Before my son was born and then for some time after while we were still in the hospital, my husband and I binged “Survivor.” On the show, contestants all have the goal to be the remaining survivor on the island. They are stretched to their human limits, having to sleep outside in the elements with only the clothes on their back, and their food supply is limited to a few bags of rice they must share in their tribe as well as whatever they can gather or hunt on their own. On top of being stretched physically, they also play a mental game against one another: The tribes compete as teams until their numbers are smaller, when they switch to individual challenges. They must form alliances to keep from being voted off, causing a lot of distrust, anxiety and frustration.
Although contestants are competing for a million dollar prize and I am not, I can relate to this show during this season of my life. I have been stretched to my limits and then some with the amount of suffering that has come our way. On top of losing my fertility and being diagnosed with a scary and rare bleeding disorder, other issues seem to just keep piling on.
When I think about my life, I picture myself as a rubber band being stretched. Tension builds in the middle as each end is pulled, and there is risk of the rubber snapping from being unable to stretch further. I find myself saying quite often, “I can’t handle one more thing. I just can’t.” And yet, one more thing seems to always come, and I find myself saying it again. The rubber band continues to stretch but doesn’t snap. I cry it out, rage about it with my husband, and then go to God. I continue to tell him: “I can’t Lord. I can’t handle anything else. Not one more thing.” Through all my frustration and anxiety though, the Lord embraces me as one more thing piles on.
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Am I embracing this very well? I don’t think so. I am not good at suffering. My prayer is more, “Let this cup pass from me.” I haven’t mastered the second part of Jesus’ words: “not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).
Yet even still, every time I firmly believe I have met my limits, one more thing arises, and I get past it. But that’s the thing: I have already reached my limits of suffering. The rubber band almost definitely would have snapped had the Lord not been giving me the grace to get through it. Though I am being stretched to my own limits, God is limitless. By no work of my own am I getting through this but by God alone.
I’ve always loved the words of St. John the Baptist. He had many disciples trying to follow him. They would ask him if he was the one to come and save them. Many times, John would say, “I am not,” while pointing them to Christ. He recognized that he was not the savior and was quick to direct them to who was. Then he went on further to say, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
I am trying to decrease — my plans for what I think is best and my jealousy of others — so that Christ will increase — good discernment for what’s next and thanksgiving for what I have. To decrease, I must empty myself. Mary was greeted by the angel Gabriel, “Hail full of grace!” The only way for her to be full of God’s grace was to be empty first. So, I am striving for this: to decrease so that he may increase, and to be empty so that I may be filled.
Empty is a scary thing to be. It opens the gates for loneliness and even greater suffering. It heightens the risk of having to let go of our plans to see if God’s really are better. I can only imagine how Mary felt as a young teenager, being told that she would bear a son who would be the one to save the world. I’m sure this wasn’t her plan, but it was God’s from the beginning of her life at conception. Though she never sinned, I wonder if she was tempted to doubt or regret her fiat. Despite her complete purity of heart, she was still human. The temptation to desire a normal life was likely presented to her, but she was given the grace to joyfully accept her higher calling to be the perfect mother.
I may not be competing for a million dollar prize, but I am trying to run toward heaven. If this means learning to empty myself so that God may increase in me, that’s exactly what I’ll do. I want to trust God’s plan for my life and fully accept that suffering doesn’t necessarily make me stronger, but it does bring me closer to him.
I pray that one day I am able to unite my sufferings directly to the cross as many have done so beautifully around me. But for now, I will remain in the desert with St. John the Baptist and at the moment of the Annunciation with Mary to learn how to suffer well.