I'm on my second cup of coffee, so my mind is racing. I found a scrap of paper on my desk that had several topic ideas for this blog written on it. Here they are:
Press 1 for "Defects of character vs. manifestation of defects of character"
Press 2 for "Cup of wrath vs. cup of suffering"
Press 3 for "Overcoming suffering vs. hoisted up by it"
Ah, the 3's have it.
Has someone ever been pointed out to you of whom it was told, "You wouldn't believe what she has been through in her life..." or "He's overcome so much!" Yeah, I think we all have. Some of us are even that person!
Here's my question though ... did we overcome our suffering or hardship like some sort of wall on an obstacle course on our way to the top, or did that obstacle somehow give us a leg up?
We don't' have much use for suffering in the West. Maybe that's because our media is so driven by ads and images and stories that glorify being rich, successful, young, beautiful and skinny. These images are presented as the norm; as something all of us should reach for; something highly desirable. So when one of the "accursed" rises through the ranks to fame and fortune, we practically hold a parade in their honor. Confetti flying, we fawn and coo, "I knew he had it in him..." and then punctuate the story with, "you wouldn't believe what he's overcome."
Jesus came into this world with nothing.
He lived with just enough.
He died with nothing.
Perhaps his refusal to grasp for the brass ring is one of the things that so infuriated the crowds. Can't you just hear the whispers when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth halfway through his ministry? "Poor Mary ... Joseph was such a talented carpenter. They had such high hopes for Jesus." "Oh the shame, when I think of all that he overcame, just to throw it away to run with this band of ragamuffins!" "He could have really made something of himself, had a nice family, cared for his dear mother in her old age, but look at him. Tsk, tsk, tsk ... so sad."
Jesus was very clear that the brass ring was not his thing. He point blank told a would-be follower, foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head (paraphrase). Yet his greatness came from the manner in which he lived in the midst of the way that he lived, you know? You get me? He had nothing, but "having" was not what his life was about. I don't mean he was "destined" to live this way. I mean, he chose it. Remember that little conversation with the Devil in the wilderness? "All these kingdoms I will give to you if you will just bow down and worship me." Jesus said, scram! He was clear that his life was about showing people how to love God, love one another and love themselves. Even if it was going to get him killed, he was determined not to sway from this way of life.
I want to suggest that hardship and suffering are stepping stones to greatness; only not necessarily greatness as the world defines it. Suffering is the great equalizer. It strips away ego and pretension and ambition and pride, leaving a core that really best represents the essence of who we are; a pliable lump of clay that God can really work with.
It's not exactly pulling yourself up by your own boot straps. It's more like accepting life on its terms and resolving to live abundantly, love fully, serve humbly.
People who have risen up from the ashes and nurtured a character marked by humility and gratitude exemplify what I'm talking about. We think they are great, amazing, a wonder to behold. They shake their heads and honestly proclaim, "I'm nothing special." There is a quality about them that draws us in like a magnet; a mysterious attraction that may even surprise us. I mean, look at them, they are nothing wonderful on the surface, but just below, down there somewhere, just peaking over the edges of their humanity, is a beautifully-formed soul.
Living life as it comes, thanking God every day, knowing he is the source of all that is good and pure and holy, trusting him to remain at our sides, serving him with every fiber of our being and marveling at the fullness of our hearts -- that's what gives somebody a leg up. And more often than not, it's a quality of character borne of suffering.