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Grateful for the Suffering

Yesterday evening after enjoying a walk around our neighborhood, I posted several pictures to my Instagram story and ended with this picture of my lawn:

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My wife saw this and snarkily replied back to me, “What if there are dead spots?”

She’s poking fun at the fact that our lawn looks like total crap right now, and it’s 100% my fault. The particular shot above is actually one of the better pictures. What had happened is that we had a bad dandelion problem, so I tried killing the weeds with some Round Up solution. After two days of no noticeable difference, my not-so-bright self did another application of Round Up… and that was not a smart idea. Turns out the first application WAS working as evidenced the following day, and with a second application, there was an exponential effect that left my lawn looking the sad state that it is in today.

(Sorry for the eyesore, neighbors.)

Still, my wife’s joking remark got me thinking about how true my caption remains despite this fact.

First, let’s talk about what it means for something to be considered holy. I think we have an over-glorified image around that word. The etymology of that word comes from the Hebrew language as “Q-D-S” or qados, or as we simply refer to it in the English language now, “Kadosh.” Where we traditionally associate the word “holy” as being reserved for religious symbols, kadosh more accurately translates to “to set apart.” So it’s not crazy to think that “holy” has since been co-opted for religious iconography because religious communities set apart holy relics or locations as things that have “greater meaning” than the run-of-the-mill whatever.

The question many people like me in the modern age have asked is, what does it really mean for something to even be holy? What makes the soil of Israel any more special than the soil of Illinois? If I were to take a shovel full of soil from Israel and dump it in my backyard, does it make my lawn holy? Or does it lose its holiness altogether?

It’s sort of a silly question when you frame it that way. There’s nothing about the molecules and atoms in a holy object or location that imbue it with anything more special than what you can find in the dirty tile floor at your local Burger King. The thingness of a something “holy” is the same as the non-holy.

Still, people like me still appreciate the value in the word because of the significance it’s taken on over time. Except we view it differently. Because we tend to revere holy objects higher than regular objects, we choose to see everything as holy to draw the significance out of the seemingly mundane. Every action has significance, and everything can teach you something.

So back to the picture of my lawn above and my wife’s question: “What if there are dead spots?” Does holiness only point toward something that is good? Are those dead spots in my lawn something to be discarded as non-holy? And what are the bigger implications for life’s suffering in general?

In a recent interview with Lewis Howes, comedian Pete Holmes went to use the colorful analogy of smacking open a piñata. Hitting a piñata and seeing all the candy spilling out is a wonderful feeling. (Random aside: My mom got a piñata for my sister’s 40th birthday recently, and my sisters and I went nuts when we smacked it open to find it filled with dollar bills. I’m precocious!) But what do you learn from hitting a piñata? Can you really live a fulfilling life just smacking piñatas your whole life?

Go talk to anybody, and I doubt they will tell you their most formative experiences came from partying with friends, winning the lottery, or getting a promotion at work. Those things are all nice, but when it comes to the nitty gritty of the things that transform you as a person, you’re likely to get a story about a tough break up, loss of job, or death of a close friend.

Suffering is the vehicle that gets us to the place of true transformation for the better.

That is 100% true for me. Things like the death of my sister, loneliness in the church, and struggles in my early career have shaped me to be who I am today. Spiritual teacher Ram Dass talks this way about the stroke he had in 1997 that left him very dependent on others for his needs. He beautifully remarks, “I do not wish on you the pain of the stroke. What I wish for you is the grace from the stroke.”

As Ram Dass also says, “It’s all grist for the mill.”

When you adopt this mindset, everything starts to look differently. It doesn’t diminish the pain of your suffering, but it shows you that you can make peace with the suffering by understanding how it may transform you in the future. As Pete Holmes would put it, it’s “hindsight” in the present. We all have stories of events that were miserable at that time that we can now laugh about today. Stories of getting a flat tire or getting caught in a downpour. And you never want to go back to changing that tire, but you are grateful it happened because of the story and personal growth it became later.

(By the way… this is NOT something you should go tell your friends while they are in the middle of suffering. It’s hard to learn this in the midst of it all, so instead, simply be there for them as a friend. Buy them one of those new Brownie Dough Blizzards from Dairy Queen. My gosh… those things are good.)

Take it from a lifelong pessimist, life is so much better when you can start living through the bad times with gratitude at the forefront of your mind. Just as with my lawn, I am not happy that it is full of brown dead spots, but I am grateful that I was able to leverage it as a tangible example for this post.

So to my wife, yes, those dead spots are holy. Dare I say, they may be more holy than the green grass in the rest of the picture. They are reminder that we still have hope even in the dark times. One day, those spots will be filled in with new grass, perhaps even greener than the grass before.

They are holy because they carry us to something beautiful on the other side.

May you experience the grace that comes amidst the suffering.

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