We lounged in the lamp lit half-dark: my husband and I, and our college friend. We’ve been friends for about two decades now, which makes us feel impossibly old. We still easily bend over in outright laughter over hilarious references to our college days and their mishaps. Now, though, we have things like minivans and tax returns, and my friend and I swap tips on how cast iron is really the best way to cook fish, or omelets, she says.
But years aren’t the only thing under the bridge. That night, I marveled sadly how out of our six parents, we wouldn’t have guessed we’d have lost two of them by this point. My husband and I have moved to Africa, caught malaria, gotten robbed, etc. My friend has dealt with multiple nightmarish diagnoses of those she loves.
Somehow, my friend is the same friend who earlier that day had swung her legs with me over a camel. We’d both ridden in our skirts, half-shrieking and yes, giggling over the top of a camel saddle (who knew they made those? Who knew, when we met each other, that someday we’d be dangling over a camel in Africa?). Somehow, we are still the same goofy coeds.
But we’re also changed. We sat in my living room internally leaner somehow (certainly not externally, after four kids each!). We are quietly wiser, more realistic, and likely with more life questions those we flung out in college like a pitching machine.
There are aspects of the pain we’ve endured that are simply indelible. The three of us will die with them; they have marked us.
I admit to wondering, sometimes, if I will crawl into old age feeling worn. Perhaps I’ll be wizened and shriveled from the sheer expanse and depth of pain I’ve seen here in Africa. And from the stories yet to unspool in front of me.
I don’t think so. I trust God will continue to make hope blossom before my eyes, as He always had.
Still: Because of pain, we are different.
Another friend of mine laughs about the division of her life into “before” and “after” a challenging child came into their home. “I used to be so fun!” she grins lopsidedly. One study of parents who bear disabled children, too, supports that these parents experience a shift in identity.
My own pain, as you know, has pressed into me lately. I wonder about things like bitterness; like dreams diverted. Recently I’ve been mulling over Tim Keller’s important work, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. He notes French activist and philosopher Simone Weil’s essay on some of the ways affliction changes us:
- “Implosion”—self-absorption as we seek to stop the pain
- Hopelessness/condemnation. Weil writes, “Affliction hardens and discourages us because, like a red hot iron it stamps the soul to its very depth with the scorn, disgust, even the self-hatred and sense of guilt and defilement that crime logically should produce but actually does not.”
- Anger, directed at various objects
- Temptation. Keller notes, “We become complicit with the affliction, comfortable with ours discomfort, content with our discontent…It can make you feel noble, and the self-pity can be sweet and addicting.”
These, at various times, are me.
But Keller also relays the story of a man confined by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), who communicates using a computer reading his eye movements. The man remarks that the sweetness of his life with God as a result of his illness he wouldn’t trade for more years.
So as much as pain does transform us while we’re walking through it—Keller also outlines the beauty it creates, though it’s different in each of us. Suffering:
- Transforms our attitude toward ourselves, humbling us and removing unrealistic self-regard and pride
- Will profoundly change our relationship to the good things in our lives—things that have become too important. We rearrange priorities, investing more of our hope and meaning in God, family, and others.
- Can strengthen our relationship to God as nothing else can—and fortify our relationships with other people
- Makes us far more useful in compassion toward other people.
- Makes us more resilient, wiser, and more realistic about life…or harden us.
This, I hope, is who I am becoming.
Of course, Keller reminds, suffering cannot be seen just as a way to improve ourselves. That’s a form of masochism, as if we’re only virtuous when we’re in pain. (Stupid as it is, I struggle with this comfort by martyrdom.) This is also not some attempt to suggest that our character justifies whatever happens. (Keller imagines parents who’ve lost their child: “What kind of God would sacrifice an innocent little girl to teach us ‘spiritual lessons’?!”) In this gymnasium of character, I remind myself that I can’t lose sight of a compassionate God; a God who suffers with me. Who suffered Himself.
How suffering changes us, it seems, is in large part our choice.
Who will suffering make us?
 As cited in Keller, Timothy. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York: Penguin Books (2013). Kindle edtion.