On Suffering: How I Stopped Asking ‘Why’ and Started Asking ‘How’

Actor Ed Asner said, “Raising kids is part joy and part guerrilla warfare.” He couldn’t have been more correct! The absolute best, most joy-filled thing in my life is my teenage son. But parenting him hasn’t been all T-ball games and birthday parties. It’s also been the most gut-wrenching, heartbreaking experience of my life. Some days, “guerrilla warfare” sounds like Sunday afternoon tea compared to being a mom.

I thought I knew a thing or two about suffering. I’m no stranger to loss and failure. But nothing has ripped my insides out like my son’s battle with a serious eating disorder. I’ve spent the past several years accompanying him through every circle of hell. It would be an understatement to say that this has challenged my faith to its core.

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Like most people of faith, I tried to find some “greater” reason why this horrible thing would need to happen. Early on, I was convinced I had done something wrong. Maybe I was too selfish or spent too much time at work. But all that did was make me feel horrible, which was pointless. After that, I got angry: If God knows I’m doing the best I can, why would he want to punish me like this? From there, I decided that if I’m not being punished, then maybe God is trying to make me a better parent and my son a stronger person. Maybe we were being prepared for a life that is richer or fuller in some way after we get through all the pain and sorrow. But in time, this viewpoint, too, made no sense. The God I know could never be so cruel and calculating.   

I’m sure I’m not alone in my need to figure out the purpose behind my suffering. We all need to find meaning in our experiences, so when painful things happen, our default setting is to uncover WHY. We figure that if there is some logical reason, some benevolent-though-inscrutable plan that we just don’t understand right now, then maybe we can sleep through the night and pay the mortgage tomorrow and possibly even laugh again one day a long time from now. So we hold on to a shaky, plastic, duct-taped-together kind of faith as we try to identify some reason why God might have intended this suffering for us all along.

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When it comes to the WHY of suffering, there are a few usual suspects our culture defaults to: punishment for our sins, a test of our faith, an exercise in character development, or a powerful lesson about getting too big for our britches. The problem is that it’s hard to reconcile any of those viewpoints with the Catholic Christian notion of a God who loves unconditionally and seeks only to forgive, unite, comfort, and heal.

Eventually, I gave up trying. Life has taught me that searching for the WHY behind our suffering is like trying to fit an elephant onto the head of a pin for the purpose of balancing my checkbook. It’s impossible to do, and even if I could, it wouldn’t help me in the slightest, so why bother?

Instead of focusing on the WHY, it may be more useful to become curious about the HOW.  Suffering is a powerful thing, and like a super hero’s special powers, it can be used for good or for evil. For me, Lent is an opportunity to find ways to use the power of suffering for good. When I look back on this journey – and it is very far from over – I can see that my suffering has transformed me in surprising ways.  

I’ve become less insistent that life unfold according to my preferences, and I’m less anxious and fearful when it doesn’t. When horrible things happen and you discover that they haven’t killed you yet, then other horrible things seem less scary. For some reason, I seem to feel more deeply, communicate more honestly, and say “no” more often. Suffering has a way burning away our ego impulses that used to seem so important but now just look silly. When I used to encounter people in great pain, I’d say, “Please let me know what I can do to help,” which is the least helpful thing I could say. Instead, I now say, “This thing you are going through is the absolute worst, most unfair, most horrible thing in the world and the fact you were able to get out of bed this morning proves that you are the bravest person on earth right now.”  

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I’ll admit, I’ve had the temptation to conclude that these changes in myself are the actual WHY behind my suffering, that perhaps God gave me this horrific experience to help me manage my expectations better and be more compassionate toward others. But to that I say a firm “NO WAY!” One reason is that my suffering hasn’t resulted in all positive outcomes. I ugly-cry more than I’m comfortable with these days, and in my weakest moments, I resent all the perfect Facebook families in my feed who seem to be living the dream in all their photogenic glory. Also, I swear more now, which is not an attractive change.

There is another, more compelling reason I believe that God didn’t send me this suffering to “improve” me. In my experience, God doesn’t invite us into “the fullness of life” that Jesus spoke of but then set a ridiculously expensive cover charge and station a big, scary bouncer at the door so no one can get in. The God I know leaves the door to the Kingdom wide open and keeps inviting me in.  

If I can conclude anything at all about the nature of suffering, it is simply that fixating on WHY it exists is pointless. Exploring HOW the guerilla warfare in our lives can become part of our spiritual journey, though, is far more interesting and helpful. Lent is the perfect time to let go of the “why” and embrace the “how.”

Originally published March 20, 2019.