Catch, transfer, cut, return. As I genotype my 96th mutant zebrafish of the day, I barely even think of the protocol. After evading the net for far too long, the fish has the audacity to jump onto the table. I rush to catch the frantically flopping fish before it leaps onto the contaminated floor. I dump the fish into a beaker with anesthesia, only for it to wake midway through my collection of a tail sample. I scramble to finish in order to avoid another game of “catch the flailing fish.” Having placed the fish in its new tank, I yank off my grimy, wet gloves and finally stumble out of the toasty, pungent tank room, ironically dehydrated and stifling a yawn. I prepare the samples and start the next phase of the procedure before retiring to my dorm room, a little after midnight. “Oceans” by Hillsong United plays in the background as I try to convince myself of the fruitfulness of my suffering. Deciding my happiness insignificant when compared to the possible good from the research, I fell asleep, only for the nightmare to begin again when I woke.
Fast-forward eight months, and the same girl that convinced herself of the necessity and goodness of her suffering could be found bawling in the shower, desperately wanting to commit suicide.
I entered Harvard determined to pursue medical research, and an opportunity to work with zebrafish to determine the genes involved in schizophrenia presented itself. What a wonderful chance to contribute to important research that could help thousands of people, I thought. I quickly learned I would need to spend extensive time in the lab, and worse, I absolutely abhorred all of the tasks of the project, from mating zebrafish to preparing them for microscopy. Readings and friends were quickly pushed aside, and almost all of my energy became devoted to tasks I hated. Sleep-deprived, exhausted, and extremely unhappy, I persuaded myself that my work was important, that I had to do it, that my happiness didn’t matter, and that God wanted me on this project. Suffering was hard, but it was vital. Scripture said so.
I tried my best to make lab experience into a holy one: I listed to worship music while working, I prayed throughout the day, and I read more scripture than ever before. Slowly but surely however, my sources of comfort incited bitterness, and few days passed without tears or shouts at God. I eventually left the lab and joined another, but unfortunately, this position required even more time in the lab and was even more stressful. I couldn’t have been more miserable, and the need for an escape became more and more dire. I was stuck, stuck in a dreadful life because I believed that it had to be so.
My misconception of Christian suffering caused severe damage to my mental health and propelled me towards the darkest path. I used Christianity to justify my mistreatment of myself, believing that to be faithful, I must be unhappy.
While medication certainly had an important role in my recovery, a reexamination of my understanding of Christianity and suffering was also vital. Unsurprising to everyone except myself, God didn’t choose all of that suffering for me: I did. Christian suffering is not meant to be choosing which crosses one should bear. It is not forcing yourself to be unhappy for the sake of others. It is not a personal choice. I took God’s role, choosing how I suffered, for what, and for how long. I overestimated my own importance, inflating and worshipping the value of my work. How could I expect to have a holy experience when I was committing idolatry to do so?
Now that I know my experiences bear more similarity to emotional self-harm than Christian suffering, I’ve been left to discover the true meaning of suffering. I’ve found John Piper’s conception to be rather useful:
“Suffering is nothing more than the taking away of bad things or good things that the world offers for our enjoyment — reputation, esteem among peers, job, money, spouse, sexual life, children, friends, health, strength, sight, hearing, success, etc.”
While my previous experience of suffering involved adding something that caused suffering to my life, Piper’s definition leaves suffering in the control of God, as it rightfully should be. Suffering can be a hard but beautiful experience that causes you to reevaluate what’s important and to rely only on God, but suffering can also be self-inflicted and harmful to one’s mental health. Perhaps the best way to distinguish between the two is in scripture:
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
(1 Corinthians 13:3)
Elizabeth Hubbard ’18 is a Junior in Lowell House studying Human Developmental & Regenerative Biology.