I was born with a skin disorder which caused me both embarrassing scars and painful rashes. From an early age, I remember my mom offering words of comfort, saying this disorder was my “cross to bear.” Despite neither of us being Christian, this symbol of suffering had become part of our language through our Catholic school educations. I had a recent flair of the disorder and those words came back to me. My struggle is to see if they still have meaning and if that meaning is comforting.
Christianity was not always focused on the suffering of Jesus on the cross. In the book Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, a history of Christianity is traced with the thesis that the early church instead focused on the concept of paradise on earth, brought by the incarnation of god as Jesus. It wasn’t until Charlemagne brought his conquest to the European continent that the focus shifted to the suffering on the cross. This idea of suffering was used to keep the masses under control. They were made to feel like sinners, for whom Jesus had to suffer. And in his suffering, he could understand their suffering under the hands of a new ruling force. As Brock and Parker put it, “Previously, Christ’s incarnation revealed humanity’s likeness to God and restored humanity’s divine powers as first given in paradise. To be human was to become divine. Now, Christ’s incarnation revealed humanity’s mortality and powerlessness and its brokenness and suffering. To be human was to suffer and die” (pg. 237).
So, in a way, the saying makes sense in my situation. My disorder, though not a fatal one, is a reminder of the fragility of my health. And it is that fragility that will, one way or another, lead to my death. But is this comforting? First off, I don’t see Jesus as a god nor do I believe in god at all, so the extrapolation that some deity out there understands my suffering is not a consolation. Secondly, the historical use of identifying with the cross makes me uncomfortable. It was used to manipulate a suffering people, to make them feel that they deserved the life that had been created for them by Charlemagne. Then the people transformed it into a comforting symbol, giving them solace in god’s understanding and the implied empathy that goes with it. Even so, it was a rationalization (if one can call this thought process rational) to deal with a situation that they had no control over.
Again, this makes sense in the context of how my mother used the saying to apply to my condition. It was something I had little control over. And what was the point of my suffering? Because god suffered, I suppose I used to think my suffering brought me closer to god. Now that I don’t believe in god, is there still value in thinking of my ailment as a “cross to bear?”
From a humanist perspective, I can see how generalizing the suffering of one historical person’s suffering can connect each of us to the suffering of humanity, thus binding us in a shared journey. I just personally can’t get past how Christian the symbol of the cross is. I can’t hold the humanist interpretation long enough for it to be useful to me. Of course, I can see how the idea of a “cross to bear” can be comforting to a Christian. It’s just no longer of use to me where I am at this point in my life.