I awoke to the sound of the world in Xela just like every day for the past year, only now it was different. Today the sun shone on me as I walked to my favorite coffee shop—the one where I wrote my first blog post in Guatemala, and now the place where I pen my last.
My life here has been chiastic: I think about my last night with Claudia, our last date at the same steakhouse where we had our first.
In a moment like this, you would expect some tried maxim like, ‘man, my time in Xela just flew by,’ but today, that would be a lie. I think it’s been one of the hardest years of my life and I have learned something which logically makes sense:
Time flies when you’re having fun, but it slows down when you’re suffering.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s because God really wants us to pay attention in those moments. Like, to really pay attention. Lewis said the same thing, just in different words.
The word ‘suffering’ also needs some explanation for those who don’t know me too well. I have touched on it in past posts, but for the entirety of 2019, I have prayed the same prayer every day: God, I just want one full day of being healthy.
As of now, it has yet to happen.
I’m 90% sure I had mono, which morphed into a plethora of fun co-infections. I was so sleepy it felt like I weighed a metric tonne. The worst part, though, was definitely my throat, especially considering how my job was essentially to yell over the chaos of middle schoolers for 8 hours a day. It would start out sore and swollen in the morning, and be exponentially worse by the time school ended.
I also could not taste a thing, which may seem like a minor thing in the grand scheme of existence, but you quickly discover what a gift from God it is to be able to enjoy His creation with our tongues.
I visited five different doctors, each of whom danced around the fact that they had no idea what was wrong (compounded by the fact that we didn’t speak the same language) with me by prescribing different drugs each time. Today, I have no idea how many chemicals are running through my bloodstream. On top of this, I had an extremely painful abscess in my—I’ll just say it—bum, which recurred a few times as well.
I’ve told many friends that I now have a deeper appreciation for people who go through incurable, chronic afflictions. I used to look at them without thinking twice about it.
“Oh, of course that person has oxygen tubes! C’est la vie!”
“Ah, it’s a real bummer that person is bound to a wheelchair.”
After being sick for over four months, I now understand it on a deeper level. That’s not to say I understand their experiences entirely, for I plan to get better and to return to full, active health soon, but I do understand more than I did. I’ve learned the bitterly ironic pain of well-intended comments like, “Ah, that’s a real bummer!” or even, “I hope you get better soon!” For some reason, they sting worse because you know the speaker has absolutely no experience or real interest in your pain.
Perhaps the best response I received was from a co-worker who, on our last day of school, asked me what I’ve learned from being sick for so long. I had to pause and think about it. Then I told him it damaged my faith because God was so far away.
It’s easy to dance around and sing worship songs when you have the energy to do so. It’s hard to do the same when you’ve been sick for months and no recovery is on the horizon. Even harder when you’ve been sick for years, or your whole life.
I recently heard a story of an elderly woman who became very sick and being bedridden caused her to lose a lot of bloodflow. The doctors had to take one foot, then the other. Then one hand, then the other, then a leg, then an arm. All the while, her favorite song continued to be “Amazing Grace” and the nurses were astounded. This woman had no more limbs; would never do anything ever again, yet she resounded with joy and hymns.
The hospital chaplain came to visit her one day and asked how she had such joy in the midst of her tremendous suffering.
“If you don’t know my joy,” she told him, “you don’t know my Jesus.”
This story stuck with me because my symptoms pale in comparison to hers, yet I have trouble finding joy in the midst of my suffering. I imagine more lessons will be learned in hindsight, but one thing I can say is this: Until you go through an extensive season of suffering firsthand (and I don’t mean a week-long cold), you cannot identify with those whose lives are suffering.
The Holy Spirit is referred to as our Comforter, but what comfort can He give to those who already have it? You don’t comfort the comfortable, you comfort those who suffer. Perhaps this pain really does bring us closer to Jesus of Nazareth in the end; how else will we identify with the Suffering Servant?
I think about a different type of suffering, like the last night I was with Claudia. I walked her out to her dad’s car, opened the door for her and said hello to her father. I squeezed her right arm with my left hand and closed the door behind her.
Time slipped by as I made my way back to the door of my house and suddenly, I was leaning on the table sobbing.
Then I was in the bathroom sobbing, wiping my face with TP.
Then I was up in my room, sobbing on the bed, both wanting to be alone and wanting to talk to all my closest friends at the same time. I called one when I thought I could hold it together. My voice was frail as I told him I’d just said goodbye to Claudia. He said a lot of nice and comforting things, but the one that stood out to me was, ‘tears indicate significance.’ The fact that I cried after saying goodbye to her—possibly forever—heavily indicated that she meant something to me. Evidently, she meant a lot more than I thought.
For such a small person, she sure left a gigantic hole in me.
If nothing else, Claudia taught me that I can be loved, no matter how I look, no matter how I feel. She taught me that I can be an object of desire and that, in a weird way, God can also love me. She has been an anti-narrative for a lot of rejection and pain from other adventures in unrequited love.
In essence, she helped me learn the lesson I’ve been learning from another person very familiar with suffering, the late Renaissance painter Rembrandt (via Henri Nouwen). He was a brilliant artist, but much of his younger years were spent in monetary extravagance and gratuitous philandering. He even painted himself with his young wife amid a smiling fling, entitled The Prodigal Son in the Tavern.
The knowledge of his background only makes his latter years stand out more. He would lose four children and two wives in his lifetime, and after spending all his money, would die a poor man and be buried in an unmarked church grave.
It was during his later years, however, that he would paint perhaps his most famous work, The Return of the Prodigal, which shows the foolish younger son returning home, being held by his father. His life was stripped bare of the foolish, fleeting distractions until only the deep, significant things remained. No longer is there meaningless fun or careless expenditure; simply an eternal loving embrace from a good father to a wandering son.
Most of us live our lives as this younger son while he is on the way back home: We feel broken, useless, like no one could ever love us again and weak. We may even constantly rehearse apologies/excuses in our head as we try to make our way back to God.
What Rembrandt’s masterpiece reminds us, and what I have learned over the past several months, is that looking for reasons why we should be accepted is a fool’s errand. If you cannot accept yourself, flaws and pain and baggage and all, then remember this: It’s not your job to prove your acceptable-ness. Sometime it takes suffering and sickness to strip away all the things we use to try to hide our unworthiness, and it’s not fun but it’s significant.
As Jordan Peterson likes to say, there is nothing worse than meaningless suffering. As Christians, we know that nothing is meaningless. We know that even our suffering has purpose, and I would contend that most of this suffering is to remove ourselves from ourselves in order to know Christ more deeply. Hopefully it won’t take a year’s worth of suffering for you to draw nearer to Him, but sometimes that’s what it takes.
May we be people who suffer with purpose, finding comfort from our Comforter and healing from the Healer. May we suffer well. May we continually long for the day when our faith becomes sight and we no longer need to suffer in order to know Christ.