I struggled in my teenage years and early twenties with what was most likely undiagnosed mild depression, undiagnosed anxiety of some sort, or both. I remember as a teenager feeling crushed under the weight of my feelings, of just wanting to go to sleep all the time. As a young adult, I would numb myself with busyness, sometimes having two social engagements even on workday evenings, and using books, movies and the internet to keep myself constantly engaged with something, anything, until I was so exhausted I would fall asleep… anything to avoid being present to my feelings. Though of course, I wasn’t able to name for myself that that was what was happening at the time – I was just stuck in the grind, in pain, trying to make it day by day. Mornings were the worst. I was tired of course, from having stayed up too late. But the paralyzing fear was what was really awful. I’d wake up, and lay there, checking the time, coaching myself over and over that I desperately needed to get up or I was going to be late, my stomach tied up in knots. Ten minutes past when I absolutely had to get up or be late would come and go. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Thank god I had a forgiving boss… I would regularly show up thirty to forty-five minutes late for work. It was not a very happy way to live my life.
It is amazing how my life has transformed in the past fifteen years. Therapy helped immensely, as has an amazing spiritual director who has helped me tune into and work through so many of the difficult feelings I was having. My experience has provided me with a very specific definition of suffering though. When I was working as a hospital chaplain, our supervisor asked a group of us chaplains one day to define suffering in our own lives. Most of the responses were what would consider typical – feeling and enduring pain, intense pain, etc. My definition though stood out from the rest, at least in that group. My definition of suffering involved feeling trapped – which is how I felt for so long with all my difficult feelings. As I said to the group that day, “I can handle physical pain, as long as I know there’s an end coming at some point. I can handle grieving… I know that grief eases over time. If there’s a clear path forward, I can handle almost anything, even if it’s difficult. But for me, feeling trapped, feeling like there’s no escape – that’s suffering.”
Now, I know that my version of suffering is may pale in comparison to suffering that others have had to endure – and that’s ok. Each person’s suffering is very real to them – comparing “levels” of suffering, and diminishing one as less than another, is actually really unhelpful. We each suffer in our own way, and it’s real to each of us. The larger point though, in this month of December where our theme is Hope, is that I remained hopeful, even through all of that suffering. This is no knock on those who give up hope. Mental illness is very real and very hard, and I count myself incredibly fortunate that I didn’t struggle as badly others do. But hopeful I remained, despite my suffering, despite feeling trapped, despite for the longest time not even being able to name what was so hard – let alone see a way out.
I remain hopeful today, both about my own happiness in life, and for those of us struggling with difficult feelings and experiences. And my hope is not an easy hope, a hope gifted to me by wonderful circumstances where everything was always been good in my life. My hope is a hard-earned hope, one that has been through and weathered incredible difficulties – and yet still remains. There are in fact many examples of hard-earned hope throughout history. Liberation theology grew out of the Catholic church in Latin America in the 1950’s and 1960’s, lifting up the plight and perspective of the poor – not because the poor were doing so well, but specifically because conditions were awful, governments were repressive, and injustices reigned supreme. Liberation theology arose out of hope, hope in the face of immense difficulties, hope that continued forward as a hard-earned hope, hope from difficult circumstances. Another example: we celebrate the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s in our country now, but it was not an easy thing to be part of back then. The threats of physical violence, and even death were all too real. Those activists and leaders – theirs was a hard-earned hope that saw them through tremendous challenges.
Do you have hard-earned hope in your life? What experiences did you have that your hope to be hard-earned? Or are you going through some of those difficult experiences now – are you in the process of earning your hard-earned hope? I wouldn’t wish hard-earned hope on anyone, I wouldn’t wish difficult and painful experiences for other people. But there is a strength in that hard-earned hope, a resilience, that seems to be missing from less battle-tested hope. Hard-earned hope feels stronger to me in many ways… it’s there for the long haul.
Church is a place where we can be hopeful together. Whether it’s regular hope (still important!), hard-earned hope, or whether you’re going through the process of creating your hard-earned hope now – let us remember that we are not alone, and that it is always easier to be hopeful together.
See you in church!
peace, love and blessings,