my career goals. But you can’t lose a job you don’t have. I never could have written my book if I hadn’t been forced to give up my career.
Three years ago, when I started writing my memoir, I never would have guessed #metoo and #churchtoo would blow up. I didn’t know we would experience this push toward accountability. I didn’t know there were so many other people out there who had also been deeply wounded by their religious communities.
But God knew.
Am I a vital part of this movement? I doubt it. But I do have some small role to play, if I’m willing. If all I ever do is help a dozen people, aren’t those people worth helping?
I wonder what opportunities to help others that alternate version of me has had. Does she worry so much about losing everything that she refuses to help? Has her lack of suffering robbed her of empathy?
Imagine if we could stand with God above all possible universes and see each potential path our lives could have taken laid out in front of us.
One of those little universes contains the choices we’d make and the circumstances we’d live in that would ultimately lead to our best ability to help build God’s kingdom.
Would we willingly choose that option, even if that option meant we’d suffer? Would we choose to suffer if that suffering took us twisting down trails where we could have the most impact?
I hope I would. I pray I have.
I’m not glad I had a stalker who wanted to kill me, but leaving that church opened up so many more possibilities for me to work for God. I never would have left that church if something huge hadn’t chased me out.
I’m not glad I have a genetic condition that causes me pain, but leaving my job opened up possibilities I couldn’t have explored while worrying about my career. I’d worked extremely hard to move up, and I never would have abandoned my career if I hadn’t had to.
I don’t rejoice in my suffering so much as I understand how it drives me. I still get angry, and I think that’s OK. That’s human. I want to have control over my own life and I’ve so often had that control ripped from me. Even though, overall, I can see how some of the suffering in my life has put me into a position to do some real good, sometimes my emotional and physical pain makes it harder for me to help the people I want to help. None of this is simple.
When I’m standing here, in our universe where my life is small and my reach is short, I mourn for what I could have been.
When I’m standing above and view all the possible routes before zooming in on my life, not an isolated life, but one interconnected with so many others in so many ways, I start to get it.
Coming to some sort of peace with our own suffering should never be weaponized against other people. We should become more empathetic, not less. Not all suffering leads to opportunities. Sometimes suffering is just pain. Uniting our suffering with Christ’s is a different conversation (and something we can choose to do, but can’t force on someone else.)
We should always work to stop suffering when we see it. That’s the whole point of getting some perspective on our own pain.