One of the many things I’m struggling with right now is my diagnosis. At first, it was a huge relief. A weight off my shoulders. After spending so many years wondering why just being seeemed so hard for me, it answered so many questions. It explained so many things. It was like my life was a 3d movie I’d been watching without the 3d glasses. And at that first appointment, the doctor finally handed them to me. My life snapped into focus and made sense for the first time. I finally made sense.
But now, 6 months later, the reality has set in about what that really means. There’s no cure. And there’s no medication that definitively works. And really, what does “work” mean anyway? Just that I’ll only be mostly miserable instead of living in all consuming misery?
When I’m depressed, I know eventually it’ll let up… but only to return again. When it lifts, it’s hard to live in the moment knowing the darkness will consume me when I least expect it. So, the reality is, I’ve spent a lot of time lately wondering, is this a life worth living? Knowing that there is no cure and this is the burden I’ll carry for the rest of my life, do I want to go on? Do I want to continue to suffer? And some days, the answer is no.
But when I dig deeper, the question becomes: what is the purpose of my life anyway? What is the point of all of this? What is the goal?
Well, in some areas of my life, making goals is pretty easy. Running for example. After my spectacular meltdown in Boston, I decided I needed to take a break from distance training. I’m planning on a fall marathon but for the summer, I’m focusing on some shorter distances and working on speed. The nice thing about shorter races is you have a lot less time to reflect on how truly terrible running is. Unlike the marathon when, if you get into trouble early on, you have hours to think about all the things that you wish you were doing at that moment: eating a doughnut, watching a movie, getting a root canal…
But of course, it’s not always miserable. When I have a day when all that hard word work culminates in a great race, it’s incredibly rewarding. So, I know why I’m out there every day. I know why I’m running through the pain of pushing myself to the limit. I know why I keep going when I want to stop. Because I want to see what I can do. Because reaching my goal is an amazing feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.
This picture, with my head bent after crossing the finish line? That was me crying tears of complete joy. Less than 7 months after foot surgery, I re-qualified for Boston at the Erie marathon. The training was hard. The race was hard. But I did it. That one race represented hundreds of hours of training, work, and sacrifice. And that moment right there in that picture? It was worth every drop of sweat.
The nice thing about running goals is: they’re easily quantifiable. I know what training paces I need to hit. When I race, I know immediately after crossing the finish line if I reached my goal or if I fell short. And then, I can easily tweak my goal with that feedback. I can go over my results with my coach and analyze the race. What went right, what went wrong, what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes, I just have a bad day (cough Boston cough) and sometimes, it’s something else. Training, diet, sleep, race day conditions. But always, I see that goal in front of me and I’m willing to change the things I need to change to get there.
Life goals might be a little more abstract but often, also quantifiable. In a career, you might want to get to a certain level of management. Or hit a specific salary amount. You might want to live in a certain neighborhood or own your own home. You might want to save enough money to pay for your kids to go to college or participate in different activities. You might want to do a lot of traveling and experience different cultures.
I know one of the things on my list currently is to move out of our townhouse. It’s a little small for six people and I’d like a yard.
What I realized is that just like running, if I want to reach that goal, it’s going to take planning and work, as all the examples above do. You can’t hope to advance in your job by being a poor employee. By being late every day. Submitting sloppy work. By being lazy. You have to go above and beyond. Be reliable, dependable, and trustworthy.
So, what do I need to do if my goal is to save money to move? What am I doing today to make that a reality? Well, when I started looking over my budget, I saw that I was wasting a lot of money on things that weren’t enhancing my life in a positive way. If I’m bored, I might head to Target and wander around. And somehow I end up coming home with $100 worth of impulse buys that I don’t even need. We go out to dinner or order takeout often because I didn’t do a good job meal planning and don’t feel like fixing something. I stop at 7-11 or Starbucks a few times a week. Just a few examples. And because I’d lost sight of the goal, I was risking ever getting there.
When we don’t know why it is we’re doing something, it’s hard to keep doing it when it becomes painful or uncomfortable. If I didn’t have a specific time goal for a 5k, there’s no chance I’d be hitting the track at 5:30 in the morning to push myself through painfully fast intervals. If I’m not trying to save money to ultimately buy a house, why bother cooking when I’m exhausted and don’t feel like it?
So back to the purpose and goal of this life. Well what do I know it’s not? I know it’s not fame, fortune, or stockpiling material possessions. If it was, celebrities would the be the happiest people around. But we see so many celebrity suicides and overdoses, those things clearly aren’t the road to true happiness. So what is this insatiable hunger we all have that so many try to fill with things that we know will never satisfy? Things like drinking, drugs, sex. Money, power, popularity. Whatever it may be.
On many of my runs, I’ve reflected on this. It’s a much much harder concept for me to wrap my head around because it seems so abstract. As a catholic, I know the answer the catechism gives to the purpose of life: to know, love, and serve God in this life and forever in the next. But for the longest time, I couldn’t understand this. I looked at the people around me. The people who seemed to have a strong faith, and honestly, they didn’t seem all that happy. If having faith didn’t make you any more happy, what was the point? Having to go to
boring mass every week, having to follow all those antiquated rules, having to recite meaningless prayers, why bother if at the end of it, you were just as miserable as you were when you started? I might as well not follow any rules and do what I want when I want and at least have a little fun.
But that’s such an embarrassingly immature understanding, I’m now ashamed of myself. What is happiness? The giddy feeling we get when we’re out having a good time? That’s fleeting. And saying religion didn’t “work” to give me that “happiness,” that “feeling,” is ridiculous. It isn’t about a feeling. It would be like me saying, I ran for a week and didn’t reach my goal, so I’m giving up. I went to work for a month and my boss didn’t promote me, so I’m quitting. I saved money for a whole six months and I still can’t buy the house I want, why bother saving?
If I look at spirituality as a thing to work towards, a goal to achieve, then sometimes, it will be a grind. Some days it’ll be hard and I’ll wonder if it’s worth the work and the pain. But I certainly feel that way about running sometimes and yet I keep going because the goal is not any one training run. Training runs are all about laying a foundation. One run, one brick, at a time. It’s a necessary part that you can’t skip.
Why would spirituality be different? We can’t reach holiness and ultimately, happiness, without laying the foundation. It shouldn’t be discouraging. Sometimes prayer is hard. Sometimes I just don’t feel like doing the right thing. But that’s when I need to put my head down and do it anyway. Lay the foundation. Brick by brick. Keeping my eyes on the ultimate goal.
The concept of heaven and eternity are hard to understand. Because the reality is that we won’t reach that goal in this life. Some days that seems way too theoretical and I’m way too flawed to care about it. I want happiness now. I want the pain to go away today. But our goals aren’t meant to be easy. They’re not meant to be painless. Where would the satisfaction be if they were? If there’s a promotion at work, is there more satisfaction in earning it or being given it because you’re related to the boss? Is there more satisfaction in reaching a goal that you have to stretch to achieve or one you achieve because you set your aim extremely low?
Beloved: Therefore be serious and sober-minded so that you will be able to pray.
Above all, let your love for one another be intense,
because love covers a multitude of sins.
Be hospitable to one another without complaining.
As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another
as good stewards of God’s varied grace.
Whoever preaches, let it be with the words of God;
whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies,
so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ,
to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you,
as if something strange were happening to you.
But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ,
so that when his glory is revealed
you may also rejoice exultantly.
1 Peter 4:7-13
Why am I surprised that I experience pain? It’s part of every journey toward something worthwhile. Without pain, we don’t grow stronger. We don’t mature. Without pain, we can’t become better versions of ourselves.
May grace and peace be yours in abundance
through knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
His divine power has bestowed on us
everything that makes for life and devotion,
through the knowledge of him
who called us by his own glory and power.
Through these, he has bestowed on us
the precious and very great promises,
so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature,
after escaping from the corruption that is in the world
because of evil desire.
For this very reason,
make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue,
virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control,
self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion,
devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love.
2 Peter 1:2-7
I admit, I love every verse in the bible that mentions endurance. In every area of life, we need endurance. We can’t lose sight of the goal if we hope to achieve it. We must stay focused and take the little steps towards it every day, building the foundation. Even when progress seems impossibly slow, we must not let ourselves become discouraged or lose hope. Because once we lose sight of what we’re working toward, it’s nearly impossible not to get off track.
So is this life, my life, worth living? Yes it is. Because the goal isn’t the here and now. It’s far greater than any material thing I could hope to achieve here. And struggling through this pain is my road to get there. To grow stronger through the adversity. To trust when I feel abandoned. To love when I’m hurt.
It’s not easy and it’s not painless. But one thing I know for sure, it’s worth it.