October 1, 2010

It’s All Good / Patti Lamb

Suffering can transform our hearts and give us wings

Patti LambMy son Henry’s kindergarten class is studying the life cycle of butterflies.

Recently, I asked him to explain it to me, and his explanation shed some light on a rather complex issue. Sometimes wisdom surfaces in the simplest places.

“First it’s an egg, then a caterpillar, a chrysalis and a butterfly,” he said. He stumbled over the word “chrysalis,” and I wanted to see if he understood what that is.

“What’s a chrysalis?” I asked.

“It’s a dark and scary place [that] caterpillars have to go before they become butterflies,” he said. “If you want to be a butterfly, you’ve got to go through a chrysalis first.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun,” I said.

“It’s not fun, but that’s just part of it, Mom,” he said.

I repeated that last part out loud so that I would remember: “That’s just part of it.”

The caterpillar is sucked to the pavement by Earth’s gravitational pull. He thinks his little legs, though many, will never get him off the ground. He then becomes secluded in a dark cocoon, and time painfully passes. Eventually, however, he emerges and takes flight.

I think suffering is like being caught in the chrysalis stage of butterfly development. I have a friend who is stuck in a chrysalis. It is dark in there. She is lonely and trapped in misery. My heart aches for her.

I’ll never understand why there is suffering, and how it can be manifest in so many forms. We come upon suffering through loss, mistakes, poor health and just plain happenstance. All I can figure is that it ultimately leads us to realize that we can’t do it on our own, and that we must turn to God.

I once read on a church sign, “Your greatest weakness is God’s greatest opportunity.” When we understand that we can’t do it all by ourselves, and we open up to God, then his spirit can flow. And he can work in us.

I’m learning that as much as we don’t want our crosses and trials and as much as we want to hoist them away, they are “part of it,” as my son says. They are part of being human.

I am not saying that God wants us to suffer. I don’t think that’s the case. He knows what suffering is like.

Suffering, no matter what form it takes, slowly brings about a kind of transformation in our hearts. It changes us. It gives us a perspective we didn’t once have. Some call it wisdom, but it’s more than that. I believe that suffering is the greatest teacher of compassion.

After suffering, we are able to see with a keener ability the depths of others’ hearts. So we begin to be gentler with others’ souls. We gain perspective about what’s truly important.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery put it well. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Sometimes it is only after suffering that we begin to see in a new way—with our hearts.

To paraphrase the lyrics of a song loved by many people, the time will come when our hopes will break the boundaries of our fears.

To my friend who is stuck in her chrysalis, this is my message: Keep the faith. You will emerge from this. Depend on God, who brings beauty out of sorrow.

Just look at the butterfly.

(Patti Lamb, a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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