How Do You Do That Every Day?
A Reflection on the Mixed Bag of Life
As a counsellor I sit with people in pain. Daily my clients and I get to be honest about their experience of suffering. Before there are any directions or advice or ‘techniques’ there is an acknowledgement of what, for lack of a better word, sucks: Loss, depression, separation, anxiety, disordered behaviours, adverse childhood experiences, disappointments, whatever just sucks.
“How do you do that every day?” is probably one the top five questions I am asked when people find out I am counsellor. And that is a good question. I am not really sure. As I have said before, my hope in writing is not to tell you how to live your life. So this will not be an article about how to sit in pain. “How do you do that?” irks me a little. Because what I really want to say, a slightly sassy retort, not appropriate at parties, is, “How do you not?”
Pain and suffering, negative experiences, no matter how minor or severe are part of the “air we breath.” Literally, we could look at pollution or the smoke that plagued much of the North and West this summer due to wildfires. Metaphorically, this illustrates the inescapable existential reality of suffering we all experience.
I tell my clients, “If today was delivered as a package to your front door, and you open it, it would hold good and bad things.” On one hand, I say this to quiet anxiety and fear that the package would be all bad. But on the other, it is also to set us free from trying to avoid pain and suffering, because it is just going to happen. Today, and everyday, is a mixed bag.
This might border on sounding Nihilistic. But it is grounded, a reality that even the Bible confirms. The proverbs, prophets, and Jesus all agree—you will see trouble, experience hardship, and then die.
“Woah, Julia—so dark.”
Yes. Yes it is.
This may be Advent pulling on me, a message to those in the dark waiting. As Henri Nouwen prayed, “We are walking in the dark, seeking the light.”
We are walking in the dark.
This is a strange contrast when every store I enter has festive decorations, holiday music, candy and 10-foot blow-up Santas smiling down on me. It is confounding in my body. I feel the pain of life and existence but the saccharine sweet messaging around me shouts, “Happy Holidays!”
“I am not on holiday? I am picking up a frozen pizza because I forgot to order groceries and I was at work all day (holding space for others suffering) and I am just hoping we can have some peace at home tonight before the chaos repeats tomorrow” is what I think to myself, as I roll my eyes.
I feel like walking in the dark gets a consumerism bypass: “Buy this and be happy, Gorge on candy and feel the sugar high, Do all the things and ignore all the stress while trying to connect with all the people.” It contradictorily acknowledges we may not be feeling very happy or merry by making commands for jovialness in flashing neon lights.
What an odd world we live in.
I think this is why I actually really, really love Advent. It is a time to acknowledge we are in darkness waiting for light. If I had a magic wand, all the Christmas festiveness would have to wait until December 25th – January 6th (the church calendar’s twelve days of Christmas). I need someone to be honest with me about the suffering without pushing me past it into a forced joy.
Advent is invitational in that way. As is counselling. As is Jesus.
Jesus did not drop down in the middle of a Christmas themed Target store. He came after years and years of waiting, silence from God, to a people crying out for light. If you ever need to vibe with a people who feel the dark and cry out for light, it is the Israelites.
Jesus did not drop down in the middle of a Christmas themed Target store. He came after years and years of waiting, silence from God, to a people crying out for light.
We sit in pain. Stutz, a great documentary on Netflix, tells us suffering is part of life. “Pain, uncertainty and continual work” or toil as I call it, are a guarantee. It kind of reminds me of the bumper sticker “Shit happens.” Another expression I like a lot is based on the biblical narrative: Cursed!
Doesn’t it just feel like a curse some days?
I can be walking around the shops all covered in kitschy plastic to look cheery and the cynic comes out in me. Bah Humbug. The part of me that resonates and even empathizes with the Grinch and Scrooge. The bad guys seem to be under a curse. And somedays I feel it too: life under a curse.
It makes me realize, “Oh yeah. I kind of forgot that part of the earth’s story! That actually lines up with all this pain and suffering. The curse.”
Now I do want quickly touch on common grace. Common grace describes the good things all human beings experience as part of God’s love for his creation—life, breathe, joy, laughter, connection, creativity, beauty, love, you can add a few of your favourites here. God kept the good things of Eden going, but they are tainted by the fall and the curse. A shadow and darkness crept over and in all the good.
Being under a curse does not mean everything is bad. Remember today’s package? A mixed bag of good and bad. Eden was all good. The fall and the curse brought sin and death on top of that good, resulting strangely in a mix of common grace and suffering.
We still live under a curse. And that is the life that Jesus was born into as well. Bethlehem, a little village under foreign oppressive power, people struggling to pay burdensome taxes, forced to gather so the conquering ones can count them, their spoil. Stretched thin, Mary and Joseph would be too poor for medical care, and don’t even think about a hotel stay.
In this cursed world, Mary sits waiting. Promises of good spoken, but not yet realized. She is the picture of Kingdom theology, the “already, not yet”. A baby kicking in her belly, but still to emerge. Present but absent.
This is the picture that holds my sanity. Advent. Living in the brokenness, the fall, a curse, but feeling inside a heavenly reality tangible and yet not fulfilled. A deep seated ancient knowledge of Eden, knowing what I was made for is a good garden, but walking through climate crisis, worldwide food shortages, and plagues. A spirit aware of heaven and hoping for life unmarred by death, but walking with those who grieve. Mary holds this special knowledge, treasures it in her heart, feels it in her body, but lives under the same curse.
This is the scene that Jesus, our God, becomes Emmanuel, God with us. A heavenly light breaks through the dark. “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” And so it begins. Christmas, a taste of what is to come.
Today, I hold a promise. “This too shall pass.” I am treasuring it in my heart. The promise that the curse of sin, suffering and death will end, overpowered by Christ’s eternal good reign. So, this Advent, as the beloved disciple leads, I wait and pray, “Come Lord Jesus, come.” And at Christmas, let us sing:
“He comes to make His blessings flow,
Far as the curse is found.”