So let’s say you order a pizza. You’re not a vegetarian, so you’ve gotten the one with the bacon. You’ve paid the pizza delivery man, opened the box, and it hits you: they’ve left off the bacon. Just completely omitted it, as if you didn’t make it abundantly clear when you placed your order. And, as if that isn’t enough, they’ve added insult to injury, and covered the pizza with green peppers that you didn’t even order. What’s going on? Didn’t they hear you? Did the pizza place do this on purpose to save money? That boy who took the order didn’t seem like he knew what he was doing, and here’s the proof! Should you send it back and wait another forty minutes? This is terrible! What are you supposed to do now – pick out each string of green pepper? The indignity! The outrage!
Is this an important moment? Or is it just ‘small stuff?’ We’re supposed to stay cool and collected and laugh it off as the trivial moment that it is. In the big picture, it’s nothing, so why are you so worked up about it?
I like what Chesterton says about “the little things.” When one character says, “I do not know that I would make away with courtesy, but only with all these small points of politeness, all these little things,” the hero of the story disagrees utterly:
JOHNSON: [interrupting with a roar]: Madam, that is all stuff. Reason will tell any one but a fool to attend to little things. The bullet that kills a man is a little thing. The pill that saves his life is a little thing. It is by his consciousness of little things that a man proves himself to be properly alive. He who is proud of being unaware of his surroundings, be he a sage of the east or the west, is proud of being a stock or a stone. A turnip is unaware of its surroundings.
— G.K. Chesterton, The Judgment of Dr. Johnston
I’m glad there are books and speakers who will encourage us to rise above occasions of frustration, but I differ in my characterizations of these tiny frustrations. I’d say they’re the opposite of ‘small stuff.’ They are big moments, because they’re moments of suffering, and that’s when the real battles happen.
Suffering is when you get what you didn’t want (green peppers), and you didn’t get what you did want (bacon).
Now I know that such a word seems out of place and melodramatic in this hypothetical (I like green pepper, though red pepper is better) context. To say you experience suffering when you didn’t get the right topping sounds, well, a bit much, but isn’t that what it is? Isn’t that the proper word for all those situations – big or small – where you were unexpectedly deprived of something which you wanted / expected / ‘deserved’ (I really dislike that word) / earned, and were instead given something else which you did not want / expect / deserve?
I don’t think it’s enough to call it a problem, a let-down, a disappointment, a bummer, a rip-off and so on, because those words are really external. They make it sound like the problem is solely ‘out there.’ You can envision a problem without a person, but when you hear the word ‘suffering’ you know that there has to be a sufferer. You can envision a crisis without a person, but you can’t think of a cross or a burden without visualizing a person under it.
These heavy-duty words, like ‘suffering,’ ‘mortification,’ ‘burden’ or even ‘cross’ show that the issue is both inside you (the way you wanted things to go) and outside you (the way things went). We suffer because they don’t match.
And these situations of suffering are tests. They are actually the battlegrounds where we show what we’re made of. You are tested to see how you react. Today I noticed how Matthew says that Christ “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” In other words, I see that it was someone good who led him to that place where he’d be tempted. It wasn’t a bad thing that he was going to be tempted; it was the whole point! A test is a test, no matter what disguise it wears. But usually they are pop-quizzes, a test in a moment and about something that you weren’t expecting. You can’t choose the type of test, the only thing you can control is how you perform now that you’re taking it. And are you ready? Are you able to stay pleasant and charitable? Can you keep your peace? I bet you probably can maintain your composure when you have friends with you and you don’t want to make a fool of yourself. And it helps if you’ve had enough sleep and you’re looking forward to a fun evening. But how about if it’s not friends, and ‘just’ family? How about if you’re super hungry, tired and still annoyed about what happened at work? You may not pass this test with flying colours.
But the word ‘suffering’ is useful. It’s a special word signifying a moment in our life where we’re in some turmoil. It would be a mistake to underestimate how important these situations are simply because the situation wouldn’t ruffle the feathers of an outsider. If you watch children get into an argument, you’ll see that it usually arises out of something which seems so unimportant to the adults in the room. For that matter, if you’re ever on the outside of any conflict, it seems like much ado about nothing. But to come along and say that it is unimportant because it should be unimportant is to altogether miss the human drama that is happening here.
Any situation which causes you to suffer is an important moment. It’s big stuff, because now you’re being tested.
The saints talk a lot about these moments, and how difficult they are. They understand what’s at stake, and so they use words like ‘battle,’ ‘struggle,’ ‘fight.’ And indeed it’s the most difficult battle of all, because we’ve met our match when we fight ourselves.
The saints are admirable because they fought themselves day in and day out for the sake of a higher purpose. They kept trying to do the better and more difficult thing; they kept trying to resist their impulse to complain, to criticize, to make that snarky remark, to be lazy – and they resisted these things over and over again. They are just like us, in that they have all the same urges and weaknesses and temptations. They are different from us because they tried so valiantly to be the better version of themselves. They were heroic in their moments of suffering. And they would totally understand how an objectively tiny thing can be the cause of a lot of suffering, requiring tremendous self-control. They’re human; they’ve had their pizza moments too.
St. Therese of Lisieux describes how she was in the process of putting away the keys when another sister wrongly tried to take them from her, on the grounds that Therese would be too noisy:
Then what we feared happened. The noise we made woke you and all the blame fell on me! The sister I had opposed hastened to make quite a speech, the gist of which was: ‘It was Sister Therese of the Child Jesus who made the noise.’ I burned to defend myself, but fortunately I had a bright idea. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that if I began to speak up for myself I should lose my peace of soul; I knew too that I was not virtuous enough to let myself be accused without saying a word, my only hope of safety was to run away. No sooner thought than done: I fled – but my heart beat so violently that I could not go far and I sat down on the stairs to enjoy in peace the fruits of my victory. It was undoubtedly a queer kind of courage, but I think it is better not to fight when defeat is certain.
— The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul, Chapter 9
Many people would say that Therese ‘lost’ because she didn’t contradict her accuser; she didn’t win the argument and then made a fool of herself by running away, kid-style. (As an aside, Chesterton points out in his biography of St. Francis of Assisi, “It is a curiosity of language that courage actually means running.”) St. Therese knows that she won a big victory in that little incident, and she mentions it for that reason.
I also liked this part:
. . . I see how far I am from being perfect. If, for example, I settle down to start painting and find the brushes in a mess, or a ruler or a penknife gone, I very nearly lose my patience and have to hold on to it with both hands to prevent my asking bad-temperedly for them.
(I like her description of ‘holding onto her patience with both hands.’) Every saint can sympathize with the natural feelings that rise up during things like the pizza topping fiasco. In one case, bacon is missing, in another, the penknife is missing. Both are instances of suffering, cases where we don’t get what we want, and suddenly unwanted emotions and thoughts rise up in us, and we have to regain control over ourselves in order to do the right thing. It’s very difficult, but I’ve seen it successfully done.
I remember one time I was watching DiscerningOne when she poked her head in the door to ask her husband for two cloths. She wanted them to wipe down and dry something in the back yard. But instead of giving her what she asked for, he told her that she didn’t in fact need what she thought she did. I could tell that she was trying not to lose her patience as it went back and forth a bit. But then she agreed to his plan B and gave him a smile. It wasn’t the best smile that a person could pull off, you can be sure. It was one of those my-mouth-is-stretched-but-my-eyes-aren’t-buying-into-this kind of smiles. But it was the best that she could do given how she felt, and that little victory of her better judgment over her natural response impressed me.
The point is that it’s not right to view things like the pizza disappointment as insignificant. Any moment where we experience suffering is a test of character. And any test of character is a big deal, a big moment. The saints call these tests battles, because that’s what they are. It doesn’t matter what it was that sent you onto this battlefield; the fact is that you’re here now, and you’ve got to do your best. Indeed, let’s get our game face on, because a battle is a battle, and it’s time to conquer ourselves.