"The word 'suffering' is much too grand to apply to most of our troubles, but if we don't learn to refer the little things to God how shall we learn to refer the big ones? A definition which covers all sorts of trouble, great or small, is this: having what you don't want, or wanting what you don't have." ~Elisabeth Elliott
It started with dizziness. I was at the stove, that daily companion of moms everywhere, chopping something or other when a light wave of unsteadiness washed over me. Weird, I thought. It passed, and I carried on. I made appointments a day or two later as the little dizziness episodes recurred - urgent care for a blood draw, my naturopath, my primary care doc. By then I was dealing with fatigue too, unusual for me, and some ringing in one ear. Anemia, I thought, or maybe something's off with my thyroid. I felt rough - lying on the couch in the afternoons, slumpy - but no fever or rash, and not even a sniffle or cough. Something mild, I wagered.
Blood results were normal; I got on some supplements and figured I'd even out before long. There was a couple-week wait before I could get into the ENT, which my primary care had advised. By the time the appointment came, my symptoms were all gone (hallelujah!) except the ringing in my left ear. It was louder and ever-present. In fact, this tinnitus was a complete nuisance. I took a hearing test, took steroids for 10 days, went in for an MRI. Then I and my ringing ear went back to see the gentle, red-haired ear doctor - about my age - with the bow tie.
The MRI came back normal, he said; the steroids had done nothing. "You have sensineural hearing loss; it's moderate in the high ranges," the doctor told me. "Your nerves have been damaged, probably by some kind of virus but there's no way to know for sure. There's nothing we can do for this kind of hearing loss. Your ear's ringing because your brain's creating its own sound as a substitute for what it's not hearing anymore." Then: "But I think a hearing aid would probably help your tinnitus."
Wait, what? This is permanent? And -- a hearing aid? It was hard to take in. I'd turned 40 two weeks before the dizziness spells started. Early onset hearing loss was nowhere in the picture when I'd blown out the candles on my fourth decade of life.
But our move to Crete was getting closer by the day, and the timing of My Ear Situation pressed a bit. I wasted no time in calling insurance, figuring out hearing aid coverage, booking the fitting appointment. And my aggravating ear - a tape recorder playing tinny feedback, the one cassettes used to play when the music was done but a little tape was left - rang on, ever louder as the day wore on. And now the ear felt kind of asleep too, almost pins-and-needles. If a hearing aid could right the thing, I figured, then onward.
The afternoon I sat with the sweet hearing aid specialist, a woman younger than me with the kindest demeanor you could ask for, I felt the realness. "So if it helps me, then I'll wear a hearing aid for the rest of my life?" I asked her. The tears welled a bit, unexpected and unbidden. "Yes," she said. So this is my gimp ear then, I thought. For life.
It's been three weeks, and the aid does help. It reduces the weird, numb-ish feeling of my ear by about half, and it makes my tinnitus about 30% better. (Assessment sound pretty exact? What can I say... that's how we relentlessly evaluative types roll.) A hearing aid brings my symptoms, more or less, to manageable. And that's certainly something. I'm grateful.
But it's not everything. It's not, for example, going back to early February when my ear worked fine. It's not a normal ear. It's not the bliss of silence, when no sound's present. It's not a day without working to ignore an irritant that's pretty darn irritating. And truth be told, that's what I'd really like: to go back to my pre-February ear. That's the pure, boiled-down essence of regret, isn't it? I want it back. But I don't get that option.
The situation could be a thousand times worse, of course. For many whom I know and love, the situation is worse - in some cases it's way worse. Forever I tell my kids when they cry "unfair!" (37 times a day on average) that they must view their lots alongside those less fortunate than theirs, not just alongside those that in the moment seem more fortunate. Because isn't this what we humans do, by default? Feel self-pity. See ourselves as the unfortunate ones, with no regard for the contrary evidence. Lament our pale grass alongside our neighbor's deep green. Whereas the truth, the one I walk my kids through, is that we're so rich in blessings we can't even hold them all; we're receivers of grace upon grace. And more: the hard things are the ones that ultimately grow us most and bring us closest to the God who himself came to be suffering servant. And they're the things he often uses in surprising ways to bring light into the world.
Even so. It's no good trying to talk oneself quickly out of discouragement over a genuine loss, no matter that greater losses abound. The real question is: how will I respond to unexpected trouble? What will I do when a real difficulty, one I didn't see coming and turns out to be permanent, knocks at my door? First up's gotta be, I think, a reckoning of the trouble, a willingness to take stock and let the emotions come out and show themselves. This is where the psalmist's words, the writer of Lamentations, the sighers of humanity - they train us. They remind that God isn't surprised by the dismay we feel when we encounter life's troubles; he doesn't condemn us for it. In fact, he's right there alongside us in all of it - the discovery of the issue, the struggle and emotions that accompany adjustment, the growth that eventually comes as surrender unfolds.
Elisabeth Elliott's words have always calmed me, the plain acknowledgement of base-level suffering. It's a healthy starting point for referring things to God: I have what I don't want, and I want what I don't have. For me: I have a gimp ear. We'll start there.