The Stewardship of Suffering

Shortly after my son graduated from high school, he became convinced of the superiority of his autonomy. That is, he decided he knew how to best live his life, and no longer required his parents’ loving guidance. Consequently, he was offered a choice: “Here are the rules of the house, and there is the door.” He chose the door.

With a few friends he moved into his own place. They had no rules, did as they pleased, and answered to no one. They thought it was utopia. I thought it looked like the final pages of “Lord of the Flies.” After almost a year of such liberating self-rule, I got a phone call from my son.

“Dad,” he began, “none of my roommates will pay their bills…I’ve been using my money just to keep us from being evicted…I’ve been sleeping in my car because we don’t have any power…If you will let me come home, I’ll do anything you ask. Anything! But I can’t live like this.” Of course, I let him come home, but with one caveat: “This is temporary. Make a plan for your future.” 

Today my son serves in the United States Army, will soon be headed to flight school, and has grown into a remarkable young man, even if he did grow up under my roof. “Proud” does not begin to describe how I feel about him, but I’ll use that word for lack of one better. I’m proud that he chose to serve something larger than himself; proud of his ambition; proud of his discipline and resolve. Mostly, I’m proud that he made good use of his troubles. That single year of misery may have reordered his entire life.

Father Richard Rohr is fond of saying, “For most of us, only two things will bring about transformation: Great prayer or great suffering.” I have found that he is right. Yes, there are a few people, who through prayer, exposure to the unfamiliar, or by the experience of unconditional love, will find genuine change. But most of us have to be forced. We must be forced to our knees.

There is no shame in this, for it is human nature: We all act stupidly – all of us. The only shame is to hurt oneself, to suffer self-inflicted wounds, but to then remain stubborn, unmoved, and unaffected. Using “12 Step” language, suffering shows that our “lives are unmanageable,” so we “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” and surrender to a better way of living.

As a mentor once said to me when I was just a bit older than my son is now, “Learn to be a good steward of your suffering.” It was wise counsel, for if we let misery do its work – rather than hiding or running from it – a whole new life just might open up. This has been true for me, for my son, and I would wager, it will be true for you too.