How to suffer gracefully

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When it is all over you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little, and suffered that little so badly.

Blessed Sebastian Valfrè

I came across the above quote a few years ago, while recovering from a depressive episode, and was at once bewitched. Those words by a seventeenth-century Italian Catholic priest presented to me a refreshing angle from which to view my own struggles. If one could suffer “badly”, as Valfrè wrote, then conversely one could suffer well. But how?

That was the question buzzing in my subconscious when, as my friends went around the table sharing our new year resolutions, I’d said, “Honestly, I just want to learn to live a little more gracefully.” The year was 2017, and I was entering into the second half of my twenties feeling rather battered. By then, four years had passed since the first mental health crisis that turned my life helter-skelter.

I was, at the time, a bright-eyed international student in America, gamely juggling a near-perfect GPA and a packed social calendar. I had no way of knowing that I was also skipping closer and closer towards the precipice of a total mental breakdown.  

Most people knew me as a calm, poised, and articulate young lady—I took pride playing that role. But that “Karen” was unceremoniously replaced by a paranoid, desperate, and hysterical understudy. Instead of rising early to make tea before any of her housemates arose, I would wake up a frozen shell, paralysed by the dreadful disappointment of still being alive. Rather than seamlessly weaving in and out of study parties and pub trivia nights, I would vanish and leave my friends’ frantic texts and calls unanswered. Once, my boyfriend found me flat on the floor of the library bookstacks, feverishly sobbing about being “the most pathetic person in existence”. On another occasion, my roommate found me wandering aimlessly around campus, stone-faced and mumbling about how good it would be to be a human vegetable. Yes, I was in pain, but I also suffered that pain oh so poorly. 

I eventually emerged refreshed and humbled, but when depression returned less than half a year later, I went back to being a black hole that threatened to suck my loved ones into my misery. It seemed certain that I would be stuck in this cyclical curse for the rest of my life.

Yet here I am now in 2021, eight years after that very first episode, and I’m proud to say that I’ve made significant headway in my quest to be a “better” sufferer. These are six rules of engagement I’ve picked up along the way, which I hope can help someone else on their own journey:

1. First, accept that you cannot escape suffering.

I spent a great deal of my youth under the illusion that if I worked hard enough and smart enough, I’d have a good shot at eliminating suffering from my future. So invested was I in learning how to not suffer, that it never occurred to me to learn how to suffer. I was never afflicted with unemployment, poverty, disability, bullying, or cancer — or perhaps not yet — but into each lot some rain must fall, and what landed in mine was mental illness.

2. Understand that you do not have to do this alone.

Recognising that depression was more than a one-time glitch, but potentially a recurring theme in my life was scary. Each time I recovered, I tiptoed around life fearing that the ground beneath my feet could crumble any moment, sending my hard-won sanity plummeting back to hell. It would be safer to not do or try anything, I thought, and give up all hope of the life I wanted to live. But the reason I saw no path forward was because it hadn’t been paved yet. With some help, brick by brick, this new path took shape. Help refers not only to psychiatry and psychotherapy, for most saliently it came in the form of heartfelt nagging by family members, blunt but loving conversations with close friends, electrifying memoirs and accounts of strangers who have suffered more gracefully than I… The more I was open to receive, the more solid the ground felt. And so I found my footing once more, along with the confidence to revisit old dreams and construct new ones.

3. Start small — learn to handle minor and mundane suffering.

In the beginning, I believed that the reason I suffered so poorly was due to the unbearable magnitude of my suffering. However, I came to realise as I recalled my growing years that I’d always had very poor tolerance for suffering of any degree—be it heartbreak, failure, rejection, fatigue, hunger, even humidity. I now know what seems to be so obvious: if you can’t suffer a little, you won’t be able to suffer a lot. Thus I secretly began to “train” myself. Sometimes this took the form of “elective” suffering, such as that period of time when I would opt to take the stairs instead of the escalator, or the time I abstained from my favourite iced milk tea for an entire month. I didn’t need to, but I just wanted to know that I could.

4. Take care of yourself as your would your own child.

This exhortation came from my friend Stephanie, who must have noticed that I hadn’t been feeding myself. I’d been consuming one meal a day, sometimes less; some days nothing. “Take care of yourself as you would your own child,” she texted one day, a peculiar phrase that gave me pause. I’d like to think I would feed my hypothetical daughter no matter how many mistakes she made; she would not cease to deserve it. And I’d speak to her not condemningly, but with a firmness tempered by gentleness. This sparked a journey towards self-compassion, and ultimately taking ownership of my pain. Learning to seek professional treatment independently, while a significant breakthrough, wasn’t enough. There’s a lot more I needed to do for myself and for the people I love: eat and sleep well, exercise regularly, be present for others, and simply keep moving.

5. Make room for laughter amidst your anguish.

Another one of my dearest friends, Manju, who had seen me through the earlier depressive episodes, told me one day that one of her favourite things about me was that I would break out in laughter even when crying. Again, a peculiar statement, and not the kind of compliment I would have sought in the past, but one for which I was grateful. Her observation made me realise another aspect of suffering gracefully: to allow joy to coexist with sorrow. In the earlier years, I would have been so adamant about the totality of my misery, and so obsessed with licking my own wounds, that I lost the ability to acknowledge anything good. To suffer well does not mean to never show grief or vulnerability, but to be able to partake in the joys of others even amidst pain.

6. Recognise in each painful moment an invitation to love.

I saved this one for last, as it cuts to the heart of everything I have been grasping for. All of the above would fall on deaf ears as long as one loses the will to get up. Why should I continue to bear with the pain if I had come to utterly despise myself? Eventually, I found my answer in Catholic theology: if I didn’t want to carry the “cross” for me, I could do it for someone else. There’s a phrase devout Catholics often use during unfavourable situations: “offer it up”. Instead of grumbling, offer it up. Rather than quit, offer it up. This means to intentionally offer up one’s pain or inconvenience as a sacrifice for the benefit of another soul. But one doesn’t need to be religious to appreciate the wisdom in turning our gaze outwards. (I, for one, wasn’t a Catholic at the time.)

While my brain told me I was utterly wretched and better off lying in bed all day, I could choose to focus instead on the people I lived with–a choice which got me out of bed to wash the dishes in the sink. When I felt the urge to send a barrage of despairing texts to my sister, I could choose to hold back and remember to ask how she was doing as well. However imperfectly, holding space for another person was a sacrifice I was still capable of making, a gift I was still capable of giving. A few years later, I was even able to keep my anguish in my pockets and stand tall as I emceed for a dear friend’s wedding, reminding myself that the best wedding gift I could give her was to set my pain aside for a day to welcome her joy.

These were all baby steps, but each one a powerful exercise in reconnecting with truth, goodness, and beauty even from a place of desolation.

To recognise in each painful moment an invitation to love, and to accept that invitation, that is to suffer gracefully.

Love that cannot suffer is not worthy of that name.

Saint Clare of Assisi
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A shorter version of this essay was first published on The Tapestry Project SG – an independent, non-profit online publication that aims to restore hope and reclaim dignity through the sharing of first person mental health narratives.

Does it matter in what way we are happy?

Two years ago, a friar gave me a pocket-sized book that forever changed the way I defined and sought happiness. 129 pages of plainspoken wisdom to be savoured and re-savoured.

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“What does it matter in what way I am happy?”

A fuller excerpt from Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence: The Secret of Peace and Happiness, a classic containing the writings of Fr Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure and St Claude de la Colombiere:

Let me show you a good way to ask for happiness even in this world. It is a way that will oblige God to listen to you. Say to Him earnestly: Either give me so much money that my heart will be satisfied, or inspire me with such contempt for it that I no longer want it. Either free me from poverty, or make it so pleasant for me that I would not exchange it for all the wealth in the world. Either take away my suffering, or — which would be to your greater glory — change it into delight for me, and instead of causing me affliction, let it become a source of joy. You can take away the burden of my cross, or you can leave it with me without my feeling its weight. You can extinguish the fire that burns me, or you can let it burn in such a way that it refreshes me as it did the three youths in the fiery furnace. I ask you for either one thing or the other. What does it matter in what way I am happy? If I am happy through the possession of worldly goods, it is you I have to thank. If I am happy when deprived of them,it gives you greater glory and my thanks are all the greater.

St Claude de la Colombiere

Are there words that have changed your life, and changed you? (There has been no better time for new book recommendations!)

Hope is not an emotion

This past year has taught me a precious lesson. I have, for many years, grossly misunderstood the nature of hope. And the more I longed for my imaginary version of hope, the more elusive hope became.

Hope, as it turns out, is as misunderstood as love. Like love, hope isn’t an emotion. In fact, hope doesn’t have to feel good in the least. Like love, hope is a choice and a commitment. A commitment to what? A commitment to keep choosing the path of life — in spite of feeling hopeless.

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Ink

When I first started dealing with periods of severe depression in 2013, I came to believe that one does not simply choose to have hope. Those seasons of unspeakable, impenetrable internal darkness convinced me that sometimes, one is completely robbed of the capacity to have any hope at all. As such, I began taking for granted this notion that the only way to get out of those psychoemotional abysses was to hang in there and “wait it out”.

I don’t mean to say it doesn’t work. Sometimes, staying alive in itself can get so difficult that that’s all the work you can do. With your loved ones standing by your side and giving you just enough to not quit on life, and you dutifully taking your prescribed medication, the storm eventually dissipates, and you start to see the light again, and you find reason to get back on your feet.

But over the course of my last depressive episode, I noticed something rather peculiar. It started when my therapist told me, “You know, at some point, you’re going to get tired of despairing, and you’re going to want to do something.” This was after many sessions of me walking in simply because it gave me something to do, while remaining unreceptive and unwilling to acknowledge that things could get better. My first reaction to her remark was of annoyance and anger. Get TIRED of despairing? You make it sound like I’m choosing to despair. You make it sound like I know some kind of alternative to this terrible existence. But deep beneath all that maudlin angst, I knew she was on to something.

I was noticing that there comes a time when despair becomes your comfort zone. Yes, a very uncomfortable comfort zone, but a comfort zone nonetheless. It’s that zone where you’re no longer thrashing, kicking, writhing, screaming — but you’re floating in that murky, slushy, stinky cesspool of despair. Despairing, loathing, and bemoaning your existence has be come second nature, and the thought of recovery is actually scary. Despair is familiar; recovery is foreign. Not wanting to live has been your default state of being for so long that learning how to live again is intimidating.

I reflected on this further, and then I went back to my therapist and admitted to her that I was afraid of recovering. I was afraid that if I should start making some changes to my mental and physical routines, I would start to feel better, but still find myself loathing my lot and my existence, and I would have no more excuse to be less than functional. I would have to accept the terribleness of my existence, and simply deal with it.

This admission to my therapist, but mostly to myself, was an important turning point. Of course, I didn’t make an instant 180 to start making tangible progress — I continued hemming and hawing for a while — the bad cognitive and behavioral habits that develop over months of despairing are so difficult to shake off. But there came a day when I decided I would find a way to start moving again. No, not because I felt better, not because I received a sign from heaven that all issues would be resolved. Simply because I realized I had nothing to lose.

It’s funny how that works. The flip-side of despairing about virtually everything is realizing that you have nothing to lose. And suddenly, you find there’s this untapped reservoir of boldness welling up within you. Call it tragic optimism, or a just darn clever biological mechanism that kicks you in the direction of recovery, but you can choose to ride that wave, or choose to continue thrashing.

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‘Drowning Girl’ (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein

It became a psychological discipline to bat away negative thoughts, especially about myself. It doesn’t mean all of a sudden knowing what’s true and what’s false. Instead, the inner dialogue sounded a lot more like this: I know, I know, I’m useless and stupid… But I’m gonna be radically okay with it, and see how far I can go. And so I go about my my day having shelved that particular thought. I read a book, I go for the job interview, I enter into a conversation I would typically have avoided. Oh, yes, and I’m a cruel, heartless, wretched human being undeserving of love… But you know what? People seem okay with it. Let’s see how long I can go before I’m exposed. And again, I go about my day, agreeing to meet a friend, or attending a get-together instead of making excuses to stay home. Oh wait — how about the fact that I’m doomed to a lifetime of lonely misery and will never find happiness? Soon enough, I started being able to say, oh just shut up already. 

Perhaps it all boils down to putting aside your pride. We despair because we are unable to accept ourselves and our lives, or we believe the world cannot accept us, or both. It’s not an easy decision to make, but when we choose radical acceptance, magic happens. Slowly but surely, I started experiencing improvements in my mood. The more I put myself out there in spite of the forces threatening to engulf me, the more the clouds began to clear. My thoughts became more realistic, my emotions more stable, and my social anxiety markedly reduced. I became less inward-focused and could start loving and caring for other people again. At the very core of it, I came to recognize the inherent good of being alive once more.

And that was how I learned that you don’t sit around waiting to feel hopeful. Often, we imagine hope to mean seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, when it’s more like digging, grasping, and clawing your way through the dirt until you see the light. Hope is hard work. To decide that you are willing to try is a huge victory over despair, a huge cause for celebration for the people who have been rooting for you, and the beginning of a scary but empowering journey.

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‘Christina’s World’ (1948) by Andrew Wyeth

Hope is courageous: it is letting go of the dogged notion that you need X, Y, and Z to live, and being willing to attempt forging a new path. Hope is humble: it is admitting that you don’t know everything, and that your forecast of doom and gloom is fallible. Hope is radical: it is a commitment to stop comparing yourself to others (you know, the “happy, productive, and functional” folks), and focusing on doing what you can do in a given moment.

And finally, you may or may not agree, but I believe that true, lasting hope requires faith. I know that any of my efforts to reject the voices of my inner demons would have been unsustainable without faith in a loving and merciful God. What made those psychological disciplines possible was a deeply spiritual discipline: to begin each day offering up my fears, anxieties, and regrets to God, and trusting like a child that He is already paving for me a new path my eyes cannot yet see. For hope that is seen is not hope at all. And faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see. This hope will not put us to shame.

I thank God for the gift of faith, and for loved ones who, having exhausted creative means to motivate me, beseech me to turn to God.

We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures. We are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.

–St John Paul II

Thank you for continuing to accompany me on this journey. 🙂