Another Christmas brought with it touching moments of friendship and reflection and much to be thankful for. But there was more.
In our post-Christian culture, pleasures are exalted and misery concealed until friends meet for a meal. I met with many friends over Christmas and was reminded of this sobering reality. One friend had not seen his parents in several years even though they live in the same city. They wanted nothing to do with him after his offensive act of converting to Christianity from Hinduism. Another friend has a son-in-law who was prevented from crossing the U.S. border to be with his wife and three children because his immigration papers weren’t ready. He had been waiting for months and was not there when his youngest, a one-year-old, died suddenly and unexpectedly in the night, a week before Christmas. Following a car accident five years ago, a close relative could not go back to work. Her head injury is so severe that some days she cannot handle the stimuli of crowds and conversation. So when I went to visit, she saw me for only five minutes. A friend’s daughter married last year and within a few months (before the year was out) her husband left her for another woman. Another friend, who was looking for work a year ago, is still looking.
These situations are not paraded on Facebook. Neither are the sick and elderly. I saw my almost-deaf elderly father-in-law unable to get out of a chair, one hand shaking because of Parkinson’s disease. Two friends lost their elderly parents before Christmas. One death was followed by great sadness, the other stoked bad memories, provoking anger and resentment. The recurring theme is unwanted suffering. We loathe it but we all know that we will have to endure it. Suffering will come to us in one way or another. We see it in our friends, our aging family members, our own lives. Sometimes we are the cause of our own suffering. Sometimes the suffering just comes to us unexpectedly in illness, an accident, a cash flow crisis.
One of the ugliest things I have ever encountered was someone I knew well taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering.
Suffering in farm country can include the burden of stress that reveals itself in bursts of anger and moments of anxiety often after lack of sleep. Lately, we’re seeing growing awareness of mental health on the farm. The province is pouring money into rural mental health and Farm Credit Canada has launched the “Rooted in strength” publicity campaign, and is partnering with 4-H Canada to create a national program that supports the mental and physical health of 4-H youth. The main page of the Grain Farmers of Ontario website has a dedicated button labelled ‘Farmer Health.’ Click on it and you find crisis phone numbers and tips. One posted article lists “5 simple ways to boost your serotonin” (the happiness chemical). It starts with sleep, exercise, a smile, and social contacts. Not so obvious is the fifth point: Spirituality: “Science used to shy away from research on spirituality until we discovered that people with a strong spiritual practice are happier than others,” the article said.
In other words, these people do more than believe in God. Studies show that people who pray regularly and make religion and family the focus of their lives are the happiest people even when times are tough. They find meaning in everything, including suffering.
We know that some suffering is good. Becoming a better person requires suffering. Self-discipline is for our own good. Olympic athletes know this. It can be painful to decline a second helping of dessert or to start exercising — but we are the better for it. It can be hard to curb a sharp tongue but one must if one wishes to be pleasant company.
Unwanted suffering can be seemingly impossible to appreciate and tends to drag us into a state of self-centredness. It is a great paradox, however, that helping others soothes our own soul, while asking for help can be an act of charity. When a neighbour’s barn burns down, we are often astonished at how many people want to help.
I know a man who spent years in what he called a “wasteland of self-centredness,” flirting with atheism and later realizing he simply hoped there was no God so that he wouldn’t have to answer for his bad behaviour. He had suffered from depression and called that time the worst years of his life. When I recently asked him what gets him through the day, he said he is convinced that God wants us to be joyful, even when we suffer. Considering how much hidden suffering is out there, he offered two life lessons: “Ask God for help every day and get busy helping people.”
Patrick Meagher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.