02 April 2010

On Suffering and Breaking Through

{the skies above rome, italy}

Since my adolescence, I've had a troubled relationship with the nature of suffering, but it was certainly nothing compared with the extreme stint I experienced after graduating from college.

For two years after college, I was part of a para-church organization that taught a group of us a certain theology of suffering while living in South L.A. and engaging in church-based community development work.  (Disclaimer here--I can only speak for myself and my experience of those two years and not for the intentions or perceptions of others involved.)  My youthful enthusiasm for social justice work was paired with a theology that endorsed suffering for the sake of serving the poor.  We were taught to suffer as Christ suffered, to make the hard choices.  So in practice, when faced with two choices and a decision to make, I often felt that I had to turn away from what I really wanted to do and do what I didn't want to do, i.e. the hard choice of voluntary suffering.

After two years of that kind of environment, I was a shell.  I had no concept of self whatsoever.  All I knew was what other people wanted me to do and that I was so incredibly unhappy with my life that I would rather get in a car accident and end up in a hospital bed than go through the motions of each grueling day.

My faith had been a deep and meaningful part of my life, but at that point, it had become an oppressor.  I became depressed and lost my faith.  I started reading as much as I could get my hands on about the sociology of religion, especially studies on Asian-American and campus ministry groups.  Intellectually, I found answers and explanations for what I had gone through but I could never answer the question, "Why?"  Why had I lost two of the best years of my life to such a horrible and oppressive ideology?

And these questions persisted: When is suffering ever a good or necessary thing?  And does God want us to suffer?

Cognitively, I believed God did not want us to suffer.  But on an emotional level, I was still terrified.  The old trauma could come back quickly.

This past week, I experienced a breakthrough to those questions through my Ignatian contemplation and the help of my spiritual director.  

As J. so helpfully puts it, I had been caught in an action-reaction relationship with my crisis experience and post-crisis years.  I had developed very strong and adamant opinions on how wrong that ideology was but my own thoughts on suffering were so wrapped up in opposing that experience that I could never be freed from it.

Through contemplation, I broke free.  I encountered a deeper truth about suffering that could speak to my life in its entirety and not just the pre and post eras.

My spiritual director and I sat together for a moment when we both realized something big had happened. She said, "There's a shift.  I can tell.  I don't sense fear anymore."

You don't know how happy that makes my heart.  I have been waiting for this for a long time.

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