I have been thinking a lot these days about what suffering does for us in our relationship with God and others. I am aware of times when I anesthetize emotional and physical pain with lust or food (I did it again last night); I am also aware of times when suffering ushers me into the wounds of Christ, like stepping through the narrow wardrobe into the vast world of Narnia.
The difference for me is found in the “bent” of my will; either I am angrily pushing back against what feels like assault, or I am broken to the point of surrender or despair. Usually I’m some place in-between. One thing I have found to be true is that if I linger in despair, shame is always right there, which leads me into further degradations of my soul as I inevitably seek to numb myself. I am learning from Jesus (the Man of sorrows, remember) how to direct my heart toward surrender instead of despair, because I have confidence that he holds me and every aspect of my story, even (especially) those parts even I cannot yet hold.
In the end, when I seek to numb the pain I am diminished. When I follow the suffering into conversation with God and others, I am enlarged.
Parker Palmer says it better than I can when he says,
Suffering breaks our hearts — but there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.
What can I do to make my tight heart more supple, the way a runner stretches to avoid injury? That’s a question I ask myself every day. With regular exercise, my heart is less likely to break apart into shards that may become shrapnel, and more likely to break open into largeness.
There are many ways to make the heart more supple, but all of them come down to this: Take it in, take it all in!
My heart is stretched every time I’m able to take in life’s little deaths without an anesthetic: a friendship gone sour, a mean-spirited critique of my work, failure at a task that was important to me. I can also exercise my heart by taking in life’s little joys: a small kindness from a stranger, the sound of a distant train reviving childhood memories, the infectious giggle of a two-year-old as I “hide” and then “leap out” from behind cupped hands. Taking all of it in — the good and the bad alike — is a form of exercise that slowly transforms my clenched fist of a heart into an open hand.