Religion Stories Suffering

Expectations and 45 Degree Angles

Yesterday morning, I took Jake to the doctor. He has a rash around his lower lip, and I’ve learned that – with both of my kids – things don’t go away on their own. So, at 8 am, after a quick morning donut run, we sat in the white-walled room with decorative appliqués.

After the doctor’s exam (the rash is nothing serious, but needs some prescription cream to treat it), she told Jake, “Now, when you’re in the bathtub, your mom or dad could wash this with soapy water.”

Jake interrupted her.

“My dad died,” he said.

The doctor – to her credit – didn’t miss much of a beat. She said she was sorry to hear that, and that it would be fine if Mommy washed it in the bathtub.

I am sure the pediatrician wasn’t expecting that.

Because who expects to hear a four-year-old, clear as a bell, say that? Then again, who expects, at 36 years old, to die from cancer? And who expects, at 37 years old, to be a widow?

I often tell my students that most endeavors can be successful — it all has to do with expectations. What do we expect from ourselves in this challenge? What do we expect from our peers? Our parents? Our coaches and mentors and teachers? Sometimes, we expect more than people want to give; or, if we’re allowing grace, more than people are capable of giving.

Jake and Kate and I talk about death a lot. We also talk about life a lot. I think that’s normal — you can talk about life without talking about death; but you can’t talk about death without talking about life.

I recently told Jake, “You know buddy: a lot of people are afraid to die. But you don’t have to be. Your dad is already there, waiting for you. Most people don’t die really young. What happened to Daddy is very unusual. But some people die young. And no matter when you die, you don’t have to be afraid.”

And then it hit me: that what Jesus tries to tell us all the time.

In church this weekend, the homily talked about how we have expectations of Jesus. When we hit obstacles or suffer, we think, “Why is this happening to me?! Why won’t you help me?!”

During that homily, I remembered the section on suffering in The Road to Character by David Brooks. He also mentioned that people cry for why, when the better question is something paradoxically easier and harder to answer.

[People] may start their suffering asking “Why me?” or “Why evil?” But they soon realize the proper question is “What am I supposed to do if I am confronted with suffering, if I am the victim of evil?”

The priest’s answer cited 2 Corinthians. Paul is boasting about his visions, implying that he is special and chosen by God. So… God puts a ‘thorn in [his] flesh’… a phrase we know well: a thorn in our side. The thorn is symbolic of a chronic illness – maybe malaria or epilepsy. But Paul keeps asking God to take it away. God’s response?

Each time he said, “My gracious favor is all you need. My power works best in your weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12:9

The priest summed up the homily by saying, “God’s grace is sufficient.” In other words, continuing to ask Him to do more and more and more for us… His grace is enough. Suffering allows us to see God as an integral character in the drama of our lives. He works best through us when we are weak… when we need help. In good times, we can ignore Him. But in bad times, we blame Him. God gets little credit and much blame.

I can see the parallel with parenting or mentoring. When we need others, we listen attentively. But when we are full of pride and independence, we are distracted. We attribute our success to ourselves. Suffering allows us to recognize that our lives are not soliloquies on a stage with a single spotlight. And then our parents and mentors are invited in, to share the stage and to help us with our lines.

Death is not our worst fear — but rather, using our free will to pursue hedonic interests and losing our relationship with God… that’s our worst fear.

Which again, reminds me of David Brooks.

Then, too, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, of what they can control and not control. When people are thrust into… lonely self-scrutiny, they are forced to confront the fact that they can’t determine what goes on [in the basement of their own soul].

Suffering, like love, shatters the illusion of self-mastery. Those who suffer can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where that relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

… Suffering teaches dependence.

My expectations of so many things have shifted. If I used to view things head on, my view has shifted 45 degrees from that old spot.

When Jake and I talk about heaven, I don’t think of it as clouds; and I don’t think of hell as fire and brimstone. I think heaven is among us, and we coexist with all sorts of souls. I think hell is also among us… what we do in this life becomes what we experience in the next. The imagery of the clouds and the fire is just a metaphor for how we’ll feel.

Then again, my expectations about confession have changed. I remember once challenging my grandma on confession: why would I have to go talk to a priest about my sins, when God is with me all the time? Can’t I just tell Him whenever I want, and aren’t I simply forgiven?

But just like if you have a good therapist, a good priest is free talk therapy. Sure, there are priests who should never be in a confessional, but that’s true of any job… some people are better than others. Whenever I’ve worked with counselors or psychologists, it usually takes me two or three people to find someone I connect with. And now I realize: Catholicism had something with the sacrament of confession. It’s therapy, when it’s done right.

And again, my expectations about going to church on Sunday have changed. How many people have told me that they are more successful at Weight Watchers (myself included!) – or any other program that requires constant discipline and self-reflection – when they go to meetings once a week. And how many people do I know who use the Calm app, which encourages meditation and self-reflection. These are both variations on church and why we go.

Many, many things that I used to see as passé – especially with religion – now look different at this 45 degree angle. It’s not about God or what I should do or even what other people want me to do… it’s about ME.

Heaven isn’t clouds — it’s a reflection of the choices I make.

Confession isn’t to make me feel bad — it’s to make me feel relieved.

Church isn’t about avoiding mortal sin — it’s about staying present.

None of these things is mutually exclusive. But neither is my religion only for exercising control and casting guilt into my soul.

People have expectations of what I should or can be doing now. And that’s reasonable — how else would we function if we didn’t expect things from people in our lives? The one that always gets me is when people say that I should “read something happy” and, “We’ve got to get you to stop reading all these death books.”

I awkwardly laugh on the outside, but on the inside, I remember a reading from Jeff’s funeral:

It is better to spend your time at funerals than at festivals. For you are going to die, and you should think about it while there is still time.

Ecclesiastes 7:2

Why is it macabre to talk and read about death?

I’m raising my kids differently — those expectations have changed. When Jake asks me if he’ll die like Daddy, I say, “I don’t know, Jake. But you don’t have to be afraid. Daddy is already there.”

Before, I would’ve said, “No… of course not, Jake. You’re going to live for a very long time.”

But I don’t know that. And neither does Jake or anyone else. And setting that expectation for him – that he’ll live to 80 and anything else is being cheated – also comes with it an undercurrent of being afraid to die. That it’s something to avoid. That it’s something that doesn’t happen.

If I’ve read it once in the 20+ books I’ve read since Jeff was diagnosed, I’ve read it hundreds of times: We are a death-denying society.

What has that cost? What have we paid?

I am naive, but not enough to think that this new 45 degree angle – and with it, an adjusted set of expectations – will be the last time my view shifts. But God’s grace is sufficient, and when it happens again, I will be brave.

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