Chapter 13: Puzzles and Suffering
I know that most of you people are probably offended when someone makes generalizations about entire groups of people, but Austrians are really good at taking care of their stuff. (As a side note, I don’t generally generalize, nor do I support the habit in others. I thought it would be funny to say “most of you people” and then to make a sweeping statement about concerns about generalizations. Now that I’ve spent so much time explaining the joke, I’m sure it’s really going to be well received). Moving to Austria with just our clothes and a few toys for the kids, we’ve ended up getting some good deals from local flea markets. Because I believe there’s always more space for abandoned items under our couches, I’ve purchased several jigsaw puzzles for the kids at local Flohmärkte (that’s ‘flea markets’ in German, but I’m sure you already knew that). I’ve been so impressed to find that with each used puzzle we bought, every single piece was in the box.
So far Ellie’s been the only kid of ours with an attention span long enough to work on a puzzle with more than five pieces, and we usually need to wait until her brothers are either asleep or occupied elsewhere to work on the puzzles together. She always starts out strong with plenty of enthusiasm, quickly finding two or three pairs of pieces that go together. No matter what she’s doing, if Ellie is enjoying it, she always provides her own extremely affirming soundtrack. Usually her song is something along the lines of, “Look at her go, she’s the best, she can do everything, in the world, she’s so good.” I have no idea where she gets this confidence from, but I’ve been told by my wife that the would-be-annoying-if-you-didn’t-love-her constant singing flows directly from my genes.
After about three minutes, the obvious puzzle piece matches have run out and the self-motivation song fades. Very quickly, Ellie is convinced that the puzzle is impossible to complete and she suggests we give up. When I convince her that we need to keep working on it, trying to encourage her that we can finish the puzzle, Ellie often chooses one piece that she cannot find a match for. For her, this lonely piece is proof that the puzzle is impossible. There are only two successful ways that I’ve found out of this situation, but of the two there is one that she almost never agrees to try. In my humble opinion, as a man who has completed the same 24-piece Finding Nemo puzzle approximately 270 times in his now long life, I believe that the “edges and corners” approach is the fastest way to complete a jigsaw puzzle. Pieces along the edge of a puzzle will always stand out because they have one flat side, and corner pieces are easy to spot because they have two flat sides (you already knew you were reading a good book, but the inclusion of puzzle strategy tips is probably what pushes this work over the edge).
Once you’ve isolated and strung together all the corners and side pieces, the puzzle becomes much more manageable. Especially in the puzzles we have, about two-thirds of the work is done once you’ve completed all four sides. For whatever reason, Ellie will rarely take my advice of working on the corners first. She focuses on the piece that she has in her hand, but she’s unaware of how this particular piece fits within the entire picture. Ellie will continue to stare at the piece and grow frustrated as a few attempts to connect it with other nearby pieces are unsuccessful. When I realize that she’s not going to choose the efficient strategy, I start looking at the other pieces to find a match for the piece she is fixated on. Knowing that Ellie takes great pride in doing things herself, I can’t simply hand the piece to her when I find the match. It’s important to her that she feels like she made it happen, so when I find it first, I’ll just suggest she tries looking in a different area for the piece she needs. If that’s not enough help, I’ll move the piece next to Ellie’s when she’s not looking, and soon after finding it, tells me how she can’t believe it was right there all along. Soon after all the pieces are in place, Ellie will proudly announce to Courtney that she finished the puzzle all by herself. I can’t be all that mad at Ellie for taking all the credit in finishing the puzzle. First of all, I’d expect mockery from everyone ages six and up if I were to brag about my contributions toward the completion of a 24-piece Finding Nemo puzzle. Secondly, every time we work on a puzzle together, I’m reminded of how naively I often relate to God the Father. For much of my 20s, I was throwing a tantrum like Ellie when I prayed. I held up one piece of my life, alternating between the questions of my vocation and my career, and I demanded over and over that God make sense of it.
The importance of starting with edges and corners is obvious when putting together a puzzle, but I was just frustrated and annoyed at the prospect of having to work on anything else in my life other than trying to find a wife or figuring out a 10-year plan for my career. Growing in virtue, being a better friend, striving for excellence in the job I had at the time, and cultivating self-discipline just didn’t sound that exciting to me, so I hesitated to work on those areas of my life that I knew God was inviting me to address in the present moment. No matter how blessed I was to have strong friendships and to have a great job at a great parish as a youth minister, I was never satisfied. In his inaugural homily as the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI said, “The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man.” Amidst my tantrums, my impatience and my stubbornness, God the Father patiently loved me and never relented.
In those moments where I was able to see progress and growth in my life, my tendency was to take all the credit for the work God had done. Our Father in Heaven isn’t overwhelmed by our problems. He is not surprised by the outcomes that don’t go as planned, and His plans aren’t thwarted by our stalling and stumbling along the way. Because His perspective is eternal, God the Father can see beyond the immediate obstacles that we can’t imagine getting past. In the middle of our fighting and our resisting the demands of daily life, God will not give up on us. He can handle the pieces we’ve thrown aside in our anger and fear, because He is eternally faithful. Still today I find myself struggling to focus on the present moment, but God gently and lovingly draws my attention away from my seemingly urgent questions. He reveals in time the progress He’s making in other areas of my life. No matter how many times the Father has proven His ability to put pieces of my life together, I still keep staring at the next piece wondering how He’ll possibly make sense of it.
For too many years, my relationship with God revolved around my big questions and my obsession with the future. Instead of seeking to learn more about who God is, I treated Scripture like a horoscope, looking for each passage and verse to provide clues to the answers for my urgent inquiries. I shouldn’t have been surprised that prayer for me felt nothing like the rest and refreshment I had heard others speak of; I kept showing up to pray with 50 questions and no time to listen. I’ve slowly grown in my understanding of prayer. From a practical level, I’ve realized that my life is much more peaceful and enjoyable when I can begin to trust that God is in the middle of my life with me. He’s always helped me in the past, so I don’t need to worry that He’ll abandon me by the time today’s crisis hits.
When I approach prayer with a desire to get to know my Heavenly Father, I’m less likely to be anxious as life unfolds and I’m more confident that He’ll give me what I need when I need it. Even more than my daughter is unsure of how her jigsaw puzzle pieces will fit together because she doesn’t have the entire picture in mind, my life can seem random and senseless when I try to make sense of the present moment in isolation from the larger context. It seems that we often operate from one of two perspectives: either God is actively involved in the affairs of our lives or He’s not. If God is playing an active role in my life, then it’s not up me to tie up all loose ends or to fix all my problems and the problems of those around me. His presence and provision takes the pressure off of me. I’m still called to strive to serve and to grow in virtue, but the larger task of keeping the universe held together is off my plate.
Time in prayer can be spent more peacefully when I know that God is still working for my good when my prayer ends and I’m back to the daily grind. Prayer is no longer just the time where I ask for energy and power to go change the world; it’s the place where I encounter the Father who loves me and wants to give me a front row seat as He is renewing the world. Remembering how faithful He’s been, I can begin to trust that God is able to bring good even out of pain and disappointment in my life. Experiencing small doses of suffering as a father has begun to open my eyes to the reality of how aware and concerned our heavenly Father must be for us. Ellie learned to walk within days of her first birthday. Initially we were so excited that she had taken her first steps, but we soon realized that this new development included months of terror as she staggered and stumbled with no ability to catch herself from the countless falls that ensued. One afternoon that spring, we were at our parish hall; I was outside with Ellie while Courtney was inside for a meeting. Ellie insisted on walking on the concrete in the parking lot, and my fear of her falling was slightly less than my fear of her tantrum if I tried to make her walk on the grass. Within a minute, Ellie faceplanted, and Courtney ran outside when she heard the screaming. Blood started streaming from our daughter’s mouth and we were so worried. Ellie’s always had a strong gag reflex, so her crying usually led to coughing and then vomiting. We ran to the car to head home, and Courtney started googling “child bleeding mouth” to get an idea of how serious the injury was. Within five seconds of browsing, we had narrowed down the diagnosis to three possible options: the bleeding would stop within a minute or two and she’d be fine, the injury would result in death, or this was proof of government conspiracy involving aliens and beloved former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
Fortunately the wise guardians of the internet only allow medical professionals to post their findings online. We feared the worst (of the injury options I mean, not the conspiracy stuff) as Ellie’s cries turned into coughing and then we started seeing large dark red chunks coming up as she started throwing up in the car seat. I forgot to mention to Courtney that Ellie had eaten several blackberries shortly before she fell, so Courtney assumed she was witnessing massive blood loss resulting from a life-altering accident. Even though I was the one who fed Ellie the blackberries, I trust my wife’s instincts, so I started freaking out as well until I remembered the berries. Within ten minutes, we were back home, Ellie had stopped bleeding and crying, and everything was back to normal. But in the midst of the chaos it was absolutely horrible. It’s brutal to watch your child suffer, to see them hurting and to be unable to fix the problem. You would give absolutely anything to take away their pain, and you’d swap places with them in a heartbeat if it was possible. Having children is like having your heart divided up and placed in their little bodies. Even the smallest inconvenience or pain that they feel is difficult to endure because they’re a part of you. This sense of solidarity with my children wasn’t due to my holiness or my capacity for empathy; anyone who knows me well knows that I lack both. But as a dad, it breaks your heart to see your child hurting. My knowing that the pain is temporary, or that the monsters they fear aren’t real, doesn’t lessen my compassion for my children.
For the first few weeks after Ellie was born, we had to return daily to the hospital to get her blood checked as doctors monitored her jaundice. Each day we’d have to hold her tiny feet so they could prick her heel for the blood sample. It was horrible. Ellie was fine throughout the very short ordeal, but Courtney and I could barely take it. This little girl that we had just welcomed into the world was in pain and all we could do was watch. Despite knowing that the blood tests were for Ellie’s good and that the needles were ultimately helping her, it was still heart-wrenching to witness as parents. Even my distracted, selfish heart hurts to see my kids in pain. If my imperfect father’s heart is so moved to see my kids suffering, how much more must God the Father’s heart be moved with compassion for us. Shortly after Ellie’s first birthday, we were overjoyed to find that Courtney was pregnant again. It was still early in the pregnancy, and while we knew that miscarriages are fairly common in the first trimester, we were devastated when an ultrasound revealed that this baby no longer had a heartbeat. I think neither Courtney nor I realized how emotionally invested we were in the idea of this child when we walked into the doctor’s office that day, but the sad news brought waves of grief and loss that rocked us to the core. Facing the reality of death, no Christian clichés were helpful. We were left with so many unanswered questions and there was no silver lining to lessen the grief.
It was heartbreaking to see Courtney bear this great burden of pregnancy only to lose the child, and as a father I felt completely powerless. I don’t share these stories to impress or to gain sympathy; we know close friends and family members who have faced far more significant suffering. For some it’s meant burying their children, while others carry the weight of being unable to have children despite all the prayers and sacrifices they’ve made. Several years ago, I asked my dad about what he and my mom went through in losing my sister, Anne Clare, who passed away just one month after being born. My dad teared up and responded that the experience gave him a glimpse of what God the Father must’ve endured in watching Jesus die on the cross. At the time, this made no sense to me. I had always thought of the Father sending His only Son as some cruel punishment. It seemed to me that God the Father simply watched from a safe distance above as Jesus bore the cross and endured death for our salvation. My experience of fatherhood has radically changed my understanding of the incarnation, Christ’s coming to earth to enter into our humanity and to redeem us through His death and resurrection. If my imperfect fatherly heart breaks to see my children suffer even in small ways, how much more must God the Father’s heart have broken to see His perfect Son suffer and die to save people who had rejected His love. In the midst of suffering, the providence of God remains a mysterious but evident reality.
The puzzle analogy I spoke of earlier works to an extent, but like all other analogies, it falls short in some areas. I don’t believe that our miscarriage, my sister’s death, or my dad’s cancer was just God handing us puzzle pieces and saying, “Here you go, good luck with this one.” I don’t like the phrase “everything happens for a reason” because it’s not really helpful. Sometimes the cause of bad things happening is nature, sometimes it’s a result of other people’s decisions, and I fear that the phrase leads to us wrongly believing that God is using people and taking lives to teach us neat little lessons. Rather, I am convinced that the Father is so committed to us that He can work through anything, and that He can bring good from any situation. The cross of Jesus bears witness to this reality; God turned our greatest act of rebellion into the source of all grace and the place of our reconciliation to the Father. I believe that God is a loving Father who knows our pain and weeps over us, and I believe that He doesn’t allow our suffering to go to waste.
Shortly after our miscarriage, I was running one morning and praying the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary. As I was reflecting on Christ’s scourging at the pillar, I recalled the scene from the movie The Passion of the Christ. After the Roman soldiers had severely beaten Jesus, they led him away and Mary was left at the pillar staring at the pavement below covered in blood. She sank to her knees and with a towel soaked up every drop of Jesus’ precious blood that had spilled on the ground. This was during a period where I felt like my and Courtney’s suffering was simply in vain bringing nothing but sadness, grief, and tension to our marriage and home as we mourned the loss of our child. As I recalled the scene, I thought of how Mary worked to recover all of the blood that had poured from Her son. I was filled with hope that somehow God would not allow our pain, and our child’s life, to be for nothing. Five years later, we still wonder what our child would’ve looked like, sounded like, acted like. We still mourn the loss, but we’ve also seen fruit and progress in our marriage as the shared suffering has deepened our faith and our bond with each other.
Providence remains a mystery; some suffering is permitted while some is alleviated. Coming to believe in the Father’s love has led me to begin to trust that somehow He can and will bring good from our suffering. God the Father perfectly loved His Son at every moment on earth, including those moments when Jesus hung on the cross on Good Friday. This conviction is only possible in the light of the resurrection, where we see that the Father never abandoned His Son but instead glorified Him. I am convinced that the Father’s heart must break to see us, His children, suffer, but I am equally certain that Jesus’ resurrection means that death no longer has the final word in our lives. In the words of Saint Teresa of Avila, a woman who knew suffering and experienced years of prayer where she felt nothing, “The feeling remains that God is on the journey, too.” No matter what we’re up against, no matter how random our lives feel or how unable we are to make sense of the puzzle piece in front of us today, we can have confidence that our Father is tenderly and patiently loving us right now. Amidst our tantrums and our giving up, our frustration and our pride, He simply loves us too much to walk away. God knows what’s ahead, He sees the entire picture, and He’s absolutely committed to weaving together a good ending of our stories.