In the Midst of Suffering
by Jan Dravecky
When Dave was pitching for the San Francisco Giants, we had a good life. We had a good marriage, two great kids, and a growing relationship with God. We had good friends and some close relationships, but baseball life had moved us around enough that we found it difficult to maintain close relationships. We had each other. What more could we need?
We approached Dave’s cancer, with all its career – and life-changing implications, in much the same way we handled anything else – thinking that our relationship with each other was all we needed to get through it. After all, our culture teaches us that the one person you can trust, the one person you can lean on, is yourself and that each of us has everything we need within ourselves. So the fact that Dave and I also had each other seemed to be more than enough. We were in for a surprise.
As Dave’s cancer progressed, we found ourselves in a predicament. Dave was too sick to be a support to me, and when I became depressed, I was unable to be a support to him. We reached a point at which we no longer had each other for emotional support. By the time we had moved away from our baseball friends, and we had no close friends on whom we could lean. Plus, because we were so accustomed to depending on ourselves, we didn’t know how to need and depend on other people. We were surprised to discover how important it is to be able to count on the support that comes through close relationships with other people during an extended time of suffering.
When I lost Dave’s emotional support, I didn’t know what to do. I was dying inside because I didn’t have anyone else in my life on whom I would lean. The one person I had needed most in my life was my mother, and when she died so suddenly, a part of me decided to never need anyone that much again. So I stood alone.
My fear of loss in close relationships didn’t change the fact that I was human and that I needed those relationships, however. The line from the song Barbara Streisand made famous, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world,” is very true. God created us with the need for close relationships, and He has provided other people to meet that need. In Genesis 2:18, we read that God considered Adam and said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” That simple sentence helped me realize that we are made to need other people and that we will suffer if we don’t have those relationships.
When you are suffering, every relationship you have is tested.
We no only need relationships with other people, we also need to have healthy relationships. It wasn’t enough for me to know that I needed close relationships in my life and to seek them out. I also needed to learn what makes those relationships healthy. When you go through a period of suffering, it is especially important to have and maintain healthy relationships. It is also more challenging to do so because when you are suffering, every relationship you have is tested.
Relationships have to endure through the many changes that suffering brings. In our case, we went from one extreme to another. When we realized that we needed other close relationships, that we needed other people involved in our lives, we discovered that we had friends who would stand by us. They stepped in and let us lean on them. That was wonderful, but we leaned on them too much. We encouraged them to take responsibility for areas of our lives and to make decisions for which we needed to take responsibility. They became used to running our lives, and when we were well enough to once again take responsibility for those areas, they were hurt. By resuming our responsibilities, we appeared to be rejecting them and their care for us, which was not the case at all. We simply needed to take back responsibilities that were rightfully ours. It took time for the changes in those relationships to be accepted and for the hurt to heal.
An added trial for relationships that endure through suffering is that all the imperfections in the relationship become exaggerated. For example, you may have been in a relationship in which one particular thing irritated you. For years you may have consciously overlooked that one thing. But after dealing with suffering for a period of time, your patience runs out. You’re tired, you’ve given all you have to give, and that one little thing you have ignored for years comes up. And suddenly you can’t handle it. You become angry, you burst into tears, you criticize – whatever. The presence of another’s imperfection brings your imperfection bubbling to the surface!
Clashing imperfections can lead to a relational meltdown, but they don’t have to. Within healthy relationships, there is a recognition that each one of us is imperfect. Healthy relationships are seasoned with grace. Grace accepts a person for who he or she is inside regardless of the behavior that surfaces when the person is under stress. Grace realizes that suffering brings out the worst in a person and loves the person in spite of it. Grace realizes that the person is probably just as horrified about his or her imperfect behavior as you are.
When Dave was battling cancer, he was at times very angry. I remember thinking, Oh, he doesn’t want to be this way. I knew who Dave really was. I knew that the “good stuff” was still there. Grace remembers that despite the ugly stuff that comes to the surface, the good stuff is still there. I have that grace for Dave, and he has that grace for me. So our relationship endures. It’s not conditional.
Conditional love, whether it is in a marriage, a friendship, or another family relationship, will be challenged by suffering. Unconditional love endures because it accepts and loves no matter what. This does not mean that a person becomes a doormat. Appropriate boundaries and respect are essential in a healthy relationship.
It’s no secret that relationships suffer when we suffer. Unhealthy relationships can be especially tumultuous. Despite the challenges we encounter, relationships remain extremely important. Relationships help us endure trials that would otherwise cause us to fall. But it’s important to walk in grace and forgiveness so that those relationships can be what God intends them to be. If we persevere, we will find that our relationships will mature and become some of the most precious blessings in this life – and in the life to come.