I see only one way out of the problem of suffering. Only one way not to be crushed by the reality of pain, evil and death. One ladder out of the deep hole.
I observe that people who don’t find it do one of three things; kill themselves, break with reality, or hang on in quiet desperation, as the song says – escaping into distractions which tend to become addictions.
The ladder out is the practice of gratitude. I’m not talking about humming a happy little tune; I’m talking about a deep discipline that slowly but profoundly lifts us into joy.
I have the right to speak to this; I am one of the most cynical people I know. I remember sitting on a merry-go-round at the age of three, wondering what everyone was smiling about. “What’s the point?” I thought. “We’re just going around and around.”
If you are as cynical as me, the practice of gratitude sounds glib. Nothing is worse than some jackass telling you to count your blessings. I’m not just talking about seeing the glass half full. I’m talking about discovering a reality beyond suffering.
We bring presuppositions to the way we live. One is, “God is not good (or non-existent) and doesn’t care about me.” Another is, “God is good, and God loves me.” I think the first presupposition, which is now prevailing in our culture, sucks for two reasons. It gives us no way out of despair. Nor does it account for the wonders of beauty, love, redemption, joy and those transcendent experiences that shout how much we matter. The second option, on the other hand, doesn’t account for the ridiculous amount of suffering we go through.
Unless. Unless we hang on to the “God is good and God loves me” option, with the understanding that this God has unlimited vision, we have limited vision, and we can trust God to make sense of suffering in the end, plus help us as we go through it.
This is the belief system of Christians, but many of us don’t really believe it. So we need a ladder to take us from our experience in the hole of despair, up to the light of freedom that our theology promises. The way I climb the ladder is to look for what is good, here and now, in this moment. Then acknowledge it to God.
People who aren’t Christian can take the same ladder. It works for everyone. If you don’t believe in God, pretend for a while. See what happens.
Search for good like a researcher racing for the disease cure, like a detective on the crime of the century. Because the joy that comes from gratitude is our cure, it is our life’s seminal work.
So, I am sitting in an armchair alone in my house on a spring morning, looking out a window, journal in my lap. I could list off a number of tragedies unfolding in the lives of all those around me. (There are times for that too, but not now.) Now I write:
For the restoring power of a quiet house.
For the hypnotic peace of slowly moving clouds.
For green growth everywhere- a soft, vibrant life where there was nothing.
I reflect on the day before.
For the kindness of medical staff, fitting in one more appointment for a loved one in pain.
For the brilliant writing of the script I got to rehearse.
For the joy of seeing someone with dementia, having a joking, lucid conversation with my son.
As I write, I begin to sense a huge, benevolent power moving in all things, through clouds, through plants, through brain circuitry. I realize I am being carried in that power, always blessed, even in the middle of tragedy.
The rungs of the ladder, for me, are writing and speaking gratitude. I was taught this by Ann Voskamp in her incandescent book, “One Thousand Gifts.” The writing and the speaking rewires thinking away from despair. We begin to see goodness and love as the deeper realities – how they triumph.