If there’s one thing that my Catholic Elementary School education taught me, it was to look outside myself in all situations, but particularly when there’s suffering involved. Having gone to a small school, teachers sometimes got recycled into different grades, causing me to have one teacher both in 5th and 7th grade. This teacher had a very specific way of incorporating prayer into our class time. After recess, we would pray a decade of the Rosary and do some intercessory prayer. And every day, there were stock things that we’d pray for and then we could add our own. My teacher had us pray for our “family, friends, people in Purgatory and Ethiopia” every day. Having taught religious education, I now know that “family and friends” was an economical way of covering most of the things we kids might say, preventing the prayer time from going on and on aimlessly. She taught us that the people in Purgatory needed our prayers so they could have the strength to get to heaven, and the people of Ethiopia were starving and needed our prayers (and our loose change that could go into CRS rice bowls during Lent).
This was, in part, the beginning of my lesson in solidarity—the recognition that whatever I was going through at the time, someone else was having the same problem or worse. It taught me to look beyond my own troubles and to think of others and to reach out to them—even if the only way I could was in prayer (which I was taught is powerful). It was also the beginning of my lesson in gratitude—the ability to not get stuck on what I didn’t have, but to appreciate what I did have.
These have come very much in handy to combat any despair that I have been tempted to indulge in when things go wrong. Have you ever been without clean water? My well got all mucked up causing us to have no clean water for almost a month. Almost directly after we got it back, a hurricane knocked it out again for almost two weeks. The only thing that kept me from losing it was the knowledge that most people in the world don’t have clean water ever, and mine would come back. This helped me to be grateful for my situation and took me outside of it to pray for and help others, making their struggles more tangible for me.
When my kids are sick, rather than get discouraged, I’ve learned to be grateful that they have access to healthcare and to pray for the mothers and children throughout the world who have no hope of help. When I have financial difficulty, I’m grateful that my husband and I have employment and are able to get extra jobs when we need to, and am reminded to pray for those who are unemployed, underemployed or have no way of supporting their families.
This is a reminder to me that suffering can be useful and that even in suffering, it is our nature to look outside ourselves to find meaning in it. Of course, the first place to look is the cross, where suffering was defeated, then we look to those who have been where we are who can help us through it, and when we’re able, we look to those who can benefit from our experience so that we can help them. In fact, suffering is only unbearable when we allow ourselves to become isolated—isolation is the enemy’s tool—and the opposite of the opportunity that God offers us in our suffering—the opportunity to find deeper connection; in gratitude and solidarity.
The lesson my teacher gave me was lasting—it was a tool to battle despair and isolation, a tool to develop compassion and empathy, and a way of praying that flows naturally—I can’t engage in personal intercessory prayer without praying for, “our family, friends, people in purgatory and Ethiopia.”