On being less zen about suffering

I forget what it was I was offering up, but I told the Lord, “I’m offering this up to you, and I’ll try to be zen about it.”

Then I heard what I said. So what? So I hadn’t had any coffee yet, and I momentarily forgot what religion I am. I only wish it were the dumbest thing He’s ever heard me say.

It made me stop and think, though, and I realized I had to do a little recalibrating of what I meant by “offering it up.” It’s fairly easy to start thinking of it in pop psychology terms: Something is bothering me and weighing me down, so I’m going to just mentally release it. Imagine it like a bright red balloon that sails up, up, up into the sky until it’s just a little pinpoint, and now — poof! — it’s gone, and no longer my problem.

This is . . . okay. It may very well be the most emotionally healthy thing to do at some particular moment. But it’s not precisely offering it up to God, for a couple of reasons. For one reason, God is not the wide blue sky. He is not an amorphous, impersonal, placid largeness whose function is to swallow up small things until they don’t matter anymore. (That’s not even what the sky is, either, but never mind that now.)

What do we mean when we say “offer it up?” Sometimes people will distort the concept, and use the phrase as shorthand for “suck it up” or “shut up.” People will say “offer it up” when what they really mean is, “I’m going to remind you that the spiritual thing to do is to quit whining about your stupid problems.”

That, as they say, ain’t it. We have the option to offer suffering up to God precisely because even our small suffering IS real suffering, and God knows this, and even (in a way that makes more or less sense to me at various times) suffers along with us. It’s not that we’re not supposed to minimize our troubles. It’s that suffering doesn’t have to be a dead end. It doesn’t have to stay entirely with us.

People sometimes say that Catholics are obsessed with suffering, or that we have an unhealthy fascination with death and pain. And sure, anything can be overdone or twisted or made unhealthy. But Catholics (when they’re not being crazy) don’t seek out suffering; they just do a good job of acknowledging that it exists. And they offer at least the possibility of a plan for what to do with it.

At its core, the Catholic understanding of suffering has two components… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Mary Magdalen at the foot of the cross, 1420 – 1430, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

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2 thoughts on “On being less zen about suffering”

  1. This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, so thank you for spelling it out so clearly: our suffering is real, even in small matters, and we don’t have to waste it. This year for Lent I began more intentionally offering up all my small sufferings. I felt like it was kind of taking an easy way out of a Lenten discipline, but I had 5 kids including a 4 month old who was sleeping terribly, and I just could not add one more thing to my plate — I just needed to handle the suffering and sacrifices that were already being asked of me better, more graciously. So every time I got up during the night, or changed awful diapers, or talked the toddler down from a meltdown, etc, I offered it up — and it was the best, most fruitful Lent I’ve ever had. I offered up the nighttime wakings in particular for friends who were dealing with infertility and repeated miscarriages, who would love the burden of having a baby to care for. I found myself getting into more of a habit of praying throughout the day, inviting Jesus more into my day and not just my time set aside for reading Scripture, etc. It helped me keep things in perspective too on Easter Sunday morning when my middle son threw up (before any candy, even!) and my plans for going to Easter Mass as a family exploded; suffering doesn’t stop even on Easter.

    So thanks for the reminder, Simcha; I need to get back into that habit.

    1. This is beautiful Rebecca. I was trained to offer up things for the poor souls in Purgatory but I think offering up sleepless nights for infertile couples would have been more immediately meaningful for me. Thank you.

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