Recently, I read this lovely tweet from Adam Waddell, a religious and freelance writer from Memphis, TN. Now, for me, the Psalms were never something special. Being Catholic, I only ever knew them as the responsorial hymn we sang in between our first and second Scripture readings at every Mass. But this tweet stuck out to me, and I was inspired to actually begin reading through all 150 Psalms in my Bible.
Let me tell you: that act itself is inspiring. As Adam put it on Twitter, “It will fundamentally rewire your mind and heart, and you will become a different kind of person.”
What I originally assumed was a series of praiseworthy poems about God was, in fact, a far more nuanced collection of thoughts wrestling with God, faith, and justice. For every verse like “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” (Ps. 23:1), there’s also a line like:
The wicked even boast of their greed; these robbers curse and scorn the Lord. In their insolence the wicked boast, “God doesn’t care, doesn’t even exist” (Ps. 10:3-4).
At the time of this writing, I haven’t even made it halfway through the Psalms, but I’m determined to keep going. They’re an inspiration for Christian prayer, and they’re a good source of comfort in hard times.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering. Not in any morbid way, although the recent mass shootings and rising economic hardships in America aren’t helping. But on a personal level, I’ve been thinking about the difference between pain and suffering. For a long time, even before I started going to therapy, I took a somewhat Buddhist view. Pain was inevitable; suffering was not. Pain was part of the sensation of being alive; suffering was the product of clinging to our desires and our fears. This appealed to the Christian in me. There was a difference between unavoidable pain, such as the agony Jesus endured for our sake on a cross, and the suffering we bring on ourselves, be it through sin or fear.
Now I wonder if there isn’t a third distinction to be considered: discomfort. For many of us (and I’m no stranger to it either), we have a terrible tendency to conflate our discomfort with pain, if not with outright suffering. We scream bloody murder about our tax dollars when only a small percentage goes toward, say, entitlement spending and welfare. We howl outrage when a pair of showrunners don’t give a popular TV series the finale we think it deserves. We see people go out of their way to verbally abuse or threaten someone for raising a different opinion, as any female, POC, or LGBTQ YouTuber could tell you.
Discomfort, I think, is something we have to decide on our own terms. Some things are objectively painful, such as chronic health issues or coping with mental illness. But some things are pebbles in the shoe that we can walk past, if not take the time to remove.
As I write this in early September, I am boiling at my home in Southern California thanks to a heatwave at the end of summer. But even as bad as the heat can be sometimes, I recognize that this is not sheer agony. I can endure this. Other people, such as senior citizens or athletes practicing outdoors, have different concerns with the heat, and I pray that the people around them are being mindful of their needs. But I also know that my discomfort at being hot and exhausted is a small thing compared to losing one’s child to a man armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. I know that my daily battles with anxiety and depression (now less severe than they used to be) are something I can manage, as opposed to the daily struggle of someone living paycheck to paycheck, having to choose between their healthcare and their rent.
For years, I was suffering without realizing it, being caught in the throes of chronic depression, social anxiety, and recurring suicidal thoughts. After losing my mom and seeking help with therapy, I have stepped out of my suffering and learned to manage my pain. Now, most days, I only experience discomfort with the occasional anxious spike.
Reading the Psalms has been a blessing for me. I find comfort, familiar doubts, and a way to praise God through them. I know that none of them can bring back a loved one or fix a person’s financial hardship, but I do know that they can be a light in the darkness to those who need them.
On that note, I’d like to conclude by sharing my favorite Psalm, specifically Ps. 119:57-64:
My portion is the Lord; I promise to keep your words.
I entreat you with all my heart; have mercy on me in accord with your promise.
I have examined my ways and turned my steps to your decrees.
I am prompt, I do not hesitate in keeping your commands.
Though the snares of the wicked surround me, your teaching I do not forget.
At midnight I rise to praise you because your edicts are just.
I am the friend of all who fear you, of all who keep your precepts.
The earth, Lord, is filled with your love; teach me your laws.