One of the most pernicious lies of the modern world is that life is supposed to be easy and comfortable. There is even a sense in which moderns believe they are entitled to this comfort and ease—that it is some sort of fundamental human right.
Many of us have absorbed this subtle thinking, even though we may not realize it. When trouble comes to us, when life is inconvenient or difficult, we are almost angry at the injustice of it. As if it were some sort of cosmic crime that violates that easy life we believe we should have. We complain and take God to task for upsetting our dreams, a very unkind thing to do.
The fact is, life isn’t always fair. Things aren’t always easy, nor were they meant to be. That doesn’t mean anyone in particular, least of all God, is to blame. Sometimes things just are what they are. And accepting that fact is the first step to real freedom.
Among an older, sturdier generation, there was a saying that could be heard frequently: “Life is hard and then you die.” At first glance, the saying sounds brutal and pessimistic, as if life is one long, miserable slog crowned with the blackness of the void. But looked at in another light, this saying strikes at a deeper truth: It is only when you accept life as it is that you can really live with joy.
People who lived before the advent of mechanized modernity were realists. Far from anticipating a life of air conditioned comfort, they expected that life would be hard, even painful. Making a living would unquestionably involve labor, sweat, and sacrifice. There would be sorrow along the way. Yet far from depressing them, this expectation freed them to enjoy the leisure and simple pleasures they did have more fully. When you expect things to be hard, you enjoy your ease the more.
The aim of modern, secular society has in many ways been one long quest to eradicate suffering. For in a world without God and without objective meaning, suffering cannot but be the greatest evil. Those of us who have grown up in this secularized world have been raised to believe we have a right to a pain-free, pleasure-maximized life. And if we ultimately cannot escape suffering due to illness or other causes, we can even go so far as to take our own life to avoid it.
Yet, paradoxically, it is the very expectation that life should be pain-free that causes us the greatest suffering. For pain in life is truly inevitable. It will visit in one form and to one degree or another. In the words of the ancient Salve Regina, we live in a “vale of tears.” Trials are inherent in a disordered, fallen world. The more we internally resist this unchangeable fact, the more anxiety and anger and bitterness the suffering we encounter causes us.
In life, the joy we experience is directly related to our frame of mind. “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing,” said G.K. Chesterton, “for he shall enjoy everything.” If we expect ease and comfort and endless pleasure, difficulties will be a rude and loathsome shock. But if we expect that life will include pain and even sorrow, we will not be surprised when it comes. We will rather endure it with patience, beseeching God’s mercy to persevere. We will also receive the gifts of joy and pleasure we do experience with all the humble wonder that comes with an unexpected and undeserved surprise, saying with full hearts, benedicamos Domino—let us bless the Lord!