by Joanie Butman
Everyone struggles with something. It’s a sad fact of life. Some of our challenges are self-induced. Others are simply the product of living in a broken world where all kinds of trials await us. That’s not to say the popular mantra Life is Good is a fallacy. Paradoxically, joy and suffering are the parallel paths of life. Rarely is life all of one or the other. They coexist in every moment, which brings to mind another well-known quote, “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” I believe that assertion is more realistic. Pain will come. How we choose to respond to it, however, is a choice only we can make.
Over the years, people have sought my advice about handling a cancer diagnosis. Not because I have a medical background but simply because of the club that recruited me ten years ago. Membership isn’t optional and it doesn’t come with a manual so newcomers often seek out long-time members for advice, empathy and hope. Rightfully so, because we all know “the two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.”* Honestly, the fact that I’m still alive ten years later is encouragement enough. I don’t even have to say anything. I simply listen and let my physical presence (against all odds) be evidence that there is always reason for hope.
Years ago, I created a visual to illustrate my cancer journey hoping it would be encouraging to others. My friend recently suggested I pass it along because it can be employed when battling any number of issues besides cancer. There will always be circumstances you can't change, but you can change how you perceive them.
The first photo is diagnosis, where you can hardly catch your breath, often paralyzed with a crushing fear. The second photo illustrates acceptance – befriending the enemy regardless of its enormity. The third demonstrates the parallel paths I mentioned earlier – joy and suffering, or more appropriately, joy amidst suffering. Desmond Tutu clarifies this point better than I could ever hope to in the Book of Joy. “We are fragile creatures, and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy.” In fact, when I see someone who is joyful, I often wonder what they’ve suffered to arrive at that elevated state of being.
In my example the elephant is clearly in every picture. Often, the hardest step we have to take is accepting the reality that he’s not going anywhere. Nevertheless, we do have the power to choose where to position him. The question is whether we choose to be a victor or a victim?
Keep in mind, this process isn’t easy or fast. It takes time, enormous effort, and lots of practice, but you can tame the elephant in the room. As Joan Chittister claims in Songs of the Heart, “Embracing the pain, naming it and accepting it is, ironically, exactly what takes the teeth out of it.” You don’t have to be afraid of it once you have tools to master it. Those tools may involve faith, therapy, support groups, medication, meditation, or a combination of all of the above. We all live with an incurable disease. It’s called life, and the symptoms vary wildly, as do the tools that work for each individual and circumstance. The journey to the top of my elephant taught me, above all else, that with Christ I can choose to be a victor in any circumstance. That's not to say riding an elephant doesn't come with its own challenges, but it sure beats being under him.
What’s your elephant? Cancer, anxiety, depression, addictions of all kinds, chronic health issues, physical or mental disabilities? Rejection, loss, betrayal, bitterness, unforgiveness, shame?
Will you choose to be a victor or a victim?