Ordinary Suffering

This is a draft I’ll revisit. Right now, wandering. While I have talked around these ideas with a few friends, and written much in my notebooks, I was uncertain how to shape ordinary suffering into a single piece. And maybe ordinary suffering will be the thing I explore for a while, uncovering/ discovering the equality of suffering. That’s what I’ve come to, that suffering is suffering. Or maybe the equality is in our human needs, no matter the degree of suffering.


Seven years ago my right knee swelled. My quads were tight, the knee joint twinged when I squatted to help my son put his shoes on. The next day my knee was swollen. For a year and a half I couldn’t run. Some days it was difficult to walk. Swelling extended above the knee joint. The swelling would come and go, a routine of so many days fine, so many days swollen. There was no physical pain in the joint and when I finally got an MRI after nearly a year, because something must be wrong for my body to behave like this, the imaging revealed a perfectly fine knee joint with no ligament or tendon strain, no cartilage damage. But still, the knee swelled.

This year my left knee swelled. One afternoon in June I rode my bike home and noticed my knee popping. That night I massage a tight muscle in my calf. I woke up barely able to walk. My knee was puffy and unstable. I texted my weekend running partner I couldn’t make it that morning. I elevated my leg and massaged my lymph nodes. We had brunch plans and I hobbled to the subway, hobbled to the restaurant where a waiter brought me a plastic bag of ice. I spent two weeks moving very slowly, limping when the knee was swollen, and going about my usual day when the joint returned to normal. Again, there is no pain in the joint. Over the summer I saw a sports physical therapist who manipulated my knee to check for pain, any pain at all, nothing? I suspect an MRI would reveal no damage.

But I am damaged. My routine is damaged. The way I make my day is changed because I cannot rise, leave the apartment and run for an hour or so before going to work. I do not have that time alone on the river path, to think or pray or wonder. All summer I was in the way of myself. I went grocery shopping one day and hated how slowly I had to walk, how careful I was of moving my body through the aisles, of getting into or out of the car. A man noticed I was limping and said, I thought you had an artificial limb! But I see you’ve got your foot. What happened?

When I explain these injuries I say the joint swells in reaction to a muscle imbalance. Probably hip flexors or glutes. Or maybe a weak ankle. I do physical therapy exercises. A strong core is not magic. I go to an osteopath, which is also not magic. I pray, and wish that was magic.

I get to run again, I know. There is nothing I can do for this except to wait for the body to sort itself, for the muscles running from the top of my head to my toes to align and strengthen again, to support my stride and cadence down the river path. But the waiting time –

Always there is a waiting time. Before we moved to Korea, we waited to know where. When we moved to Korea, we waited to feel like we fit here. We wait for test results. We wait for babies. We wait to accept, wait to wake up and feel whole again, wait to eat with an appetite. We wait to call because we don’t know what to say. We wait for the end. We wait, to test trust. We wait in faith or anger or doubt. We wait to heal. We wait to grow. We wait for understanding, comfort, peace.

Last year one of my first friends in Seoul was a woman named Sabrina. Only a few months before, her husband of seven years died of cancer. She has a daughter and son, like me, and we spent a lot of time together that fall – her kids joined mine on the playground or at our apartment while she visited a variety of doctors to figure out what was happening to her body. What was happening was grief. Over the course of her first year of widowhood, her body turned on itself, weakened, reacted in fear, until she finally found a diagnosis of PTSD. We were alongside Sabrina, loving in practical ways. I listened. We talked about her grief and our shared faith in Christ. Sometimes I could feel myself talking to a point, like if I could only find the right way to empathize, if I could only find the right word of encouragement, Sabrina might then lift.

Last year was difficult for me too. While we were pleased with our move, glad for our new school environment, all the new was overwhelming and I was unsteady in my professional value and place. My daughter also had a tough adjustment to our new school and I carried concern and fear for her. At home I frayed. We didn’t have a housekeeper helping to run our home. I couldn’t find ingredients to cook what I liked. I didn’t want to cook anyway. I wanted to hide, or go to bed early. My marriage was okay but neither Justin nor I were satisfied in our partnership, or glad at how our family dynamic worked.

But I was ever conscious of how small my complaints were. I had a widow friend whose regular day made my sorrow ridiculous. This tension was familiar and I hated it – the scold that my everyday sorrow is lesser because someone else is always in the middle of a greater trial. By springtime I was finding words to sum up what I first remember sensing seven years ago. Seven years ago I was just leaving a brutal postpartum year. I lost running. I confronted sin in my life. I felt like a mess. And I had a friend who gave birth to her son at nineteen weeks, whom her husband held for an hour before the infant died. In the months after, I watched Liana navigate deep grief. We were part of a small group of women who studied the Bible, prayed for one another, endeavored to live our faith, and I remember wanting to qualify my prayer for healing. Should I ask God to heal my knee because I miss running? We asked God to keep Liana well through her pregnancy.

One afternoon last spring, Sabrina and I were talking on the phone. We were each ready for the school year to be over. She was ready to move to China to live near family friends. I was ready to place the transition year in the past. I remember the call as thoughtful, revisiting some of our open conversations, affirming our trust in a God who is good even in the middle of most difficult stretches. Sabrina talked like she was on a beach, lounging in a hammock. Totally relaxed. In the background her son asked a question and then we returned to the idea that God meets us where we are. I believe this, absolutely.  We work out our faith in the regular day. When Sabrina said she believes God doesn’t give us more than we can bear, I murmured agreement because she should know, really, going through her first year of widowhood, wondering what the stretch of decades ahead will look like for her and the kids. But I also felt a kind of rebuke.

Can my faith be measured by the suffering I endure? By my right heart in the middle of most difficult stretches? My faith increases when pressed. My trust is tested. Sabrina’s comment is cliche because plenty of us figure it’s true that God gives us only what we can handle.

What does that imply about my faith? Am I so immature a Christian, so lacking in faith, that the most burden I can endure is a move to Korea, a change in my routine, a sadness? The prosperity gospel suggests we can measure our faith by the material increase we’re granted – while I believe that is false doctrine, did I just draft an equally false suffering gospel that measures faith by the sorrow I’m entrusted? I wanted to climb out of my body. I turned inward.

For the past few months I’ve sifted the years for stories of suffering. My own, those losses belonging to family and friends. In that same afternoon conversation with Sabrina, I told her about a few women I’ve watched endure great loss. Selfishly I wonder why I was placed in Liana’s circle, or near Sabrina, because I often wonder how to love, and I question the merit of my own dull sorrow in light of greater loss. This is how I know Sabrina is a friend, that she did not hang up. Instead she encouraged me to see what I learn from these suffering women. So that is what I am doing even now, writing this. Pulling threads from all the stories to braid a conclusion.

Here is what I have:

A couple of weeks ago I had a big fight with Justin. He likes to say I am always in the middle of a crisis. This is probably true. I am always in the middle of thinking or working out some emotional/ mental/ spiritual idea or question and it can feel like a crisis because I want to talk with Justin and then I cry and feel like I’m never ever going to be okay until I’m dead. So, sure, always in the middle of a crisis. And a couple of weeks ago, nearing a summary about suffering and what I’ve learned from Liana, Sabrina and others, I thought:

This is suffering enough.

Ordinary suffering is the most difficult stretch. (Now is where you may choose to quit reading, because what follows is tenuous, and I haven’t got my phrasing just so, to make any of this less offensive). (Also, if you like me, you may not like me after this next bit). There were times last year when I was navigating the new culture and food, when my daughter was so needy, when my husband seemed far away, when I would have liked to have one giant horrible loss to point to and say, That is why I feel so awful. That is why I don’t want to wake up. That is why I can’t be bothered with dinner. That is why I am crying on the subway or screaming into my pillow. Surely I am not so sad because I miss the Gulf, or because the old women here rarely smile. Surely I am not so overwhelmed by feeding my family, or sharing a bed with my spouse. I got sad and dark. I recovered. I got sad and dark. I negated my need to see how deep my suffering was because always, always there is another whose suffering is deeper still. I wondered if God dolloped out peace in accordance to the true measure of suffering his children experience. For the child in Syria, a bucket poured out in the morning and evening. For Sabrina, a liter a day. For me and my whimpering, a half pint meant to last the year. What if I want the bucket of peace? What if knowing that I have more than most, I still feel so sad, so dark that I really do need a sloshing bucket of peace dumped over my head?

There is more to this ordinary suffering.

Sorrow, loss, hardship, challenge, frustration grows us. What is the purpose of this light momentary affliction? Refine me. Make me as Christ. Make me loving and kind. Make me patient and joyful. The suffering is selfishness burning up as I yield to what is holy, as I yield to living the gospel in the practical, uncomfortable, unremarked everyday situations. I am entrusted with ordinary suffering. One day Justin and I stood with the kids on the subway platform and he made that comment about my crisis to crisis life, I practiced how to express what I am learning about the necessity of ordinary suffering. What I said was cutting and crass. What I said was, I don’t have a dead husband. I don’t have a dead child. But I am walking through the regular shit and it is fucking tough. Justin hushed me, like the kids hadn’t heard me say fuck before and I turned on him. It is fucking tough! It is hard to surrender self! It isn’t fun!

Now, I believe we have giant moments in life that radically alter our course. And so I do not say that extraordinary suffering is less. But in the years I have thought about suffering, I began to bump against a thought that both comforts and offends, that suffering is equal. As Sabrina said God does not give more than we can bear, I also suppose that in his mercy he does not pour out all the suffering our bodies and minds might withstand. What refines Sabrina now is the stretch of her trust in a God who is good, though this same God did not heal her husband for life on earth. What refines me now is the daily slog of marriage and parenting, the test of practicing hope. What I understand is that I must live the gospel where I am, applied to present, ordinary suffering. I know that one day I will endure extraordinary suffering but the gospel does not wait for awful need. When James exhorts us to consider it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds, he really does mean trials of various kinds, because every kind of trial may test our faith, establish steadfastness.

Without running I have a difficult time balancing my mind. I joke that Justin misses my endorphins. For a couple of decades I have reliably used running and exercise to manage my emotions, steady my thoughts, calm my body. Movement is such an easy way for me to abbreviate anxiety or depression. When I cannot run or exercise much, like now while my knee heals, my brain is off. I have to make myself aware of what is true. I despair. I don’t want to do anything. I imagine how to punish myself for feeling like shit. I get angry that I feel this way at all, when I do not have a dead husband or a dead child, when I can count my suffering as truly light. This time I am belligerent though. I do not want to sink into this depression but I also do not want to pretend my upended routine is okay because at least I do not have cancer, at least I have two legs, at least my husband is tender. Praise and gratitude is necessary practice in my faith. But praise and gratitude do not pretend away the present suffering. There is reprieve or perspective, when I ride my bike along the river and name the ways God is worthy of praise: the blades of grass, the wisp of clouds, the apartment towers full of people he knows and loves. There is joy when I name what I am glad for: the way my daughter and son curl into me for a bedtime snuggle, the honey taste of espresso, the clean air.

One day I will write from the perspective of a woman who endures extraordinary suffering. I thought about that yesterday afternoon when my husband called in a panic because he couldn’t feel his arms and his whole body hurt. He’d stayed home sick, vomiting, and hadn’t taken any water for twelve hours. Later, I was mad at him for his carelessness. Drink water, I said that morning when I left with our kids. I told him to add electrolyte tabs to his water. And then he was calling, afraid, sweating and shaking, feeling like this body was quitting. On the taxi to our apartment I thought briefly of his death. It has to happen, at some point. He will die or I will die and we will be apart. Of course I thought of Sabrina. I thought of life insurance we are applying for. I thought how stupid if he died of dehydration. I found him in the apartment, got him to the taxi, and took him to the ER. There was a row of patients with IV stands sitting along one wall. Gurnees with elderly patients. Husbands, wives or daughters attending the needs of their patient companions. People vomited. People lay or lolled unresponsive. People went into one of the side rooms to get an IV or oxygen tube. I stood next to Justin not wanting to touch anything, watching the doctors, nurses and orderlies move through our sick mass, and thought I could never work in healthcare. Justin would be fine. He had food poisoning and was careless about taking water during his illness, nothing more, but we stayed at the hospital for four hours.

I helped Justin wrap in a blanket and pushed him out of the ER, to the Starbucks in the lobby where he dozed and I read while his IV dripped. In Korea, patients wander the hospital and grounds. Sons or daughters wheel their elderly parents on gurnees. Aides offer a stable arm to the infirm who want to walk. Near the end of the night, I saw an older woman sitting in a wheelchair. She had her head wrapped in a scarf. She had no eyebrows. Her skin was sallow, slack, with purple bruising on her arms and legs. A man, maybe her husband, stood near her. When I walked by this couple again, she was part of a small circle of men and women who stood with their heads bowed, and I stopped a few meters away to be silent. I listened to a prayer in a language I hear but don’t know. When the minister finished his prayer, I walked over and touched this woman’s shoulder, then touched the shoulder of her friend or sister who stood near.

Do you work here? the friend asked. I answered no, but that I just saw and – I said, I hope you have peace in your spirit. The friend nodded and I dipped my head in a bow and walked away. Outside the lobby entrance I leaned against the smooth, cool wall. It was raining, lightly, and the fresh air felt nice on my face. Justin was well enough to walk, only waiting for his discharge. I messaged I didn’t want to return to the ER. He could come to me.

There is one more thing I want to observe about ordinary suffering. Years ago I was at a church service, feeling the mess of my heart and a pinch in my shoulder, when a man redirected the service to prayer, calling out three or four specific needs, including a hurting left shoulder. The gathering was small. I may not have been the only woman with a knot beneath the left shoulder blade, but I turned to the group near me and said, I think that’s me, and they prayed for healing and I stood there wondering if God really works like this anymore, to give anything instant. I stood holding my son, my head bowed to kiss the top of his head, and inside I fought to believe this was possible, that my God loves me enough to just give relief. That afternoon and for the next several days, I tested my shoulder. I searched for the knot I was accustomed to kneading. I was healed. In the weeks that followed this tangible healing, I sensed my heart accept God’s equal ability to heal my intangible, hidden pains.

I do not know how to trace the way I came to think that ordinary suffering is undeserving of God’s attention, why I suppose the regular everyday does not merit his care, but I doubt I am the only one who wonders if God has the time or love to meet me where I am, when there are so many others with greater needs. My suffering is ordinary. Yet I believe the same God who comforts the widow, who gives peace to the dying, can also meet me in the middle of meal prep or on a bike ride to work or when I kiss my daughter and son goodnight. What I have decided is to trust God completely with my ordinary suffering. Teach me, refine me. Make me as Christ. I cannot wait for extraordinary suffering to work its excruciating, glorious change to my spirit: instead, let me be faithful now.

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