Several years ago I discovered that I have a really weird allergy – I’m allergic to scents. Things like perfume, lotion, hand sanitizer, and even dryer sheets can really put me over the edge. Within minutes, I get an arc around the right side of my face and begin seeing double. Then comes the throbbing pain and nausea. If I catch it right away and get to fresh air as soon as possible, I can sometimes prevent it from turning into a full-blown migraine. But if not, it usually knocks me out for the whole day, relegated to a dark room with a cold towel on my head. It’s not life threatening, but it’s certainly no fun either. Not the way most of us would want to spend the day.
Yet as horrible as they are, I’ve decided to be thankful for migraines. Earlier this summer, something happened that’s helped me put them into perspective. My husband and I were on our way back from a wedding and were waiting at the airport for our flight. I suddenly noticed this weird smell, almost like burning plastic. I wasn’t sure if there was construction going on or what, but I knew that if I didn’t get away from the smell pretty quick, I was a goner. The problem was, I was sitting at the gate waiting to board. Where could I go? In my desperation, I began to pray. “Lord, please help this smell go away. Please help me not get a migraine right now!”
Then out of nowhere, this thought suddenly popped into my head: Your migraines are protecting you from something greater. It was nothing audible, just a thought. But it was enough to make me stop and think. What could migraines be protecting me from? How could an excruciating, nausea-inducing headache possibly be a good thing? Then it became clear. So many products on the market these days contain chemicals known to be harmful to the human body, some even causing cancer. Since my migraines are triggered by scents in the environment, I try to avoid anything that might bring one on. In this way, my body is protecting me from potentially deadly chemicals. Perhaps getting migraines isn’t such a bad thing after all.
I’m amazed at the body’s instinctive ability to heal and protect itself. This is part of God’s plan, the extraordinary way He created us. For instance, we may complain about a cough that just won’t go away, but the coughing reflex is simply doing its job: trying to clear mucous out of the lungs so that pneumonia doesn’t set in. So while we may be annoyed or put out with such afflictions, they may in fact be protecting us from something much greater – like pneumonia or cancer.
There are other ways that God works through our suffering, too. I have a friend who has chronic back pain from a car accident she was in several years ago. When her pain level is high, she sometimes can’t work or has to sleep for long hours at a stretch. I always felt sorry for her – the injustice of her accident and how adversely it’s affected her life. Yet she shared with me that it’s made her slow down and spend more time with her family. She said she appreciates when she feels good and never ‘wastes’ those moments. How many of us can say the same? Do we truly appreciate our health, or do we sometimes take it for granted?
Illness also helps us to see what’s really important and teaches us detachment. When I’m sick, I’m certainly not worried about how I look or whether my house is clean. It just doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I imagine we’ve all had those moments when we’ve felt really miserable and thought, “Just take me now, Lord…” Though a bad cold or the stomach flu probably won’t kill you, sometimes we wish it would!
Sickness and suffering help us to look beyond our mere day-to-day existence to the bigger picture. We begin to detach not only from things that aren’t good for us (like focusing too much on appearances or what people think), but from all that is a part of this life. The Catechism puts it best: “Sometimes a person has to become sick in order to recognize what we all – healthy or sick – need more than anything else: God. We have no life except in him. That is why sick people and sinners can have a special instinct for the essential things.”1
I wish I could say I’ve got this whole suffering thing all figured out, but I don’t. I do know that the Lord is slowly bringing me along, helping me to see His hand at work and to accept whatever crosses come my way. While I may not be doing the happy dance when I feel a migraine coming on, I’ve learned to accept it and trust that God has a plan. It is only by His grace that this is possible – I can’t do it on my own. If we place our trust in the Lord, I am confident that He will bring something good from illness and from every kind of suffering. A much greater loss would be to lose our faith, to blame God and separate ourselves from His love. He alone is the source of our hope.
– Kelley Holy
1 Youcat (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church), 241.