Monday, November 21, 2011

suffering

This is, essentially, a follow-up to my (over-long) post on Sophia House. I'm no longer so agitated, and, I would venture to say, more philosophical about the issues it raised in my mind. Though (as so many times in working through the experience of infertility in my mind) it has not presented me with any ideas I had never thought of, the book has, somehow, helped me to look at things in a new light, and understand them better than I did before.

Or maybe this message has been waiting for me all the time, and I wasn't able to hear it, and it finally got so loud I couldn't ignore it?

The world doesn't understand infertility. You know this. To appreciate how much it's a misunderstanding - not just being rotten or unsympathetic, but fundamentally failing to grasp what the experience of infertility is all about - I need only look at my own perspective when I was engaged. I already knew I had endometriosis, and that this causes problems conceiving. I knew I wanted a big family. And I said, "If I can't have children biologically, I will just adopt." I am the same me I was then (if in many ways changed by life), and my values haven't really altered. I wasn't mistaken about the facts, medically or otherwise. But I had no understanding of the experience spiritually, and so my conclusion, thoughtfully arrived-at, intelligently reasoned, was completely wrong. I thought it wouldn't matter whether I could conceive a child or not. I had no idea what I was talking about.

And most of the people out there who haven't been through this don't know what they're talking about either. They can easily imagine what it must be like to be infertile - that's just the problem. The picture in their heads is almost 100% inaccurate, but they think it's quite accurate. So they ponder some data (she's this many years old...they've been married for this many years...her siblings have this many kids...she's got this many years until menopause...they have this many other things in their lives to keep them busy), and they figure out what our lives must be like, and then, with a close eye on that picture, they draw all their conclusions, and formulate the comments they make to us.

And we all know those comments, don't we? Do we need any other evidence that they're proceeding from totally bogus (but apparently sincere) premises?

Other bloggers (Infertile Naomi, I'm looking at you) have done a thorough and brilliant job of examining the breadth of these charming comments, but I have just one type in mind, and this is one you'll probably get from the person who's closest to you, who shares the most values in common with you, in whom you've confided most about what you're going through. The person who can most completely blindside you by fundamentally not getting it. And that's the comment about how you should react, emotionally, to being an infertile woman in a fertile world.

It's based on all the right premises - ethical and religious ideas about what virtue and maturity and selflessness and appropriate social behavior are. Therefore, it sounds completely right - so much so that you can't even argue with it.

"You should be happy that Jane is pregnant."
"You should be grateful that you get to spend time with your sister's baby. After all, a baby is a blessing - you know that better than anyone."
"Sarah's been trying even longer than you have, and she is finally pregnant! You must be ecstatic! If it happened for her, it will happen for you!"
"Since you care about Mary so much, you should feel nothing but joy that she's been blessed with a baby. You wouldn't be happy to see something bad happen to her, would you?"
"I know you would feel terrible if Lisa had to spend another five years trying to get pregnant - you've felt so bad for the first five. You must be so glad to hear that she and her husband are finally expecting."
"You're right - that's been six pregnancy announcements from your friends and family just this month! But I guess it doesn't really matter, does it? They're not reducing your chances of getting pregnant, of course."

And it gets worse. Because we don't just hear these things from well-meaning fertile friends. We hear them from other infertile women, helpfully telling us how we should feel - sometimes, but not always, under the guise of how they think they should feel. And - darkest of all - we hear these things from ourselves.

I don't tend to go the sad route with these sorts of things; I'm a fighter. So I've been saying for years that justice does not oblige me to feel the least bit of joy for the next pregnant gal in my circle of friends, because, yeah, she'd be happy for me if I got pregnant, but there's not a chance in hell she'd be happy for me if I got pregnant and she had to celebrate that pregnancy announcement from the vantage point in which I now stand. Not one of the people for whom I'm asked to make these sacrifices will ever be asked to make a comparable sacrifice to me. And I would never expect it of them. So, no, I don't feel bad if she's startled that I don't want to see ultrasound images or hear about her morning sickness. Because she's a self-centered witch, and I can say to a moral certainty that I would not ask the reverse of her.

The pregnant women on the bus don't deserve my patience or compassion - or my seat. (And, yes, I give up my seat, but with such venom as I can scarcely describe.) They almost certainly got there effortlessly, and some of them probably don't remotely appreciate the blessing they have. And when I get on the bus sick from my medicine, or in pain from endometriosis, or miserable and depressed because life has just asked too much of me today, or two weeks post-surgery with a six-inch unhealed scar across my lower abdomen, nobody gives me a seat. And I never ask.

I tell myself these things, and I appreciate the justice of my position, my flawless reasoning, my beautifully-formed arguments that I could spit at anyone who dared challenge me and my reactions. Nobody gives me that chance, of course.

Because...the argument is always with the voices in my head. They're the ugliest ones I hear. Louder, and more persuasive and more judgmental than the voices of anyone else. They tell me, "To be upset that another infertile is now pregnant is nothing but malice. Are you saying that you would rather she suffered longer so you didn't have to read her pregnancy announcement? Is it worth her suffering so much unhappiness to spare you suffering a little?" And, "You know she doesn't know any better. She goes on and on about her pregnancy because she's happy about it and she's frankly not very bright. That doesn't make her a monster, but it does make you a monster if you hate her for it." "Charity requires you to give your seat to that woman. She must be exhausted. Look at you, healthy and strong. You can stand for 30 minutes - you wouldn't even be tired. It would cost you nothing to stand up, and yet you're looking for a way to get out of it. You should be ashamed." "How can you call yourself a Christian? How dare you look on a stranger with envy or resentment? Her life and her blessings have nothing to do with you. She didn't steal your baby." "People carry heavier crosses every day. Some people your age are dying of cancer, or permanently handicapped, and face every day with grace. You can walk around and you'll probably live for years. You wallow in sorrow because you're self-centered, greedy, and immature. There's no justification for you to act like this." "You count your crosses like a miser, but you aren't grateful to God for one of your blessings. You know plenty of people who would give their eye teeth to be happily married, even without kids - who are afraid they'll die alone." "You said that you wanted to become like Christ, to offer up your sufferings to be united to Him. You know full well this life is a vale of tears, not a bed of roses. And the first serious burden you're asked to carry, you rebel, you complain, you act like it's the end of the world. What kind of a spiritual life is that? You're a fraud, a coward, and a failure."

The truth is that both of the voices are right, and, probably more importantly, both of them are wrong.

It's not a simple matter of charity for me to give my seat to a pregnant stranger (and God forbid it's someone I know). Standing because no seats are left costs me nothing. It's not difficult to stand. Standing to let her sit - concretely recognizing that I am not what she is, that I never will be - is like a little piece of dying. The pregnant women I see, the ones who talk endlessly about their pregnancies, are not evil, after all. But in their blissful ignorance, in their innocent self-obsession, they're pouring salt in a wound - a real wound and a deep one, though, being invisible, it may be easy to overlook. And, there are crosses that are more dramatic and final, some (but not all) of which are very likely heavier. But there is always the possibility that I will carry those as well. And, of course, the fact that you could have both arms chopped off does not make it painless to have the first one chopped off. That pain is real, and terrible. And while I have at least half of the marriage-and-children blessing that so many are seeking, being barren is a fundamental undermining of the goodness of our selves and our vocation. It's not so much having most of a good thing, as having one very good thing, and one very bad thing. The good thing is not less good, but the bad thing is not less bad, either.

And what did Sophia House teach me about this, exactly? It sounds strange, it's so simple: it told me that I did not have to decide between refusing to carry a cross and pretending that it wasn't there. The book was a long, long excursus on recognizing a cross - all of its terrible weight and its gouging edges and its nasty splinters - as it settles deeply into your shoulder.

The people who say that I should "just be happy" for someone who has been blessed with a child are completely, totally wrong. That they said "just" means that they fundamentally misunderstand what that would mean for me; not that they think it's a smaller thing than it is, a puppy rather than a dog, but that it's a different thing than it is - a puppy rather than a crocodile. If I "should be" happy for someone, then that means that for the sake of bringing her joy - or, maybe, just for the sake of not attracting her notice - I should be in agony. Some days the agony is deadly and some days merely miserable, and some days it's mildly delayed, so that I don't feel it until an hour after I'm called upon to play nice, but it is always there. When people say, "Just smile," or "Just say congratulations," they should say instead, "Just go and cry wretchedly in the dark for two hours," or "Just let go of every dream you've ever had for your life," or "Just go lay your greatest fears and vulnerabilities bare before a stranger who doesn't care about you." They should say, "Just suffer."

In short - and I don't think this is an exaggeration - no one has a right to demand of us our joy or kindness toward a person whose blessing makes stark our cross unless they would be willing to demand that we die for the same purpose. And in that, I include that we don't have a right to demand it of ourselves. You cannot tell yourself that you ought to be happy for someone so that others are happier unless you feel it would also be appropriate for you to die for that purpose.

If that sounds insane, the flip side is more insane: that doesn't mean that it's not appropriate to demand it.

No one else in our lives has a right to ask that of us - ever, ever. But we can ask it of ourselves. And by allowing us to carry the cross of infertility, God has already given us an invitation to ask it. Just as we may be asked to make a thousand thousand sacrifices in this life for those we love, and at least as many for strangers; just as we can offer up every sacrifice, suffering, and privation for the good of another - we can offer this. We can choose to suffer that much, invisibly to others, so that another person will be happy. We can choose to sit silently in agony so that someone lonely or anxious will have a listening ear. We can choose to spend time with others' children although it breaks our hearts. We can do this, if we choose to do so.

And here, to me, is what's essential. Although it doesn't hurt any less, I am willing to take on that kind of suffering if I am allowed to acknowledge to myself that suffering is just what it is. And if I believe that God acknowledges it - which, now that I've actually thought about it for the first time, I realize that I do. God has known all along what this cross really is. I could name it accurately - a mortification - to my spiritual director or a confessor. If I had reason to discuss it with a friend, I could call it what it is - a heroic sacrifice. But it's most important that I can say it to myself: today, in this situation, you have an opportunity to shoulder a cross heavier than all the fasting you could do for a lifetime. You will suffer more for this person than he or she will ever suffer for you. You can give a gift this person is incapable of repaying. If you believe that it's worth it to make this person's life better, or to unite yourself with Christ's suffering, then you can do that. Not, "A decent person would just be happy for her" - because that kind of statement is fundamentally divorced from reality.

And I think that's another aspect of this that's important: we have a right to make that choice, every time. That doesn't mean we can avoid pain by turning it down - we all know that's not true. But we don't have to choose to shoulder the burden. We can decide that we're not interested, or it's unfairly much to ask, or just realize that we don't have the strength just at the moment. We can walk away, change the subject, stop listening, or tell the person how we really feel - or we can listen, smile, "behave," and be furious. And I don't think that any of those choices is wrong. We don't owe these people a sacrifice so great. And we are not in a position to make that big a sacrifice every day, let alone a hundred times a day. We each have limits to our strength, and life demands a lot of us already on a daily basis.

But we have an opportunity to choose the sacrifice - to give a person more than he deserves. To sacrifice more than we ought to. To take on something that costs us dearly. If we want to, we can suffer not because we are weak and defective, but because we are strong.

9 comments:

  1. Well written. You know, I dreaded pregnancy announcements from fertile and infertile alike. I settled for wanting to be happy for all of them - and knowing I wanted to be happy for them - while remaining secretly jealous and unhappy for myself. I realized I was only human and there was no way I was going to jump up and down in ecstatic joy over someone else's pregnancy announcement.

    Just because you can't be completely and sincerely happy for someone doesn't mean you ever wish anything bad to happen to them or that they'd continue in the same infertile rut. You know you probably are somewhere deep inside, but just now, it's overshadowed by your own struggles.

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  2. I am not exaggerating when I say this may be the most enlightened and most accurate blog post of yours. Ever. And it may even be the best blog post I've read. Period.

    As you began drawing the conclusions toward the end, I was thinking about LOVE. We are not, and we should not, be forced or guilted by others into LOVING another. But as I go through therapy with my DH, I am realizing more and more how much self-sacrifice is the essence of true love. And no one instilled this in us more than Jesus. No one told Jesus as he carried His cross "You should be happy that your disciples are not likewise being persecuted," or "Just smile at those who don't know any better, and deal with it." No. No one expected that of him. The fact that He did it anyway... that made it even more beautiful and even more of a sacrifice.

    And no one has the right to place sacrifices upon us. Not only do they not have the right, but they really cannot. Because to sacrifice begrudgingly out of a sense of obligation is not a true sacrifice anyway.

    But to do it, knowing it will cause you great suffering, and doing it anyway... that is love.

    I would go further and say even in the absence of smiling, being happy for, and giving up your seat for a pregnant woman... just being in her presence, just hearing about her pregnancy, just being aware that you lack what she has... that is enough suffering to be an act of love. (As long as you wish her no harm, of course, but obviously you do not go about your day hoping bad things happen to all people who have what you want.)

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  3. This sentence gave me chills--"If we want to, we can suffer not because we are weak and defective, but because we are strong." I think it takes even more strength to suffer the way infertiles often do--silently and alone, unknown to the rest of the world.

    Also, I too hate the "just be happy for them" or "you wouldn't want anything bad to happen to them, would you?" Because those two facts--being happy for someone, and hoping they avoid suffering--aren't really related at all to a person's own suffering. I told myself that when my BF got pregnant in June--I felt sad, and then guilty for feeling sad, and then told myself, "Aren't you glad she didn't have to suffer years of infertility?" It's really a stupid thing, if you think about it--of COURSE I didn't want her to have to suffer years of infertility. But really, I didn't want ME to have to suffer years of infertility, either. Simply the fact that I felt sad at her announcement doesn't automatically mean I wanted her to be infertile! The suggestion of that, whether it comes from another person or within ourselves, really is sort of ridiculous. I mean, you wouldn't say to someone with cancer, "But aren't you glad your friend doesn't have cancer?" Of course that person is glad of that, but that doesn't mean they're suddenly happy about their own cancer.

    I'm rambling. But I hope I made a little sense.

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  4. I think it's human nature to try and offer a "fix" to someone's unhappiness. We offer advice (fertile and infertile alike) because we want to help, but it usually misses the mark by a mile. Well, maybe the fertiles miss it by several miles...
    But you're absolutely right - there is no way to KNOW what it's like to be infertile unless you have been yourself. You can learn the appropriate language, responses, what NOT to say, but you'll never understand it 100% and that's the truth.

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  5. This is the best post you ever wrote. Well done.

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  6. You really have a gift for writing. This post is so dead-on accurate. I guess it speaks to just how similarly IFers react to this cross and how universally misunderstood IF is by everyone else. By now I've come to expect that acquaintances of mine will not have a clue, but it continues to baffle me that my dearest non-IF friend doesn't have a clue either, just like you point out, even though I've spoken with her at length about everything. It's hard to continue to share the difficult emotions with someone who responds by telling you how you "must" feel or "should" feel.

    I really find strength in knowing that God sees all of the daily sufferings. It makes choosing to sacrifice for another that much more desirable. For me at least, even the little occurrences like passing a pregnant woman in the store become a conscious choice to love.

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  7. Yes, yes, YES! I'm just blown away by your post. It's just so spot on ... And it empowers me to not have to be strong all the time. I'm in tears with this realization. Thank you!!!

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  8. I still struggle with jealousy. This was very helpful.
    Part of me is still the person who said "I'll just adopt." I _just_ had no concept how difficult that might be. Perhaps, too, having my husband be the partner with the medical issues has made it easier for me - although I could not agree more strongly that IF can leave one feeling like the goodness of marriage is being undermined.

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