Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Well, this is one of the most inspiring things I’ve read in a long time—maybe ever. Jon Morrow, an editor at the crazy-popular site Copyblogger, tells the story of how he left his job after getting in a catastrophic car accident, learned to make a ton of money doing something he loves, and now lives a resort lifestyle on a beach in Mexico (he notes watching dolphins jumping in the ocean as he drafted the post). And then, toward the end of the post, he says, Oh, by the way, I can’t move from the neck down because I have the fatal disease Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
Morrow has another must-read post about the moment his mother got the devastating diagnosis, the doctor suggesting that her son probably wouldn’t live past age two, and her subsequent determination to give him the best life possible. Not only has Morrow lived longer than anyone expected, but he’s gone on to be so successful that he’s able to support himself, both of his parents and a staff of nurses at his sweet pad in Mexico.
One of the things that struck me about him and his amazing mother is their hopefulness. In the face of a devastating medical diagnosis, they refused to let fear hold them back—in particular, they seem to have rejected a fear of suffering.
This is no easy thing to do. It seems to be deeply ingrained in human nature to feel more certain about potential suffering than potential blessings. We tend to feel absolutely confident that the things we worry about will come to pass, but see the things we hope for as unlikely possibilities. I noticed this phenomenon in myself just last night: I was up and down with the baby all night, and after about the fourth time I woke up I came to the conclusion that today was going to be a horrible day. I used my SESP (Suffering Extrasensory Perception) to know with certainty that I would be too tired to deal with anything, the house would get trashed, the kids’ behavior would be terrible, and we’d all be miserable. It briefly occurred to me that maybe some good things could happen as well, but I quickly dismissed those thoughts as naive fantasies. As it’s turned out, the day is not that bad. Some of the bad things I predicted have happened, but so have dozens of little blessings that I hadn’t counted on.
This sense that we have Suffering ESP that allows us to divine exactly how horrible the future is going to be might not be a big deal in the little struggles of daily life, but it gets dangerous when we allow it to guide our major life decisions—especially here in the modern world, where suffering is seen as the worst evil. I keep thinking of this article by a mother who chronicles her heartbreaking decision to abort her son who was diagnosed with spina bifida. The choice was fueled largely by the vivid image she’d conjured up about just how terrible his life would be:
I pictured him watching from the sofa, frustrated and immobile, as his sisters turned cartwheels and somersaults in the living room. I envisaged trips to the park, where he would sit on the sidelines as other children clambered over climbing frames and kicked footballs ... I tried to shake away the image I conjured in my head of a little boy, lonely and friendless, robbed of the most basic human functions. The prospect of watching a child I’d love just as much as his sisters suffer in this way made me howl. I hugged my stomach, as if I could in some way shield him from the misery that lay ahead. [...]
When my older sister, Marie, a nurse who has cared for sick children, told me I should spare us all the suffering and have a termination, I was still shocked. And angry ... Yet when I look back now, I am grateful for my sister’s words. They gave me permission, somehow, to consider termination.
She’s not alone in her thinking. People I know who’ve received poor prenatal diagnoses unanimously report pressure to end their pregnancies, largely based on their doctors’ sense of certainty about the suffering that awaits them. A friend whose son was diagnosed with spina bifida in the womb says her obstetrician encouraged her no fewer than 10 times to have an abortion, assuring her of just how difficult both her and her son’s lives would be as if he were seeing it in a crystal ball. Things have been hard since his birth, in some ways harder than she had imagined; but she could have never imagined the joy and love that her smart, cheerful little son would bring into her life and into the lives of everyone he meets. This family who recently shared their story of receiving a devastating prenatal diagnosis reported a similar experience: Their daughter’s presence in their lives is more of a blessing than they could have imagined when they first received the news about her condition.
Our unspoken belief in Suffering ESP combined with our culture’s great fear of suffering not only holds us back in the little moments of daily life, but it has undoubtedly been responsible for countless abortions, suicides, and cases of euthanasia. It makes us fear suffering more than we need to, and tempts us to choose even death to avoid it. Our society would do well to take a cue from Jon Morrow and his amazing mother, and think more about the potential for good than the potential for misery. Anyone who heard of Morrow’s diagnosis when he was a young child would surely have been tempted to imagine a future for him filled with non-stop difficulty and little joy; yet the way his life has actually turned out is a triumphant testimony to the wonderful things that can happen when we make decisions based on hope instead of fear.