On loving someone in pain

Job Rebuked by His Friends, by William Blake

Job Rebuked by His Friends, by William Blake

A dear friend texted me today asking for advice on how to support her friends whose teenage son has been suffering from debilitating migraines for a year and a half. He is angry at God, she said, and can’t believe a good God would allow this kind of suffering. His parents are afraid he is going to renounce God, and she wants to know how to be there for them.

I wrote last year about my own experience with debilitating migraines and depression and struggling to find God in it all. When you are in pain and the life you know has been pulled out from under you, you naturally ask why. When you have prayed till your knees are bloody and cried out to God until your throat is hoarse, and still the pain continues, of course you wonder why a loving God is not answering you. Of course you do.

But when your friends and loved ones have prayed their own knees bloody and throats hoarse, and still you are not better, something else begins to happen. They may question God, too, but they may also — out loud or only in their heads — begin to question you. Are you sure you’re praying enough? Are you sure you have faith that God can heal you? Are you taking the right meds, have you tried acupuncture, are you eating right and getting enough sleep; have you tried everything you can? And the blame begins to shift, slightly, to the one in pain. It can be subtle or overt, but it echoes the person’s own questions and doubt. Are you sure you aren’t psychologically attached to the pain? Maybe you’re getting something out of it. Why did you stay up late last night when you know a regular sleep schedule is shown to help migraines? Maybe all of this is actually your fault?

In my earlier post, He suffers with us, I wrote that I didn’t find answers to my questions, but instead I found God’s presence with me in the pain:

Then, one day on a whim, I bought a little crucifix online. I was raised in the Protestant tradition and remember being told that Catholic theology was wrong because they kept Jesus on the cross, whereas Protestant crosses were empty, representing the resurrection. When the package came, and I took out the little plastic Jesus it seemed so strange — a little Jesus doll when what I wanted was the real man, present in my heart, mind, and spirit, as he used to be. But one day, when the pain was at its worst, I placed my fingers on the nails in his hands, studied his face and his body, and wept with understanding: Jesus was in pain, too. He was suffering, too. I might not understand why it was happening to me, or why he wouldn’t answer my prayers to take it away, but now I knew that He was in it with me. For the days and months to come I lay in bed, clutching the crucifix to me and crying.

That presence, that willingness to be with me, to suffer with me in the pain, was what I found in God — and it was what I most needed from my friends and family.

I don’t know how much you’ve read Job, but it has always been kind of a confusing book to me. I don’t understand why God would allow Job to lose his family and everything he owned. I don’t understand his friends’ advice really, or what God means when he shows up and silences them. And I don’t understand how everything is supposed to be okay when Job gets a new family and new riches. You can’t make the loss of children all better by having new children. But this quote by Buechner helped me to understand it a little more:

Words Without Knowledge

IT IS OUT OF the whirlwind that Job first hears God say “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 42:3). It is out of the absence of God that God makes himself present, and it is not just the whirlwind that stands for his absence, not just the storm and chaos of the world that knock into a cocked hat all man’s attempts to find God in the world, but God is absent also from all Job’s words about God, and from the words of his comforters, because they are words without knowledge that obscure the issue of God by trying to define him as present in ways and places where he is not present, to define him as moral order, as the best answer man can give to the problem of his life. God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself.

There aren’t answers to our questions, at least there aren’t answers that we can understand now. Job’s friends try to explain God to him, to tell him he must not be praying enough, must not have enough faith, must have some un-confessed sin or pride. And Job listens and argues with them and suffers even more because of their arguments and advice.
(Another time we can talk about the bad rap Job’s wife has gotten, and the nasty look she’s giving the beatific Job in Blake’s painting above. She lost her children, too, you know. She was in pain, too. Her advice to Job to renounce God must have come out of that pain.)

But when God finally shows up, he does not give answers, he gives something better — himself. And that is what we need from each other, too: Not answers, but just presence, just understanding and listening and presence. I told my friend that even if her friends’ son does feel like renouncing God, or even if he renounces him, the best, most loving response his parents and friends can give is not arguments, but presence:

“It must hurt so much. I’m so sorry. I can completely understand that you would want to renounce God, and I don’t love you any less for it. If God is God, he will understand, too, and not love you any less for it, either. Go ahead and cry and swear and do whatever you need to do. We’re here.”

Love,
Jessica

***

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He suffers with us

 

When I first started this blog back in the summer of 2007 I was about to fall into one of the darkest times of my life. As I look back at the first several posts, I can see I was still fighting it, still trying to find cheerfulness around me and write about it, even though inside I felt a growing desolation and despair. I had created a category that I called “Wrestling the Tigers” to describe my struggle with migraines, something that I had been dealing with since I was a kid. But a deep depression was settling in as well, and I soon started writing about that under the tigers category. The migraines were to worsen, the depression become debilitating, things in the community get progressively harder, my job as a minister to international students fall apart, and my felt-relationship with God disappear. But in 2007 and 2008 I was still fighting it. I was still trying to find a way to figure out work, to talk through things at the community, to medicate the migraines and the depression, and to re-find the connection I’d had with God.

By the end of 2008 things were falling apart. I moved from one house in the community to another, to try to relieve the strain of one of the difficult relationships, but that triggered more stress and difficulties. I had a scary reaction to a migraine medication and had to miss a work retreat, and when I was scolded and threatened with being put on probation because of it, I finally realized that I was not going to be able to make the job work, and I quit. I tried to rally and choose another career — applied to nursing schools and took a statistics class as a prerequisite. But after a few weeks of struggling to take the two trains to my class every week I realized that going back to school wasn’t feasible. I took a full time nanny job but had to quit after three weeks because I felt so sick. In 2009 I finally gave into the depression and migraines, and collapsed into bed. I stayed there for ten months, getting up only once or twice a day to go downstairs for coffee or food. I hardly left the house or had social interactions beyond a few strained words with my housemates and community-mates. It was next to impossible to chat about normal things when I was in so much pain, both physical and mental, and people soon grew tired of hearing me talk about how bad I was feeling. I don’t blame them. I was sick and tired of talking about it, too. It was easier to be alone.

The worst part about that time, though, was feeling like I’d lost all the ways of connecting with God that used to be so precious to me. Reading the Bible had been as much a part of my day as my morning coffee, but now the words were empty of the power and beauty they used to hold. But it was worse than that: I would read the empty words and remember how much they used to mean, and feel that loss so intensely that I couldn’t bear it. It was too hard. Sometimes I read them anyway, and just cried. Prayer was hard, too. I used to find such solace in prayer, pouring out my heart to my best friend and giving my life to him daily. But now I just felt emptiness. All I could feel was the depression and the constant pain of the migraines.

IMG_0347Then, one day on a whim, I bought a little crucifix online. I was raised in the Protestant tradition and remember being told that Catholic theology was wrong because they kept Jesus on the cross, whereas Protestant crosses were empty, representing the resurrection. When the package came, and I took out the little plastic Jesus it seemed so strange — a little Jesus doll when what I wanted was the real man, present in my heart, mind, and spirit, as he used to be. But one day, when the pain was at its worst, I placed my fingers on the nails in his hands, studied his face and his body, and wept with understanding: Jesus was in pain, too. He was suffering, too. I might not understand why it was happening to me, or why he wouldn’t answer my prayers to take it away, but now I knew that He was in it with me. For the days and months to come I lay in bed, clutching the crucifix to me and crying. Here’s what I wrote one night:

This did not go at all as planned, if I ever had a plan.  It had something to do with impressing everybody, but doing it without appearing to, effortlessly, the way I tell jokes,without smiling, looking away afterwards, leaving people to laugh or not, too cool to acknowledge my own cleverness.

But I was broken out of my intellect, my intention, my talent by the brokenness of my body, and though I wanted to relate to Christ in his witty repartee, his compassion, his healing, I now relate most to his twisted form on the cross, eyes shut in pain, not yet dead, not yet resurrected, not yet ascended. My Lord, the suffering, naked, four inch plastic form on the eight inch wooden cross.

I am not making a theology out of this.  Far be it from me. I am telling you what I do not know, not what I know. I am in pain all the time. I am dizzy, nauseous, exhausted, and this is before the side effects from the medications kick in.

Jesus’ features are not twisted in agony. If you didn’t know better you might almost think he looked peaceful. But I think that I recognize the movement inward that a long-suffering spirit makes. It is close to meditation. You have less to do with the world, with what is going on around you. Physical and emotional sensation take over and then, somehow, you sink below that, to a place deeper than that.

The contemplatives teach that at our very center the Spirit is constantly praying; that our act of prayer consists of joining in awareness with that ongoing prayer.  This is the only kind of prayer I can hope for, now.

I place a finger on each nail and press the wooden cross to my heart, the broken body of Christ against my own.

i-came-here-to-kneel

Taken from my bed — my home for many months — a ray of sunlight makes its way in and I reach through it to the cross.

The dark time lasted for six years, all told. Those two years, from the end of 2007 to the end of 2009 were the worst of it; after that I found a better (for me) migraine doctor and better meds, was able to start working a little bit and exercising, and learned what I needed to do to support my mental health. I still have migraines — almost every day, in fact — but they’re not as bad, and I know how to manage them. The depression has gotten slowly but continually better — these days it only visits occasionally, and I know what to do: Slow down, breath, meditate, do yoga and centering prayer. The spiritual stuff took the longest, though. I’ve written about that elsewhere, and I’m writing more. But for today I wanted to share this post about what the crucifix meant to me in that dark time, in case it might be helpful for someone who is in the darkness now. I don’t know why your prayers for healing have not been answered, or if the answer is, “no” or “not yet.” But I know the God that loves you is with you, and knows how you feel. He suffers with you, as he suffered with me back them. You are not alone.