How do we find freedom amidst suffering?

| Father Michael Schmitz | June 6, 2018 | 0 Comments
Anxiety and depression

iStock/kieferpix

Q. I don’t understand how I am free. I didn’t choose to exist. I’m stuck here. I didn’t choose to have anxiety and depression. I’m stuck. Life is not worth it. If God is so good, why doesn’t he do something? Why doesn’t he give me an answer?

A. Thank you for writing. I want to make sure that I communicate to you that I hear your sincerity and the amount of difficulty you have been going through. It sounds like you have been doing your best to make the efforts to get help. Further, it sounds like you have been doing your best to be patient with trying to make sense of where God is present in what you’ve been going through.

Because of that, I understand that there are no easy answers. You have investigated many of them, and they are not enough.

At the same time, I want to recap some things that you might already know.

First, it is unlikely that you have “done something” to add to your current state of mental illness, pain and suffering. It is unlikely that this is your fault in some way. I say that with this caveat: That does not mean that you are powerless. You ask if you are free. Yes, you are, at least in the sense that you have a very powerful thing called “agency.” You are correct in asserting that you did not choose to be born, and you did not choose to have depression. There are some things that are indeed beyond your control. But that does not automatically make you a victim.

When a person has been beaten up in the ways that you have, one of the most powerful temptations is toward discouragement and despair. Discouragement is most pronounced when a person has been overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness or meaninglessness. It sounds like you have been affected by both. In your letter, you said that you have tried therapy, and it hasn’t resulted in significant changes yet. Because of that, you feel helpless. You have also questioned whether God is actively involved in any of this (and that, if he is, it seems like he is merely indifferent to your suffering). Because of that, you are tempted toward meaninglessness.

You have experienced real pain. What is it that you want? What I mean is: I know that you are saying that you simply want relief from the suffering. You are saying that you want answers; you want God to speak to you. I sense that, by having that relief or by having those answers, you believe that you will be able to be happy. I understand that. But there are some things that are even more important than those good things.

You want to know that your life has meaning. This is the heart of your question. Even the fact that you are asking if there is such a thing as free will is connected to this essential question. When we look at it from this perspective, you reveal that you are not a victim, and you know that you are not a victim. But in the midst of these trials, it is important to receive some kind of confirmation that you are not helpless, and this is not hopeless.

You are not helpless because you are not merely a victim of your situation. You have agency. You can choose. You can act. You are not free to change the past or to guarantee the future. But you do have real power.

Here is a small example of what I mean. I have a friend who has been dealing with a chronic injury for a few years now. He is an active young man, and this injury has not only kept him from his normal sporting activities, but is also more or less constant. He deals with it all day, and it can even wake him up some nights. He has gone to doctors and physical therapists and has done all of his therapy as directed. But still, the pain persists.

After spending so much time and effort focusing on every attempt he can to remove the pain, another friend offered him advice he found incredibly helpful. He invited my friend to let go of seeing “remove the pain” as the condition for his being able to engage with life. He invited him to reevaluate what his criteria for “happiness” was. Could he find meaning even without healing?

This reoriented his thinking and his desires, and enabled him to remember that he has power, freedom, meaning and joy even in the midst of his suffering.

I believe that this can be true for you as well. Yes, you experience real pain. You might have freedom from that pain. You might not. But you do have meaning. In Jesus Christ, the God who has set you free and who knows you by name and who loves you, you have real power. You have the ability to work with your circumstances and to work with God’s grace. Please do not give up, my friend.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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Category: Ask Father Mike