One of my greatest ambitions in the late elementary/early middle school years was to have a neon cast that all my friends could sign. No matter that the pathway to a cast lie through a broken bone; that was neither here nor there. The cast was the end, the proposed pain merely a means to that end.
Alas, I never achieved that childhood ambition. Try as I might I never could get up the courage to jump off a swing at full tilt or to pounce off a large wall.
I did, however, achieve a close second: braces.
I am not certain who began the nasty rumor that braces were an achievement to be celebrated or a verifiable rite of passage. I only know that in my school, crooked teeth meant braces and braces meant colored rubber bands that could be matched to the holiday each month.
I was finally in luck as crooked teeth were part of my inheritance.
After barely surviving the plaster mound that felt like nasty mashed potatoes overstuffed into one’s mouth, I received the disappointing news that today was not the day for the long-coveted brackets.
It seems my crooked teeth were too close to one another for braces, go figure. Spacers were the solution. They were not nearly as cool as colored rubber bands, as they were unseen inserts shoved beneath my teeth. As if that weren’t enough disappointment, the suckers hurt as they did their job of gradually creating space where there formerly had been none.
I survived and got my braces but never gained enough courage to go all spunky on the rubber band colors. All that work for nothing but straight teeth. Sigh.
Although spacers hurt, they do their job well.
Seasons and instances of suffering in our lives are the spacers for our souls. Don’t just take my word for it; listen to Mother Theresa, one well accustomed to the deepest suffering in the world.
“Suffering opens up space within us that otherwise would not be there – so that God can come in and fill it.”
Like spacers, suffering is never an end in and of itself, but rather the means to a greater end (even though that end is rarely as simple or tangible as colored rubber bands).
Suffering makes space in our otherwise crowded souls for God’s word.
In a beautiful feat of Hebrew poetry, the psalmist who penned Psalm 119 captures the space suffering created within him for the Word of God.
Do good to your servant, according to your word, Lord. Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I trust your commands. Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word…It was good for me to be afflicted that I might learn your decrees. The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of piece of silver and gold. Psalm 119: 65-67 & 71-71.
When suffering comes to visit or even to stay for prolonged seasons in our lives, we go to the word desperate and hungry, with mouths wide open and hearts searching diligently for a living word. Rather than read the psalms as nice poems, we read the psalms as those who are truly processing and crying out through their structures.
Suffering makes space for empathy both to be given and received.
A few weeks ago, I pulled up to the Starbucks drive-thru window embarrassed as I had clearly been crying and was fighting to muster a fake smile. The weakness in my eyes brought about an expected result in this random encounter between the barista and I. Rather than look at me uncomfortably or ignore my puffy gaze, he looked me in the eyes briefly and smiled a compassionate smile, as if to say “I’ve been there; it will be okay.” I don’t normally receive the gifts of empathy because I rarely show my needs; however, suffering forces spaces where I need to receive empathy from friends and strangers alike.
When we are suffering, we also tend to be more attuned to the suffering around us, be it global, local or familial. We learn to tread lightly because we realize the people we encounter in the traffic jam or the grocery line or the office have stories of their own that likely include unique suffering.
If your soul feels troubled, irritated, bothered and sore by the presence of suffering, be it large scale or the ordinary, household variety, know that the spacers are doing their unseen, but terribly felt work. While horribly uncomfortable and often unwelcome, soul spacers will make room for beauty and truth and more of God. Just hang in there, beauty is coming, even if rubber bands are not.