Grateful Sufferers

This morning I went to the hospital to visit a young man named Justin who was nearly killed in a car accident. He has damage to his brain, all four limbs, and several internal organs. He has spent almost a year in the hospital. Last week, miraculously, he took his first assisted steps since the accident.  

While I was in his room, two nurses arrived to move him from his wheelchair to his bed. They slipped him into a giant nylon sling and connected it to a hoist in the ceiling. Watching him swing from that contraption, all I could see of Justin was his injury-addled face peering over two casted ankles.  

Justin is not yet 30 years old. He has a wife and two children. I first heard about his condition when I met his family at the visitor welcome desk at our church. The first thing his five-year-old son said to me was, “Daddy’s getting better.”  

There’s enough heartache in Justin’s story to last a lifetime. He will probably never go hiking with his son. He won’t get to bounce his daughter on his knee. Because of the damage to his brain, speech is difficult. He has lost a level of human connection that communication brings. And his young family will struggle to process those losses for the rest of their lives.  

This morning when I walked into his hospital room, I asked him, “How you doing today?” And the first thing he said to me was. “I’m blessed.” 

I almost laughed. That phrase has been so abused that I have a hard time hearing it as anything but a punchline. But Justin wasn’t joking. Next he said, “I could be dead. I’m blessed to be alive.”  

Watching Justin hang helplessly from a sling above a hospital bed, I would not have thought to call him blessed. Talking with his weeping wife and preschool children, I didn’t start to count his blessings. But Justin did.  

Justin isn’t the first grateful sufferer I’ve met. This week, a couple sat in my office and expressed tear-stained gratitude for the hardship in their marriage. This spring, I got to interview a man in our church who has endured more physical pain than most of us ever will. Throughout the interview, he never stopped smiling.  

Why is it that blessing is most easily recognized by those who have so little of it? Gratitude seems to grow in the most pain-choked soil. Somehow, the human heart connects two things that logic sets at opposing poles. Trouble and thankfulness arrive together. Affliction and gratitude are running buddies.  

I don’t envy Justin’s suffering. And neither he nor God expects me to; Christianity isn’t masochism. But I’ve known enough of his breed — the grateful sufferers — to know this: hurts and hospitals aren’t barriers to deeper life. They are doorways to it.