Fifteen years ago, we brought our 3-month old son back to Canada from South Korea. We placed him in my mother’s arms, guiding her to be careful of his colostomy bag for which she had paid. We brought him to my brother, who dispensed the needed advice to prevent open-heart surgery in the first few days of his life.
“I never wished for you to be sick when you were an infant,” I told my son the other day.
“I needed to hear that,” he replied. “Why is it that Christians always talk about suffering as if it ‘builds character’? It is as if the only credit they can give for becoming who they are is as a response to suffering. Why is suffering necessary to the development of an individual? I mean why would someone talk about the death of a loved one in such instrumental terms, as if the only purpose of the loved one’s life was to build character in those around them?”
“Character-building is Christian language for the development of resilience, son. And resilience is that ability to respond to difficulty. If there is something true about the spirit of your question, it is the awareness of the loved one’s response and its tendency to instrumentalize the life of the other that was lost. You are right that we must be careful not to treat another as a tool for our own development. But our own development is not insignificant either. And tending to our own resilience is a vital task for living well. But that requires not only that we don’t overlook the severity of loss or the suffering that we regularly experience, but also that we experience and embrace the suffering.”
15 years ago, my son had a colostomy surgery to repair his colon, which was a result from having Hirschsprung’s Disease. It was one of four problems that he had when he was born, that are part of his life, but not part of his story. He also had jaundice, hypoglycemia, and Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA). They aren’t part of his story because he doesn’t remember them. By contrast, his mom and I do remember them and so those illnesses are a part of our individual stories, and part of our story together; however, they are not part of our biological lives – except insofar as we changed our diets in response to them. Two other problems, G6PD and a shortened tendon on his left thumb, are a part of my son’s life and story, because he has continuing dietary limitations owing to G6PD, and he has regular exercise, cast-wearing, and has had a surgery to increase ability in his left hand. All of that together is a complex story of suffering and character building.
Yet the most important lesson I experienced as a father was that responding to my son’s ill-health was about my son, that is, it was not about me. And it never has been. When we care for a dependent, they are the subject of the story. And so it is with my son and his questions. This is about his development, but working out a comprehensible and authentic understanding of suffering and how it contributes to our identity is part of my development.
I think back to all the difficulty my spouse and I encountered. She had her son torn out of her arms shortly after birth; he was whisked away to the best hospital in the country… a six-hour ambulance drive away. I was overwhelmed with medical bills from the beginning. She had to live apart from me in a basement apartment with very little light in Seoul, where she didn’t speak the language, and relying on the complete care of her cousin. But that apartment was sourced in asking a Singaporean friend at a Thai church to contact a Korean she knew. That Korean had helped us. I had to work 14 hour-days, five days a week, and take the 4-hour express train back and forth on Fridays and Sunday evenings for eight weeks. The doctors and nurses had told us that he wouldn’t make it. We got financial support from my Mom. We got prayer support from hundreds of people. We got donations from poor Thai churches. We suffered, but were not alone.
“All suffering is for the glory of God” our scripture tells us. That story has held me. But it doesn’t answer my son’s intuition that suffering sucks. And he is right; it sure does suck. When I lived it, I had to experience it and embrace it. There was no other way to get through it. I don’t know God’s reasons for putting us through that trauma, but it is to God’s glory that we made it through. And God acted through others. God was manifest in our own personal histories, and was really acting through real people in our communities. I doubt we would have made it without all those people acting out of love. If any character was built, it was a character of community.
Did the suffering build my character? I don’t know about that, but it sure made me resilient. And it sure showed me that we do not have to bear suffering alone. And my son showed his scar to his toddler-aged sister when she was going to have abdominal surgery to show her that she would be ok. He intuitively knew that he was part of her story.
Last summer, my advice-giving brother came to our new home. He played basketball with my son. And today, 15 years later, in our new home, we celebrate Christmas with our son and daughter. Today, my mother, with the help of community, lives where she chooses. Today, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who came into the world through a community of his own. Today, we can truly say, “Glory be to God.”