Elective Unpleasantness

November 30, 2019

Feast of Saint Andrew, Apostle

I’m not in the business of comparing hardships. I know my pain is not special and I can usually remember that my suffering is likely no greater than anybody else’s, if not much less. Regardless, adversity promises each of us a lifetime guarantee, even if it sometimes takes clever new forms.

Troubles choose us and change us. Some pain withers fruit on the vine. Some turns pups into junkyard dogs. There is also the pain that makes iron into steel or that plows the fields to allow new life to grow in the broken earth. Hardship teaches us how to love or how to hate, how to live or how to die. We each have our own unique array of gifts and limitations that guide our responses to each particular unpleasantness.

Sometimes it is exactly the most minor nuisance that demands particular attention. After all, my cross to carry might be given to me one splinter at a time. Why wait to shine in a moment of grand martyrdom? There may be many instances beckoning me to listen when I would rather speak or to withhold judgment in favor of mercy.

I was recently at brunch when a friend knocked over a glass, spilling water all over me. By popular sentiment, I was the best person to have been doused in this way simply because I was able to immediately laugh it off without the least bother nor agitation. For me, this incident clearly did not reach the level of actual hardship, but I was able to turn my good handling of a small nuisance into a gift for those around me. There are other situations in which I would have been less graceful.

No less important than the unpleasantness that chooses us though is that which we choose. On my flight home for Thanksgiving, I was seated in an aisle seat next to a highly unpleasant individual. In brief, this passenger was an offensive chatterbox who I thought paid excessive attention to the child sitting next to him. It would have been difficult to sleep, but easy to feign sleeping to avoid involvement. At a certain point however, I felt it prudent to discreetly intervene in order to help the child move to an empty seat elsewhere on the vessel. This left me as the only available conversation partner for the motormouth at my elbow. Although the flight crew offered to move me as well, I chose to remain in my seat—it was unclear whether this passenger was a harmless misfit in need of a listening ear or somebody who was actually bad news. Either way, I felt by staying in my aisle seat I could both buffer the rest of the plain from him and take mental notes from all he divulged in case anything merited police attention. Some of the flight crew expressed both appreciation for me intervening on behalf of the child as well as amazement that I could tolerate the man’s non-stop rambling for several hours. This was in a sense trouble that I chose, but it was also trouble that was easier for me to choose than it might have been for somebody else. I can act. I can wait. I can listen.

Perhaps one of the great questions of self-discovery is, “What can I endure?” As I learn what kinds of patience or discipline I have in what conditions, I develop a better sense of where I can be helpful and where I might be unhelpful. I know that when I am feeling well, I can keep conversation for an afternoon with a delusional schizophrenic or a senior in the grips of dementia. I also know that I probably don’t have it in me to live with either population, and that I am not going to be the best one to provide bed-side support to somebody no longer able to talk. I think I’m decent with kids for a while, but eventually need a break from them.

Thank God there are many people who can choose and manage the troubles for which I am ill-equipped. Thank God for those who help me to recognize the service I provide when I take on situations that would be greater trouble for them.


The suffering we choose for the sake of others makes a difference. This week’s ear candy, ‘I’ll Stand by You’ illustrates that point in both the lyrics and video; may those who accompany others through difficulty find their own support as well. The ‘brain food’ this week is an article profiling Chiz’s Heart Street in Kingston, NY. The work and presence of Mary Chisholm in this place has impacted not only those she serves but also the volunteers she has welcomed into her house for years, including many Marists. She does with difficulty what most of us could not do at all.

Ear Candy: “I’ll Stand by You” by the Pretenders

Brain Food: “Thanksgiving, When You’ve Got Nowhere Else to Go” by Amelia Nierenberg

Come back next Saturday for a new post!