I woke up the other morning with anxiety. Not because I was in pain, but because I was dreading pain to come. With a chronic stomach disorder, I experience pain a lot, and I’m tired of it. It’s exhausting. How is it fair that I don’t feel well so much of the time that I live in fear of an attack coming? How is it fair that my physical appearance is affected—from baggy eyes due to lack of sleep to blotchy skin from hormonal imbalances? These are problems for a 27-year-old still in the market for a date.
That morning, I was afraid not only of the physical pain and exhaustion, but of the emotional stress that comes with it. Anxiety gripped me like a not-so-comforting throat hug from Darth Vader. I cried out to God for some sort of relief, a solution to my fear. Hearing no answer in the next few seconds, I impatiently began swiping through Facebook posts on my phone to distract myself.
Lo and behold, an article about anxiety was at the top of my news feed. The author talked about facing intense despair and using gratitude to fight it.
Okay, God, message received. I started listing off things in my head that I was thankful for: my job, my friends, my family. That helped a little, but didn’t completely take away the tightening in my chest. Then I realized I should be listing the reasons I’m thankful for my sickness.
Urgh. That’s so much more difficult. After some thought and prayer, I came up with a list.
Not only can I sympathize with chronic pain sufferers, I can empathize too. Empathy is such an important trait because pain can alienate people. “No one else can possibly understand,” we say. Unless they’ve experienced it too. Sometimes it helps to be supported by a mutual sufferer, to face the stress together. There’s something about knowing neither of us are in control, that we both feel helpless but at least we are helpless together, that creates a bond like nothing else can. And sometimes that bond is exactly what’s needed to keep on.
2. Closeness to God.
Pain makes me talk to God more. That fact makes me disappointed in myself, but it’s a fact nonetheless. Sometimes I forget to spend time with Him when things are going great. When I’m in pain, I cry out to Him. Sometimes I’m even angry at Him because it doesn’t feel like He’s there or because I don’t understand why He won’t heal me. And that’s okay. God can take my petty shouting at Him and He is always patient. I may not always “feel” His presence, but that’s why it is called faith. I know He’s there. I know He cares. I know He suffers with me.
3. True friends.
I have fears that friends will get tired of me because I get sick so much. When I meet someone new and tell them I can’t hang out because I’m not feeling well that day, I usually get a lot of sympathy. An “Oh no! That’s awful. I hope you feel better soon, let me know if you need anything” type of reaction. The thing is, sometimes that response changes when it’s the fifth, or the tenth, or the twentieth time. “You’re sick again?” An annoyed or disbelieving response makes me cringe inside.
The friends who don’t think I’m making it up just to get out of doing something, who express genuine concern even if it’s the one hundredth time I can’t make it to something—those are the keepers, and I’m so grateful for them.
4. Accepting imperfection.
If I had a perfect body and perfect health I think I would be much more arrogant than I am. Beauty is so important to our culture; everyone wants it. Everyone admires it. You know that glow that people with great health get about them? Yeah, I’m pretty sure I just look tired most of the time, and I’m happy if I’m slightly less pale than usual. But it’s okay. Part of being able to accept others’ imperfections involves accepting my own first.
5. Perseverance and joy.
James 1 is my favorite Bible passage; it speaks about finding joy in trials “because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (v. 3). If I ever get a tattoo, it’ll probably be the word “persevere” (in Elvish, of course) because I come back to this verse again and again. It was when I first started mulling it over that I realized joy and happiness are not the same thing. I don’t have to be happy about my suffering. I don’t have to plaster a smile on my face and pretend everything’s okay. Joy is a choice, not a feeling. It’s a choice to persevere with the knowledge that God is good, God is great, and God cares about me through my pain.
It’s easy to accept that good can come out of suffering—unless you’re the one who’s suffering. It’s much more difficult to praise God when the pain won’t stop. Making a deliberate effort to be thankful helps get me through the day and affects my brain in positive ways (yay, science!). In fact, I think deliberate gratefulness is one of the most important habits we can develop as we strive for joy in lives of suffering.
Copyright 2016 Allison Barron. All rights reserved.