The glow of the afternoon sun against the green autumn meadow took my breath away. The scene was like something out of a dream – beautiful, silent and a bit mysterious. I had unexpectedly stopped at a hidden trail on my drive home from a physical therapy appointment. The sun and warm air on this perfect September day caused me to indulge in an unplanned excursion which in turn allowed me to ease my weary back and appreciate the amazing beauty all around me.
Walking along the trail was magical. The air was warm, the grounds were lush and there wasn’t a person in sight. I wondered how I had gotten so lucky as to enjoy this outing without any distractions from other walkers, runners or dogs. Once I accepted my good fortune I decided not to put in my air pods. I felt a stirring in my heart to just listen to the sounds of nature in addition to the longings in my heart. Looking back, I believe it was a whisper from God who wanted me to take time just to be quiet.
Many of us have experienced difficulties in our lives – still do today and will in the future. These trials come in various forms, big and small, but are stressful, nonetheless. Most of the time, we look at life’s challenges as annoyances, burdens, misfortunes and even crosses. In the midst of these unexpected problems – we often lack perspective, contentment and joy. Sadly, I’ve succumbed to this type of unhelpful attitude when life has gotten tough. But something has been happening to me over the past few years that has caused my thinking on suffering and pain to change. This didn’t happen overnight or all of a sudden, rather it has been a gradual conversion taking place in my heart and mind.
My new physical therapist said something unexpected, “No matter how the procedure turns out, I am sure you will be okay based on your good attitude.” I looked at him questioningly and he continued, “It is clear from our conversation that you do everything you can to make the best of your bad back. I admire that…you are living. If this new procedure helps ease your pain, all the better.” It is amazing what some people see in us versus what we see in ourselves. Three years ago when I reluctantly retired from my career due to debilitating back pain following numerous spine surgeries and procedures, I felt like a failure. Looking back, I have begun to realize that I am not a failure rather a struggling survivor willing to embrace new opportunities and challenges. Sometimes the thing you think is a burden, can become a blessing in disguise.
A few years ago, my life was off kilter. I was so busy trying to do everything perfectly that I lost sight of my reasons for living. Even though I prayed and thought I was being faithful, I was too caught up in myself as the person who could make all things better during the storms of life like my mom’s cancer diagnosis and my back surgeries all in the midst of a busy household of three kids, two working parents and one dog. Looking back, I see that I was too attached to my busy schedule and many responsibilities and not to God thus my life remained off balance.
In the gospel story of sisters Martha and Mary, Jesus tells anxious Martha that faithful Mary has chosen the better way, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:41-42) Pope Francis’ insights on this gospel are helpful, “Why then was Martha scolded, even if kindly, by Jesus? Because she considered only what she was doing to be essential; she was too absorbed and worried by the things ‘to do.’ For a Christian, works of service and charity are never detached from the principle of all our action: that is, listening to the Word of the Lord, being—like Mary—at the feet of Jesus, with the attitude of a disciple. And that is why Martha was scolded.”
Nowadays, since my “forced” retirement, I tend to my back by participating in healing programs and activities which help me to manage the pain. I spend time with my beautiful husband, children, and family, serve in volunteer capacities which utilize my professional background and heartfelt passions, and read a lot including classic literature which I somehow overlooked in my youth. I’ve also delved deeply into the study of my Catholic faith by taking numerous online courses and reading masterpieces like The Confessions and Orthodoxy. This major change in my schedule has allowed me to grow in knowledge about things which matter deeply to me. It has made me appreciate and give thanks for the faith which was handed down to me by my beloved parents. I now understand that this precious time of family, solitude, study, prayer and reflection would not have been possible if I had not had to retire from my career due to my bad back. The burden has become a blessing.
I have no idea what this next procedure will reveal – less pain, more independence, or not? I can only trust God’s will and choose to look at all the blessings in my life rather than the challenges. Folks reading this may be grappling with various difficulties. As someone who has endured a few, I would offer just a little advice based on my own experience of falling flat on my face quite a few times. Please be kind to yourself when life is hard. Ask for help. If things are tough, take a step back and try to see if something deeper is going on. Then pull on your rain boots and pray your way through the storm. God will never abandon you. He will always walk with you and perhaps he will lead you to a *better* place in life through the suffering. It’s not easy and we each have to follow our own path. In the meantime, please remember that a burden can become a blessing.