Sunday, January 2, 2022

Between Suffering and Hope

Greg Morss / Tree growing out of rock in Coire Earb / CC BY-SA 2.0
Often I remember my past and wonder how I got through some of it. Just as often I feel as though I wouldn't have the wherewithal to handle that sort of struggle again. I'm wrong about that, however real the notion might seem.

Honestly, it doesn't seem like I should be 46, but here I am. Soon enough I'll be 56, or else dead. Memory is a tricky thing, though. While I remember sitting in Mrs. Couch's English class in high school as clear as anything, including the spring breeze wafting through the open window near my seat, that was still about three decades ago, and quite a lot has happened since then. I graduated college, learned Brazilian Portuguese and got married, became a missionary in Brazil and minister in New Mexico while also becoming a father. I quit ministry and moved to New Jersey, started a career in project management after stints in teaching English, at a law office, and in customer service. I faced financial and personal hardships, from abusive church leaders and members to assaults on my family and marriage. 

Friends, I haven't given you even the first inch of the top of the iceberg. You don't need it. Just consider this, from Marcus Aurelius in his 'Meditations':

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

Fortunately, this isn't just about 'weapons of reason.' With the conclusion of what I term my 'four years of hell,' from 2012 through 2016, I discovered that I feared quite a lot less than ever before. It isn't that I believe life will be rosy and cheerful from now on. Indeed, it hasn't been, though it has been better. What I've found is a courage won through experience, a strength built on endurance.

That's not to say this is an inevitable conclusion. A person's spirit can be broken and their life marred through unyielding difficulties. Even just being bullied and alienated for a year as a 5th grader damaged my ability to trust and build relationships for at least a decade following. The greater oppressions suffered by individuals and classes of people throughout the world right now do far greater harm. That isn't to compare injuries, mind you. Each person's hurt is unique.

In the New Testament letter of Paul to the Romans, he suggests that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." As I've indicated, I don't think there's a straight line from suffering to endurance to character to hope. This is a possibility, and one that is within our grasp if we are open to it and are willing to do the work to reach it. In my case, this work has included maintaining a vital connection to a community of people through my Unitarian Universalist congregation, though really any supportive relationship network would do. It has also meant taking seriously my mental health through psychiatric care and regular sessions with a psychologist. What this might look like for someone else, I cannot say. There's no one-size-fits all, although I'm certain that support and mental health must be prioritized.

The hope I enjoy is not pie-in-the-sky, waiting for someone else to come along and solve everything for me. It is also not a solitary slog into an uncertain future. The courage I've found comes from knowing what I have faced and overcome in the past, and knowing that I am the same person, albeit more seasoned, who made it through the hells that came before. Between the myriad difficulties of life there is joy, and so my hope is not that all will be well, but rather that life will always have these pockets of goodness mitigating the impact of the sorrows.