A friend recently asked for support and prayers during a particularly stressful time. Her worries would be recognizable to many of us—a too-tight budget, the exhausting juggling act of child care and work, living far from family members who could provide some much-needed daily support, a recent move to a town where they don’t yet have close friends. Add to these worries that her third baby is due any day, after a difficult pregnancy, and it’s no wonder my friend is struggling. What makes her struggles even more difficult is that she questions her right to feel so overwhelmed and anxious. After all, she’s not starving or living in a war zone or homeless or dealing with terminal illness.
I imagine many of us can identify with the subtle guilt and shame that comes when we are suffering through a hard season of life…and then we stop and think about how much worse it could be. How bad can things really be, we wonder, when we live in safe, spacious homes, with refrigerators and pantries full of food, with no fear that our children will cross paths with a suicide bomber or Ebola victim on the way to school? We begin to wonder if we should put our “suffering” in quotes, if we need an attitude adjustment so we focus on gratitude rather than want, and if, perhaps, we are being a bit of a whiner. We've all heard the phrase, "Don't sweat the small stuff." For the relatively privileged of the world, is even the big stuff really small stuff that we should take in stride because our most basic needs are abundantly met?
Gratitude and perspective are both good things; taking a moment during times of anxiety and stress to notice and give thanks for the good things in our lives can help us breathe a little easier. In that space, perhaps we can also consider ways to cope with the hard stuff. And sometimes, all of us do indeed whine obnoxiously about relatively minor inconveniences. The #FirstWorldProblems social media meme and web site captures this dynamic well, encouraging us to laugh at ourselves when we allow our frustration with, say, our programmable coffee maker or the GPS in our new luxury car to darken our mood. (If you click through to the #FirstWorldProblems site, be forewarned that reader submissions occasionally include colorful language.)
But one of the fundamental truths of our existence is that human life involves pain. Pain, struggle, suffering, worry—these come to everyone at some time, and writing off our struggles because they aren’t as bad as someone else’s is an exercise in denial, not compassion. Here are a few things I try to keep in mind when I or someone I care about is going through a hard time:
God is a generous God. While some Christians love to throw around righteous-sounding clichés, like “Everything happens for a reason,” the Bible actually tells us very little about why people suffer. The Bible does tell us, however, that we worship a loving, generous God who is capable of caring for my friend’s anxiety and loneliness as well as the suffering of those coping with war, epidemic, or starvation.
We have a clear duty to help when basic needs go unmet. Biblical writings, from the prophets through the parables of Jesus, shine a particularly bright light on the suffering of those who lack the fundamentals of a good life—family, food, freedom, care when they are sick or injured. God’s people, the Bible tells us, have a particular duty to widows and orphans, to those who are sick and in prison, poor and excluded. I don’t believe that this means that God asks those of us whose basic needs for shelter, food, health care, and community are largely met to write off our own pain. But God does ask us to always remember those who want desperately for what we have, and to share from our abundance to meet their need. Remembering widows and prisoners and the poor might put our own suffering in perspective. Or it might not. In either case, our duty to those who suffer in such fundamental ways is clear.
The psalms of lament speak to all kinds of anguish. There is no better proof that God can handle all kinds of complaints (even whiny ones) than the psalms of lament. What’s striking about these psalms is that only some of them speak to basic, fundamental suffering, like hunger or poverty. The psalmist’s complaints, rather, cover all kinds of suffering that all people experience, regardless of our economic station or health or family status. There are psalms about being betrayed by friends, attacked by foes, about tossing and turning in one’s bed unable to sleep, watching as evil people prosper and good people don’t, and wanting to connect with God but feeling unable to.
None of us are defined solely by our suffering. Sometimes, when I’m struggling but feeling guilty about it because I have a beautiful house and family and food to eat, it occurs to me that in some people’s minds, I might be one of those people whose suffering is more worthy. After all, I have an painful disabling condition. There might very well be people out there who say, “Who am I to complain about my sprained ankle? After all, Ellen deals with joint pain every single day and I don’t see her complaining!” Well, first of all, I do complain. Just not usually in public. But second, I don’t see myself as someone whose situation is so terrible that it should make other people grateful for their better fortune. And that makes me realize that those whose suffering we deem more worthy than ours, because they are poor or hungry or living in a war zone, don’t see themselves solely as suffering, needy people. Certainly , my living with arthritis does not entail the same kind or level of pain as that of a mother whose children are starving, or of a child orphaned by Ebola or war. But a person who is poor or orphaned or addicted or deathly ill is a person first, defined not solely or primarily by his or her suffering, but by his or her humanity and potential for celebration and connection as well as pain. Perhaps when we see other people as people rather than as suffering wretches, we can better see how we are connected, rather than setting them off in the category of “real” suffering, where they serve only to make us feel guilty or grateful.
There’s plenty in the Bible that is confusing, contradictory, and difficult. But the biblical narrative also makes certain priorities and values clear. Giving thanks in all circumstances, asking God for help, avoiding anxiety about the future, caring for those who suffer—good. Coveting what others have, withholding resources from others to shore up our own well-being, violence—not good. We live in a world with no shortage of ways to struggle and suffer. Within those essential guidelines of right behavior, there is plenty of room for us to have compassion for ourselves and lament our circumstances, whatever they are, as we also practice gratitude and generosity.