Real suffering isn’t photogenic

In The Lego Movie, the prophetic minifig Vitruvius spurs the hero on to greatness by feeding him a cliched line about being special. “I know it sounds like a cat poster,” Vitruvius admits, “But it’s true!”

Lately, I’m rediscovering the truth of a cat-posterish idea myself: change hurts. We all know this is true, yes? We’re all familiar with a whole panoply of phrases that express this idea linking progress and suffering: “No pain, no gain;” “You have to break some eggs to make an omelet;” “No guts, no glory;” “No cross, no crown,” and so on.

But the problem with living with a world in love with cat poster ideas is that it’s easy to click “like” or “up” or “favorite,” but somewhat harder to be the actual cat.

When we’re the cat — when we’re the one actually living through the suffering or pain, and enduring our circumstances beyond the quick freeze frame that captures our predicament — we often end up feeling dismayed, discouraged, even betrayed when we find ourselves genuinely suffering, and it genuinely hurts. We think we are prepared for the idea that change and progress only come through struggle and sweat, but maybe subconsciously we expect that struggle to look — well, photogenic.

There are many popular styles of romanticized pain: the gritty warrior with corded neck muscles squinting toward the coming battle; the elegantly wilting emo chick collapsing in a puddle of rosewater and mascara; the sepia-tinted mother with her chin held high against the world as her shabby chic children cling to her capable thighs; the robed faithful servant on his knees in anguish, just as muscular and splendid as the angel who comes to comfort him; the sleek long-distance runner powering through the rain, baring his perfect white teeth and lovin’ that burn.

These are all half truths about suffering and growth, pain and progress. Here’s the actual truth:  growth and change usually cause suffering, and suffering is ugly. Really ugly, not poster ugly.

If someone you love actually betrays you, your tears aren’t going to wend their way down your cheek like so many liquid crystals; you’re going to cry until your skin is blotchy, your nose runs, your teeth ache, and your sinuses fill up with snot. Being a soldier is, from what I hear, less often about guts and glory, and more about boredom, rashes, diarrhea, and fear. The true action of change is less like sprouting glorious wings and more like dissolving into horrible, stinky soup. Just ask any former caterpillar.

So, what’s the solution? Well, first of all, if what I’ve said above isn’t true for you, then carry on! If you truly gain inspiration and strength and encouragement from a poster or a meme, then that is great. If it works, it works. Sometimes an attractive image is what helps us to embrace necessary change instead of shrinking away from it.  Sometimes picturing ourselves as warriors instead of victims really does give us that extra oomph we need to push forward instead of giving up.

But if you find yourself suffering real pain, pain that just plain hurts instead of “hurts so good,” then don’t add to that pain because you feel like you’re somehow doing it wrong. You’re not a poster, you’re a person; and true suffering isn’t photogenic. So if you find yourself suffering and you feel stupid, or ugly, or confused, or exhausted, then realize that this is what true suffering looks like. Change hurts, and it’s not supposed to look nice. That’s what makes it painful! Don’t make yourself even more miserable than you have to be by expecting to be gorgeous in your misery. That’s a subtle and insidious temptation to despair.

Yes, some suffering is unavoidable. Yes, it’s usually necessary for growth and change. Yes, we are often at our best when we choose to be strong in the face of suffering. Yes, it’s often worthwhile, and there is often glory and joy on the other side.

But no, it’s not going to look good when you’re in the thick of it.

3 thoughts on “Real suffering isn’t photogenic”

  1. Stinky caterpillar soup!!!
    I wonder what we will look like after the boiling mess is finished.

    As you enter the Santa Barbara Mission, there are these huge, modern, marble statues of Jesus, St. Clare and St. Francis. Jesus is massively ripped and wearing this toga outfit that shows his chest and abs. Ricardo always chuckles under his breath. I get a little shiver, and think, “Sexy Jesus.” I hope I don’t need to confess it.

    On the other hand, this morning at mass there was a very effeminate, pale, wan, Sacred Heart of Jesus statue next to me (different Church). I feel like apologizing to Jesus for it. It looks like he’s wearing lipstick too. He was after all a stonemason as well as a carpenter, and died at his prime.

    The statue at The SB Mission is way closer to the truth.

    (p.s. Today is the feast of St. Joseph the worker. Don’t forget to hit him up for family stuff!)

    1. Um, could you please not use “effeminate” as an insult. There is nothing wrong with being feminine or female.

  2. After suffering with autoimmune disease for 12 years, and being told how good I look, I’ve learned there’s an inverse relationship to the way I look and the way I feel. I’ve also learned that suffering for the long haul is often boring and messy and becomes ordinary since I can only spend so long raging against reality and have other things to do. But even when I “look great,” suffering isn’t pretty and can’t really be caught in a photograph. It’s what one does, just part of living life; making it attractive makes it unreal.

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