Some Thoughts on Sympathy, Suffering, and the Paschal Mystery

A reflection by Sarah

In many of our past blog posts, Lindsey and I have discussed some of the different kinds of reactions other people have when they find out we are a celibate couple. Some folks are skeptical of us, others supportive, others cautiously optimistic about our claim that we really don’t care to discuss our sexual ethic in terms of, “Is gay sex a sin?” Lately, one of the most common reactions we’ve been receiving is sympathy. We have readers, friends, and family members who feel sorry for us because we are celibate. Occasionally people outside our Christian tradition tell us that we’re missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures because of blind obedience to authoritarian religion. During our series on sexual abuse last week, one person told me that she is sorry for what happened to me and will be praying I’ll heal completely from my history of sexual trauma so that Lindsey and I will finally be able to have sex. At the same time, plenty of people inside our Christian tradition believe that the kindest words they can possibly say to us are, “I’m sorry you’ve been given such a heavy cross to bear in life.”

I can’t help but make a connection to another circumstance in which I’ve received a great deal of sympathy lately. As I’ve become increasingly open in discussing my Ménière’s disease and the resulting hearing and vestibular loss, more and more people in my life have been telling me, “I’m sorry you’re stuck in such a bad situation. But good on you for making the best of it!” In truth, I do see my vestibular loss as a bad situation. Because I can no longer balance my body in the way most people can without even trying, my mobility is limited. I used to swim every day, and now I can’t do that anymore. I love socializing and getting out of our apartment to go on adventures by myself or with other people, and most of the time I can’t do that anymore either. I’ve gained lots of weight and have no endurance at all because most days, I can’t move very much. I can’t work right now either. But I’m not “making the best” of anything regarding this issue. I’m irritable all the time, I snap at Lindsey when I become frustrated with myself, and I try to do more than I’m able and end up hurting myself in the process. Nothing in that is making the best of a bad situation.

That said, I don’t see my hearing loss as negative in even the slightest way. Sure, I’ve gone through (and am still probably going through) a grieving process because it’s unsettling to lose one manner of interacting with the world that I’ve had access to for my whole life. Working on accepting myself as I am rather than trying to “fix” it has been painful in some ways, but pain is not always a bad thing. In the process, I’ve gained so many new ways of understanding the world around me — things I never would have experienced as a hearing person. When I’m participating in Liturgy by feeling the choir’s vibrations and noticing how those induce images of synthetic color, I’m not making the best of a bad situation; I am communing with God in a way I couldn’t have before my hearing loss. It’s common for members of my tradition to speak of monasteries as places that offer people a unique opportunity to encounter God in silence. Monasteries are indeed wonderful places, but my question is: how many monks, nuns, and monastery lovers truly know the experience of total silence? I’m talking about silence that is free from every possible distraction — no leaves rustling, no birds chirping and flapping their wings, no water running…not even the sound of one’s own breath. Assuming that there are no rock bands, gunshots, or jets around, when I take off my hearing aids I can experience the gift of total silence on some days. Even the best custom-designed earplugs will not give a hearing person that gift. I think that’s amazing.

I’m taking some online coursework this summer to help me keep my mind occupied until July when I’ll have my next ear surgery. Last week, the professor in one of those classes suggested that my Ménière’s is part of how I experience the paschal mystery. I’ve lost and I’ve grieved, but I’ve also seen the birth of many new and wonderful things. There are some days when, where my vestibular loss is concerned, I still find myself feeling much more connected to the crucifixion than to the resurrection. But is there anything wrong with that? There are also times when I feel deeply connected with the resurrection and other people tell me this isn’t theologically or emotionally right because I’m “romanticizing” my suffering. It has never made sense to me how someone else can claim to know better than I do when I am suffering and when I am not.

I’ve been thinking about how celibacy is also part of my paschal mystery. It hasn’t been easy for my to accept that I will never give birth to children. It’s definitely not easy to accept that I live in a society where marriage has become the default vocation for all people, and those who choose celibacy tend to be viewed as odd and repressed. It’s challenging to be so committed to a Christian tradition where there is little guidance for living celibacy outside a monastery. Nonetheless, I am joyous about continuing to cultivate a celibate vocation in the world alongside Lindsey. Celibacy is one of my callings. I didn’t ask for it any more than I asked God to make me deaf, but I’ve found both of these realities to be life-giving rather than limiting. There are days when I feel more connection with the binding of Isaac than I do with the Annunciation, but that’s how it is with any calling and any long-term state of being.

Sometimes, we don’t know what to say to another person except, “I’m sorry.” I include myself in that “we.” There are occasions when sympathy is a helpful response, and I don’t always know for sure how to differentiate between those occasions and others. But I do think that at times, sympathetic responses can miss the mark when it comes to understanding how callings and life experiences work differently for different people. What would it be like to spend more time discussing our callings and life experiences in terms of the paschal mystery? Several questions run through my mind. To name a few: what if we offered fewer condolences and made more effort to understand what we perceive to be another person’s cross? How might offering support look different if we could accept that what looks like a cross to one person can appear as a crown to another? Do we have to see crosses as negative in the first place?

What callings and experiences from your own life are part of your paschal mystery? If you feel led to share, the comments are open.

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4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Sympathy, Suffering, and the Paschal Mystery

  1. While we are all pilgrims and “strangers in a strange land”, it seems my life resembles that more literally than most people. My work has taken me all over the world, which has made me very happy. It also means that I have no property or roots, and perhaps never will. That’s hard to imagine for many people who are attached to a sense of security. Sometimes I envy that security. But usually not for long. This may change with age, but it might not. I’m 44. Yes, each move means leaving familiarity and good friends behind. It also means a new life, a chance to reinvent myself, and of course new friends and a new place to call “home”. It helps me remember that any sense of security is mostly illusion. It is also congruent with my own calling/inclination to celibacy which I recognised long ago in my youth. I am free to go wherever I want to, whenever. I have *never* gotten the kind of comments that Sarah and Lindsey report, though. Probably because I’ve just never talked about it much. Or maybe because I’ve never been in an openly celibate, commited relationship, though I’d like to be some day.
    As a happily Deaf person, I totally grock, support, and celebrate Sarah’s experience of her journey through deafness to Deafhood. I also live with some acquired conditions that often result in situations of disability that I’d probably rather not have if given the choice. It often sucks and I complain and lose patience too, while at the same time gratefully accept the mystery and gifts they bring. I wouldn’t be who I am without them. When people say how “inspiring” I am, I just have to laugh. I don’t get it. I love what Sarah said about sympathy. I wish people’s sympathy would turn to solidarity. I wish that instead of saying “Oh that’s difficult” that they would say “Oh that’s different!” Maybe even ask “So what is that like?” Then we could have a real conversation instead of an awkward moment.

    • Like Sarah, you are an example to the world of the suffering we all face when we are deaf to Christ and cannot hear him. The reason people have disabilities is a sinful world. There is nothing to be happy about lest we ray that God open our ears. Pray for me, a sinner.

  2. Well said.
    You have more company than most realize.
    Many people never marry, some, like me, are abandoned. Everyone knows someone who is struggling with a disability that may last. Mine will last my whole life and I’m living a celibate life like you are, but solo.
    Unusual? I don’t think so.
    What’s unusual is talking about it. More should be written about old and younger people living in solitude with disabilities in the spiritual life.
    I was raised by a disabled mother…a Christian who taught me much about suffering with grace. Some of my grandchildren (5 adopted boys) have disabilities.
    I can see God in my circumstance.
    Forgive me a sinner.

  3. The gift of silence is a worthy one, but that does not mean there is any good in disability. To be disabled is to be human. YOu are no different from any of us because we are all disabled. We learn this on the Sunday of the Blind Man. You are a visible example to the world of the suffering it brings when we have deafened ears to hearing Christ. Pray for me, a sinner.

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