As you cross over the Maine state line, a sign reads “Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” It’s one of the better state mottos (not as good as “Nebraska: Honestly, it’s not for everyone,” but far better than the sad and desperate “West Virginia: Open for Business!”). Whenever I cross into Maine, a sense of relief washes over me. I am suddenly transported from my tired world to a peaceful harbor-side, lobster bib ’round my neck, dirty martini in hand with seagulls above cheering, “Welcome to Maine: the way life should be!”

A running joke in my family is coming up with alternatives for the state motto. One of my favorites is “Maine: Doing Fine Thanks” (which is how the locals would probably have it). But the two replacement mottos that have stood the test of time are, “Maine: The Way Life Should Have Been” and, the funny but more piercing, “Maine: The Way Your Life Would Have Been If You Hadn’t Done You-Know-What Way-Back-When.”

This newly established motto of Maine calls out a glaring truth: that, for those of us who are not currently located within the state lines of Maine, life is not the way it should be. Something went wrong along the way. You thought you’d be married by now or you thought marriage would be easier. Maybe you thought you’d be more financially secure or at least have more direction by now. Maybe tragedy or depression struck at an unexpected hour. Or maybe a great opportunity that you thought was going to open all sorts of doors came along, but the doors stayed shut. Maybe you are grateful for your life and I hope that you are. At times, life can be wonderful. And Maine can be a great place to visit, but it can’t protect you from family drama, spilled martinis or yourself, for that matter.

The antithesis of Maine’s state motto is Buddhism’s first of its four noble truths: Life is Suffering. While “Life is Suffering” is true to human experience, not one of the 50 states has chosen it for a motto (Wouldn’t that be great though? “South Dakota: Life is Suffering”). Truth be told, suffering is a reality most of us hope to overcome by denying its very existence. Thornton Wilder’s novel Theophilus North, says, “In America the tragic background of life is hidden in the cupboard, even from those who have come most starkly face to face with it.” And, because of my own tendency to marginalize suffering, whenever it happens, it often comes as a surprise. What started out in my mind as “The Way Life Should Be” ends up feeling like Paradise Lost even though the truth of the matter is that suffering is inevitable and that life is full of it — yes, even in Maine.

Artwork by Robert E. McGinnis, “Theophilus North.” Wrap-around cover

God gives us a far greater peace than the denial of suffering. The peace of Christ not only acknowledges suffering, but is found in the very place of Christ crucified. The cross is the resting place of peace and the birthplace of our salvation. As Hebrews 2:10 proclaims, “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.” This verse allows me to believe, if just for a moment, that suffering is not to be reasoned with as a means to an end, but a reality in which God is present. As Kafka once wrote, “You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.”

Despite the wise words of Kafka, I continue to avoid suffering at all cost. Every year, I drive across the Maine border and hope to flee pain and regret once and for all. Praise be to God that, unlike you and me, Jesus did not hold back from suffering, but chose it for our sake. Thanks be to God that Christ came, to die and to rise, that we may have life — not as it should be, but as it actually is — and have it to the full.