2017 was an exasperating year for many of us. Challenges in our personal lives, coupled with the anxiety induced by our world’s headlines, made for a uniquely intense feeling of exhaustion by the semester’s end. When I finally landed in Los Angeles, my smog-blanketed home, I couldn’t tell whether I was happy to be home and at rest, or out of breath now that I could finally be still.
My friend likes to remind me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s not quite the first thing I want to hear after I mess up, but it provides balance to the idea that “it’s the thought that counts.”
If I had a dollar for every time I thought about going to church, I could probably build one in my backyard. It’s not that I hate the idea of religion, but it doesn’t dictate my life. In other words, I’m in the same place as a lot of people regarding my faith.
As I rolled my luggage to the front door, I was surprised to see a wreath— I’d forgotten it was almost Christmas. There were more responsibilities to worry about than ever this year, and fewer Christmas movies, advertisements and music meant I never thought less about this formerly Earth-stopping time of the year.
As Christmas snuck up on me, I remembered those good intentions of mine to practice my faith, and how consistently I failed to do so this semester. Would I succeed on December 25th? Did I even want to?
I made plans with my dad on Christmas and Christmas Eve. I set my alarms on December 23rd and went about my Saturday. My friends and I celebrated being back together, almost done with one of the hardest years of our short lives.
As usual, I slept through the three alarms I set for Mass, laying another brick in the road to hell.
After he came back from church, my dad and I went to visit a family friend, his best friend as a matter of fact. They immigrated to the United States together from Egypt and had plans to become priests until they met their wives.
As I listened to him recount his year, two things stuck out to me. One, he had a year filled with many personal hardships and two, unbelievably, he still seemed happy — at peace, even.
This was a man who lost his teenage son to cancer. Undoubtedly, he had endured more than most could bear. It’s not because he wasn’t furious at God, and it’s not that he moved on or forgot or didn’t feel pain.
Suffering is a blessing, he told me, because it helps you comfort others when they suffer. I sat in amazement as my whole year transformed. What I formerly considered the hardest year of my life became a year of intense empathy.
Renewal washed over me as we left his house. This must be how religious people felt when they connected with God. I used to envy those people for their steadfastness. How could they still have faith in the face of natural disasters, diseases and such great suffering?
No, I still can’t explain those things, nor do I ever expect to. I still cannot bring myself to accept evil as an irremovable element of our world, because I don’t want to become jaded. I don’t want to stop fighting against it.
But perhaps this is part of the balance that makes life what it is. It’s okay to feel exasperated, to delight in the ability to even feel negative emotions. The real tragedy is to feel nothing.
Later that night, as I was recounting this epiphany to a friend, they asked me about my plans to go to church. My new intention was to go to Mass at midnight. Knowing I might flake, he insisted that he would go with me for support, even though he’s Jewish.
We stood in the back, overlooking the pews in full capacity. My resolve was not strong enough to get there soon enough to earn a seat. That was okay with me. I was just happy to be there.
In a time when it’s easy to lose hope, Mass lit up my spirits, a refuge of warmth during a cold winter. My friend and I broke bread at a Jewish deli afterward, for balance. It may be true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but maybe the road to heaven is, too.
Andrew Mekhail can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org