Today I shared over on Instagram about making our invisible suffering visible, and how we really cannot bear the weight of suffering alone. I hope this piece from last october can take you a bit deeper into considering that God made you to need others, even and especially in your suffering.
As psychiatrist Curt Thompson has written, “To be human is to be vulnerable.” Suffering disinters vulnerability, illuminating a feature of our humanity we’d often rather ignore.
Some of us are forced to confront our vulnerability when tragedy strikes, when natural disasters hit, or when relationships crumble. For me, vulnerability crept up from within my own flesh and bone. Nearly nine years ago I became ill with a disease that would come to dominate my adult life. Everything turned out so different from what my 20-year-old self imagined. But in a life of changed plans, disappointments, and medical bills, the biggest surprise has been the joy.
I know it sounds strange. Chronic health conditions bring pain, suffering, and frustration—circumstances we feel powerless to control. My autoimmune disease continuously forces me into a position of vulnerability before others, allowing others to see the powerlessness I would rather keep hidden. In the exposure of learning to receive love in my most broken places, I have found the deepest joy.
Joy has come in unlikely venues, like the dingy cottage where my husband and I moved after placing his seminary education on hold to attend to my declining health. Due to joint pain, I struggled to walk across our home and do basic things like cook dinner or clean up the dishes. In the midst of my shame and humiliation, small acts of compassion stood out that much more.
One day a friend stopped by after she finished work to say hello. As she sat next to me on the couch, all I could do was weep. I was drowning in the sorrow of uncertainty, worried my life would never improve, but she wordlessly comforted me by coexisting with my suffering. By letting her see me undone, I realized I was loved even in such a broken state. The simple joy of being received by my friend, who refused to minimize my pain or try to fix me, created new life in the middle of grief. Joy’s coexistence with pain and vulnerability became part of my memory that evening.
Suffering internalized is dark and heavy, but suffering shared engenders courage and hope. In those early years of illness, I gave up on my survival strategy of withdrawal and self-sufficiency by bringing my helplessness and grief into the open. As I shared my suffering with friends, I found validation. The safe harbor of friendship gave me space to compassionately accept the pain, sorrow, and limitations sickness had introduced into my life. Honesty with others unlocked even more honesty with God, and I found the cry of my heart was echoed by many of the psalmists. I learned to embrace my suffering as a provocative gift for others to begin receiving healing validation for their own pain.