We all know that life is full of good and hard times. All of us have experienced wonderful moments and very difficult seasons.
Why is it that we rarely ask the question ‘why me?’ for the good parts of life. I rarely think about why I was so privileged to be born into a middle class British family, rather than to a young prostitute, in abject poverty, in the slums of Mumbai. Or why I got to be born healthy with all my body parts as they should be, unlike others who were born disabled.
Yet when hardship and tragedy strikes, these questions often come into our heads and take room in our thoughts.
For you, it might be a question asked in your own mind that you simply send out into the unknown. A question that asks why are we all here and what is this life about anyway.
Perhaps it’s a scream from inside stemming from comparison. Why did this happen to me and not them? It’s not fair! I am a better person than them and do more to help others and yet they are fine and I am stuck with this.
Or for those of us who know God, it can be a cry from deep within us – why did this have to happen? I don’t understand! Why should I have to suffer like this? Why should anyone have to suffer? Is it not within God’s power to prevent this? I thought he was supposed to be good!
The questions cause us to have to consider our life, beliefs, perspective and the world more deeply. They can draw us into impossible and exhausting mental gymnastics as we try and work out the intricacies of predestination, fate, acts of good or evil and whether things in life do all happen for a reason, or are purely a random set of circumstances.
But I have learnt the ‘why me’ questions don’t get me anywhere. And they naturally lead to the ‘why not me’ anyway. It’s then just a never-ending cycle of questions that wears us out.
I still believe in and love God deeply. But my accident and ongoing debilitating CSF leak/ Low Pressure Syndrome have naturally raised questions linked to my faith. This has, at times, been a difficult journey of wrestling with the unknowns and uncertainties, considering different answers and perspectives, learning new things, but then ultimately letting go of the need to know and accepting where I am at today.
In the end what has happened, has happened.
We cannot change the past – all we can do is learn from it and move forward.
Whatever that moving forward may look like.
There is undeniably pain and suffering in the world. Whatever you believe, you cannot deny that fact. So perhaps the question should not so much be;
Why is this happening?
Which we can never completely answer and can rarely control – unless our problems are self inflicted and/ or could be self resolved.
But instead perhaps we need to change the question to focus on;
What can I DO with my suffering?
It shifts the focus from getting lost in the complexities of unanswerable questions and things we cannot currently change and puts the focus back onto what we do have more control over.
Our RESPONSE to suffering.
Can I still find meaning and purpose here?
“Suffering can be what economists call a “frozen asset.” It may not look remotely like an asset at the time, but gradually we can find meaning in it, an enduring meaning that will help to transform the pain.” – Philip Yancey
The above quote is from a book that really helped me on my journey of questions. It is called ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ by Philip Yancey. As a Christian working through questions about God, faith, pain and suffering, it has been one of the best books I have read. (I actually listened to it as an audio book on the Kindle for iPhone app whilst lying flat in bed). It presents many different views with an easy conversational style. He asks many questions and yet doesn’t get too stuck on the answers. He does offer a range of different answers to typical questions, but he goes on to write that he believes we often have to get beyond the questions about WHY there is suffering and WHY am I suffering, to find ways to discover peace and find purpose in the midst of it.
He tells so many different real life stories of wonderful courageous people who have faced extremely difficult and often very tragic circumstances in their lives. Yet he focuses on what they have learnt and how they have approached their life in the midst of it. It is honest, real and not ‘rose tinted’ at all. It doesn’t shy away from all the difficulties and personal, mental and spiritual battles. He grapples with questions about historical atrocities such as the Jewish concentration camps, as well as looking at how you work out faith in God and finding new purpose after becoming a quadriplegic. He takes the reader on a journey that steers us clear from the self consuming unanswerable questions of WHY and onto the liberating stories of the GOOD that can come from suffering.
It’s our RESPONSE to suffering where the true potential beauty lies.
There is always a process and journey that we all go on first in working through what is happening to us. Questions are inevitable. And the reality is that the journey of accepting the current reality, whilst finding purpose within it, will include good and bad days as we fight our way through the brambles and undergrowth that seem to be blocking our path. There will be moments of wanting to give up the fight and times of being exhausted by the constant battles. It’s never easy or simple. It’s often a daily painful process of letting go, as I wrote about in my last blog post.
However, I do believe finding meaning and purpose within our suffering is so very important. It can give us strength to keep pressing forward. Viktor Frankl, who spent time in one of Hitler’s camps, said,
“Despair is suffering without meaning.”
I can very much relate to this. Around Christmas 2015 after a year of fighting a debilitating spinal CSF leak, my symptoms regressed again after initial improvement following more treatment (a second blind epidural blood patch).
I completely fell apart.
I was utterly exhausted by the battles of the year and could no longer cope. I reached a very low point in my life that I never imagined I would, to the extent that I honestly considered ending my life.
Despair overwhelmed me because I had utterly burnt myself out trying to force myself better and deal with everything related to it for so long. My broken body and mind could no longer take the pressure. I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to get well. I could not see any purpose or meaning in it anymore. I no longer had the energy to fight off the negativity.
So the dam burst: negativity washed over me like a flood and I began to drown in it’s darkness.
I just wanted to escape it and life itself. My mind deceived me that my family would be better off without me and perhaps leaving this world would be the most unselfish thing I could do. And yet I then realised it was probably the most selfish thing I could do. So my mind would go back and forth between the two. That’s part of the deep pain you feel underneath it all. The mental battle of working out what is selfish and what is unselfish and then losing perspective of the difference anyway. It all jumbles into one big ball of confusion, pain, exhaustion and despair. You cannot think or see clearly anymore. You are no longer in control of your body and mind.
“What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
I learnt a lot from that time.
It was truly horrific – I had come to the end of myself and felt like I had nothing else to give. But through it I have learnt much more humility and understanding of people dealing with mental illness as well as long term debilitating physical illness. I now know what it feels like to come face to face with such darkness, but then come out the other side and realise things were not quite as bad as they seemed then.
It has been a journey moving on from that time over the past year. I am much better mentally and better physically than I was then, but still very physically debilitated by this condition. I still have to spend quite a number of hours a day lying flat and grapple with a variety of exceedingly painful, unpleasant and debilitating neurological symptoms when upright.
I am a long way from back to normal.
And yet I am really trying to daily find meaning here. I am trying to stay thankful for what I CAN do and look for opportunities here to look after my family and help others where I can.
That is one of the reasons I enjoy writing. It’s a way for me to carve out meaning within the pain and think about the lessons I am learning in this season. So that I can perhaps help others on their own challenging journeys too.
Living with long term illness and disability is a tough road to walk, and my case really isn’t one of the worst. But it’s still very hard and each day I have to cry out to God for the deep strength I need to help me find my way through another day. I ask him to help me to see and appreciate the opportunities here – so I don’t get drawn back into the overwhelming darkness of negative thinking.
So when the ‘why me?’ question again pops into my mind. I have to choose to say to it…
“I honestly don’t know and never will!
But I have to believe good can come from this.
I will never know all the answers.
I just have to do the best I can amidst the challenges of today.”
And to be honest, if I am going to entertain the question ‘why me?’ Then surely I can’t deny that someone else, somewhere else is going to have this horrible condition anyway. So then the natural question to pose back is;
‘Why not me?’
So I am again brought back to the fact that we live in a broken world that is full of sickness, hurt, suffering and pain. But I cannot stop there (because that’s just too depressing to focus on)…
I must also NEVER forget that this world is full of love, beauty, generosity, hope and purpose. So I have to choose to accept the negatives whilst they are still with me and focus on dealing with them as well as I can. And then do my best to spread the positives. I can still increasingly love God and love others – even when I am in pain. Even when I am stuck in bed a number of hours a day.
I want to choose to love more in this season, not less. To be fully alive in THIS place rather than constantly waiting for a better future.
So that the pain, suffering and brokenness are not wasted. Meaning can still be found within it and I can turn it into something beautiful. Something that brings a ray of light and hope into another’s darkness and despair.
At the very least I can now say to someone else struggling…..
“I know what it is like to despair of life itself and feel overwhelmed by the cycle of physical and mental pain. But I am also learning to find meaning within it. I am finding a way through it. Perhaps we can help each other to find purpose HERE, as well as hoping for a better future.”
So that we not only endure the pain but find a way to thrive within it. We find a way to stand up and continue, even when the road seems so long, exhausting and never ending.
Because perhaps this challenging road IS leading to a much more beautiful place after all. But how will I ever know that – unless I chose hope over despair – and keep on journeying along it..
…Whatever it might bring!
“Hope means simply the belief that something good lies ahead. It is not the same as optimism or wishful thinking, for these imply a denial of reality….. Yet hope saves us from pessimism… the belief that the universe is a chaos without final meaning. True hope is honest. It allows a person to believe that even when she falls down and the worst has happened, still she has not reached the end of the road. She can stand up and continue.”
(From ‘Where is God When it Hurts’ by Philip Yancey)
For more posts about my story of living with a spinal CSF Leak please look at the subject heading on the menu bar above.
Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.