The painful, senseless crosses we bear still transform our lives

by Brian Harper

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"Take up your cross, and follow me." -- Matthew 16:24

Everyone has a cross to bear. It may be a disease, strained relationship, taxing job or lack of work at all. Some crosses are temporary, while others are here to stay.

We all carry our crosses differently, because we all have different crosses to carry. Some of us try to play down our troubles, smiling and lying to ourselves and others that everything is all right when it is not. Some of us spiral into a whirlwind of self-pity, bitterness, anger and even hatred of oneself and others.

I have seen myself edge toward both types of behavior, and while the former may seem like the preferable, less harmful approach, it is not particularly honest or healthy.

So what option does that leave? How do we hold our crosses with dignity while still acknowledging them for the burdens they are? How do we remain truthful when times are dark without letting darkness consume us?

For the past year and a half, my cross was a pill. I began taking a steroid called prednisone about a year and a half ago when I developed an infection in the membrane around my heart. Because the body can quickly become dependent on the drug, I have taken it since, gradually reducing my dosage so as not to have a relapse but occasionally increasing it when relapses did come.

Until now. For the first time since April 2013, I am prednisone free. It is an achievement I have fantasized about for a long time, because for a long time, the tiny white pills I took every morning encapsulated everything I resented in my life.

I hated how prednisone meant I could not run. I hated the way it made my cheeks puffy, how it made me profusely sweat, and the acne breakout that came with it. I hated how hard it made controlling my mood, and I hated it when my temper overtook me and I lashed out at a loved one. I hated how whiny I felt whenever I tried to tell someone how much I hated prednisone, and most of all, I hated that the condition it was treating had cut short my time as a volunteer in Peru.

Being well aware of how much I hated prednisone, I expected my first day without it to be right up there with marriage and childbirth. And it was a great day. I went for a run, caught a college basketball game and spent time with friends who made a surprise visit to celebrate with me.

What caught me off-guard was the strange way I felt about my pill container when I no longer needed to open it. Instead of the defiant, middle-finger-in-the-air sayonara I anticipated giving, the feeling was quieter, more solemn and complicated. It was not as though I was suddenly glad for the way the last 18 months played out. On the other hand, I could not imagine it having been any other way.

There is a wonderful moment in the film "Cast Away" when Tom Hanks' character is sailing away from the island that has been his prison for four years. As he drifts out to sea, he turns back for a last look. His face reveals a mixture of accomplishment and relief, but also melancholy and deep, multilayered feelings for what he is leaving behind. It is as though he is both overjoyed to escape and unsure of how he can live without the place that has been the source of so much pain but nevertheless his home.

There are countless clichés to encourage us through our trials or remind us that our greatest growth often comes during our most difficult moments. As trite as these observations may seem, my experience taught me that I do not need to like something to accept it, nor do I need to be happy about it to learn from it. Do I fondly look back on the last year and a half of my life? Rarely. Would I trade it? No. The lessons I learned -- compassion for people with more serious medical issues, not taking good health for granted, patience -- were unpleasant but indispensable.

When Jesus tells his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, he leaves some room to their imaginations as to how they should go about doing this. His example suggests neither grudging entrance into suffering nor starry-eyed, drippy maxims about everything being OK.

Rather, he shows it is possible to find significance in even the most seemingly senseless and painful hardships. This is true whether they are short-term, permanent, self-induced or beyond our control. Moreover, he reveals that in being both open about how challenging they are yet still willing to engage them, our crosses can take on new meaning and become sacred.

[Brian Harper is a writer, musician and community outreach coordinator for a small business. His work is available at]

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