About a year ago, in the midst of a bad RA flare and medications that weren’t working, a friend in his late 20s asked how I was doing. I proceeded to tell him about the pain and fatigue that were plaguing me. He got a perplexed look on his face and stated that he couldn’t understand how I could live like that. He avowed that he would not be able to handle it. I found this intriguing because at the time, I had lived with the pain so long and it never dawned on me that couldn’t handle it. Sure, there were tough times, but it seemed to just become part of my life. I realized that my friend’s response was really based on his lack of experience with suffering. His life was relatively stress-free and he never experienced any major type of suffering. Of no fault of his, he simply lacked perspective.
According to research on life events, personal illness makes the list as one of the major contributors of stress (its rank depends on the currency of the research). [i][ii] My young friend saw my RA as too stressful. He was seeing it from an acute, one time perspective. Chronic health issues like rheumatoid arthritis are different than acute ones in that they happen over time causing the person to make slow adjustments in perceptions. So how was it that I didn’t perceive my struggles with RA the same way as my young friend? A recent conversation with another friend more experienced with life in general, and various kinds of suffering specifically, reminded me of a verse from the New Testament.
And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but wealso rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5: 2b-5
Rejoice in our sufferings? This sounds crazy! I would never ask for suffering and would not wish it on anyone. However, I’ve come to learn that constant suffering with a chronic illness such as RA can lead to a level of perseverance, character building, and eventually hope. Anyone who suffers with a chronic illness learns to persevere and cope. It’s a survival mechanism. Over time, this builds one’s character. I’m always amazed at the patience and wisdom of those who experienced suffering. It’s like they have a quiet understanding…a secret of sorts. Think of a terminally ill person or someone who experienced the horrors of war first hand. And finally, there’s hope. Even in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations where RA pain and fatigue are constant, there’s always hope of a better day, new treatments, and no more suffering. Sure, I want RA to go away. But for the time being, I can be thankful for the perspective-giving lessons of suffering with a chronic illness.