This slice of ‘Bread’ sums up what lessons I think adversity or suffering can teach. Smarty-pants readers, like you, will recognize where we have eventually landed after a long journey … the Beatitudes.
My search for what really matters – slice the 6th
Let’s collect up and summarize the lessons of adversity:
We are ordinary.
We are poor.
We are broken.
There will be losses.
Time compounds things, so it’s a good idea to live with integrity in both the large and the small. Integrity will still be holding your hand when charisma, success, pride, and boasting, and your good looks, even yours, have fallen away.
Approaching problems and joys a day at time, or a moment at a time, means you tackle them a scale you were built for and can manage.
Our life in the midst of others—belonging to others, making peace with others, exposing our lusts and terrors, our darknesses, to the kind light of others—is key to walking the long distance of life well. Suffering shared can lead to deep connection which is life.
Hoping and resolving to do something right and good, or to live towards the doing of something good, is a mighty weapon in the fight to reclaim your mind from itself. Even if it’s slow. Even if feels like small steps forward after a catastrophic fall. Why? You find you are working with the grain of the Universe. The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book with the title Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. What a magnificent insight. (Perhaps I should read the book.) There is a course of life for us that is fruitful, being what we are, doing what we do, some good thing. It might be quite ordinary. Progress may be slow. Seasons may change while we await its fulness. But it is the path of life.
This next extract from my forthcoming book is about doing little good things even when big things have collapsed around us.
My search for what really matters – part 5
All is not lost when all is lost
Here’s another path to tread in your head: do small things well even if big things have collapsed around you. Your great loss may not be as total as it seems; and your small acts of goodness add up. Roiled around by the mighty tides of time, the little good things can overwhelm the big bad thing.
We can demonstrate this at both smaller and larger scales. Imagine you made a mistake at work. Imagine the mistake was not just human error but due to carelessness, ill-temper or even malice. Then imagine two separate responses:
Cover up, minimize, self-justify
Apologize, admit your fault, ask forgiveness.
Which is the better ‘strategy’? Much more important, which has integrity? Which behaviour will, in the end, do you the most good? Which path leads to the least complicated life? And which path, over time, will get you the respect you seek, and we all need?
Think of defeat and victory on a larger scale. Think of Nelson Mandela. He was troublesome and didn’t renounce violence. The South African state locked him up for life, with hard labour, a victory for them and a setback for him. He was off the streets and mostly out of the newspapers.
Mandela spent his 50th birthday in jail. Then his 60th. And then his 70th. But it turns out that maintaining injustice in a society is like trying to hold a beach ball under water. While Mandela passed milestone birthdays, the South African state was exhausting itself. Internally, it was fighting to maintain injustice, against protests of every kind. Externally, it was facing a crisis of belonging: its membership of the club of civilised countries was being stressed by the general issue of national racism and the specific dunked beachball called Mandela. The real, jailed Mandela, working the limestone quarry on Robben Island, took every rare opportunity to study and lobby and organize.
Eventually time’s pressure on the state grew too much and the state folded. In his seventies, Mandela walked out of prison and into the presidency. The little good things he’d spent twenty years doing overwhelmed the big bad thing done to him. As president, he worked to reconcile the nation and he left when his time was up rather than clinging to office. In the contest, Mandela v South Africa, who won and who lost? How did the winner win and how did the loser lose? What part did time play? How did repeated small acts of integrity fare against large doses of injustice?
You may know by now that this book is a lockdown project, when I wanted to put down in order some of the things bouncing around my head and around this blog, about how a storm (in my case a medical storm) can usher in a time of healing and restoration and renewed focus. This happens to be my experience, at least from where I sit at the moment.
This extract looks at how adversity or suffering can lead us to a rediscovery of goodness. It’s a fairly long read, but I hope it may fit your weekend somewhere.
My search for what really matters – fourth slice
Suffering can also bring out the goodness in the depths, in the same way that a storm can refresh an ocean.
Goodness is an unusual experience for those of us not used to it, but we can acquire a taste. Suffering offers the moment to step out.
Think of relational goodness. We are wrapped in a web of relationships. Sometimes our relational threads stretch to surprising people. The love embedded here is not always expressed, but adversity brings it to the surface. Their love for you is suddenly exposed in cards, notes, visits, gifts, calls, prayers. And you respond. Adversity gets you and them to say things that you’ve always meant to say. Saying them is a great gift and blessing. Letting love and pride flow back and forth down these threads of love, sprinkling them with tears probably, is not just a help to healing and thriving. It is itself the primary act of healing and thriving. Further repairs to your body or circumstances that may or may not follow are secondary. If you are lucky enough to be surrounded by a web of love, and most of us are, adversity is the time to know this and invest in it.
What a treasure this is. In May 2011, in Palo Alto, California, a girl was sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework when there was a knock on the kitchen door. She went to open it and found Bill Gates standing outside. Upstairs the girl’s father, Steve Jobs, was ill with the cancer that would end his life. The girl let Gates in, and Gates and Jobs, the two rival tech titans, engineer and zen-gineer, spent time together. They talked, it is reported, about families and children and marrying well, and about Jobs’ plans for his yacht. Gates’ visit, it seems, was to maintain, perhaps to fix, but in any case to re-emphasize, a relational thread between the founder of Microsoft and the founder of Apple.
A friend of mine who was dying of cancer pointed out that one of the good things about her cancer was that she got time to say goodbye. Among other things, my friend arranged a party for all the women she trained with decades before. I observed her cancer was not a stressy round of treatments, anger, bitterness and disappointment but a kind of packing and farewelling for the next journey.
I agree that some adversity is better than other sorts for spurring relational goodness. In some adversity (illness, say), people send love and cards and you will feel their support; in other forms (a bad marriage, or bad breath, say), even your closest friends will fear to intrude and the shops tend not to stock cards.
But whether or not your adversity is the sort of adversity for which people send cards (Congratulations on 25 years of Irritable Bowels!), I still think any adversity can be manhandled into making you unearth good in yourself and those around you. So your anxiety or your IBS goes on and on? So does your resolve.
Set things right. Heal the relationships. Fix these things that you can fix and your whole world will be brighter. Setting things right means:
Saying the unsaid
Mending the broken
Straightening the bent
Tying up the loose ends
Here are some suggestions for adversity-propelled tentative steps towards goodness – both relational and personal:
Say everything good that needs saying to your loved ones. Don’t wait to regret not saying these things when you die.
Make peace with your enemies.
Get your affairs in order.
Work on your eulogy virtues, the things they will say at your funeral, like that you were kind, rather than your resume (CV) virtues such as your salesperson-of-the-year-runner’s-up award.
Sort out the God-and-eternity business in your soul.
Gratefully relish each ‘bright blessed day’, and ‘dark sacred night’.
Another pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book
One of my lockdown projects was to compile a book about how difficulty and trauma can cause us to rethink our lives and, if we are fortunate, how we can then go on to live simpler, better and more meaningful days. Without having anything particularly to boast about, and also because of lots of other things have gone in the right direction for me, this is where I find seem to find myself (at the moment). So I wrote about this, and called the book ‘Bread‘. I’m serializing it here on my blog and here’s the 3rd slice.
The story so far: adversity can cause a rethink of our priorities. Now read on…
My search for what really matters
So: adversity or loss or infirmity or disappointment or something has brought us to crunching halt. We are looking out at a landscape with a sobriety and clarity that is aided by our low mood. We are beginning to realize that there is quite a lot that is more important behind the glitzy and temporary frontage to a life of success, wealth or popularity. These are helpful thoughts, sobering. What do we do now? What parts of our mental landscape do we stop visiting? What new paths do we tread down?
The place not to visit
I want to suggest that the main place not to visit is the broken dream. I’m not saying you should never go there. But you should go there to clear up, say your goodbyes, tie everything off. You have lost and it is good to mourn. So visit the broken dream if you must, but visit it less and less, let it go back to nature. It’s always going to be part of you, but it is a better part of you when it shapes a new future, rather than when it is a decaying present you are trying to primp, or when you are using it to define who you are today. You need to define yourself by something other than your loss, your sorrow, your ill-health, your former hopes, or your former state.
Instead of mooching around your broken dream, enjoying the gothic scene of heartbreak, your loosened hair romantically draped over the headstone of your loss, you might want to ask a few questions now that the urgency of your loss has passed. Don’t feel the need to answer these hurriedly. Mull them over. Work them into your life.
What have I not lost?
What do I love?
Whom do I love?
What do I value?
Point your feet where these answers direct you. Keep asking the questions, and keep walking in the answers. You won’t fix everything in an afternoon, or a year, or in the rest of your life, but you will be walking the right road and you will at times find yourself in the green pastures and quiet waters that you have always wanted.
Being the second extract from my book on how to simplify your life
A second pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book , ‘Bread’.
This passage is about how unexpected troubles can set us on the path to rethinking our lives.
My search for what really matters (second slice)
In any crisis your body gives you an emergency shot of the panic juices. A course of fight-or-flight hormones may take you through a crash, or a hospital treatment, or a birth, or a breakup, or the funeral arrangements or whatever other intense time you must rise to.
Two things will then happen. You will have a bit of a tumble emotionally as the hormones leak away and normal tiredness takes over. And, second, because the intensity of the storm has passed, you can inspect your new world.
This season can be a blessing because it can give you a clear sight of what to do. It’s like clearing up after a party. The mess! The stains in the carpet! What are you going to do? Time for the cleaning gloves
So. The house is quiet again, and there’s a new post-trauma world to explore. What to do? Some thoughts:
You were broken already. You might feel that now you are wounded and before you were whole. I’m sorry to report that this picture is wrong. You might feel like a broken egg now, but you were never the whole egg. You were already cracked, back in the shop. All that’s happened is that you’ve revised your mental model of yourself. You always were needy, but you used to cover it well.
Decide it’s work time. You’ve already vaguely suspected there are things to sort out in your life, but the calamity brings them into the open. The singer Debbie Harry explained her drug-taking: ‘Drugs aren’t always about feeling good … Many times they are about feeling less.’ True, but avoiding the pain with pharmaceutical assistance keeps forever dropping you back at the start, each time with a little more clearing up to do. You are made of better stuff.
Take time. You’ve done rushing for a bit. You can take some breaths, re-evaluate, start small.
Feel the fire. This is the best bit. There’s a fire burning inside you. Still. This is so cliched a thought that it may call song lyrics to your mind. I will survive! There’s something inside so strong! It’s probably best for everyone if you don’t actually sing—you are not a rock star for a reason—but on the bright side you have discovered something about yourself. You will go on. You will push on. We humans didn’t take over the world because we’re a species of wimpy losers. So the party’s over and your home is wrecked? On we go. On we go. The cracks let the light in. The breaking is the start of the mending.
Where are we heading here?
Where are we heading? Towards a rethink. Convalescence after hospital nightmares gave me the moment, and the need, to shut down some old mental pathways and open some new ones. I sadly cannot declare final victory in this fight, but I do think that much of the time I have persuaded my brain to walk down a more promising road.
Suffering is our friend here. How do you see the new mental pathway that needs to be cut? That’s the clarity of low mood. What powers the cutting of the path? The fire inside you and your determination to see a better day, or at least another day. How does the path become well-trodden and familiar? By you taking it, day after day after day. Facing adversity well, every day, sometimes every hour, builds a resilient brain. In the end you’ll have carved a fresh path with many delights where you love to walk.
Read an article recently about the life of the carer. Of course there are millions in our country, paid or unpaid. Perhaps you are one yourself. In any case a person going somewhere with his or her carer is a commonplace on every bus, town centre, or tourist spot.
The lessons carers learn:
enjoy the moment;
look at the heart, not the surface;
treasure every human;
understand that loving commitment enables you to travel miles together;
don’t mind walking pace;
don’t worry about tomorrow.
These are kingdom-of-God lessons. One almost wonders how you can have a kingdom of God without the need to care; like the Kingdom was made to flourish among imperfection, limitation, and brokenness. How can it flourish without it? This is akin to the question, if everything were perfect, where would be the place of love? Too difficult.
What is the point of anything, is a good question.
A good answer for Christians is that what we do is a foretaste, a foreword, a good go, an early attempt, a sign, instrument, and portent of the world to come. It will all be thrown away as juvinilia (the early output of the creatives). But like juvinilia it is connected, even contiguous, with all that is to come. Here are some metaphors:
We are seeds, due to perish, but also a kind of Noah’s ark bearing extracts from the old world into the new. Into the marigold seeds that I save for next year are poured a whole marigold’s summer of life. When we go to our grave, we take our marigold summer with us, into the next life. When the cosmos dies, somehow, the same happens. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)
2. Treasure and fine linen and the best of culture. The best of our earthly service is somehow returned to us, or to the cosmos, when the New Creation comes:
..Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:20-21)
For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) (Revelation 19:7-9)
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Revelation 21: 1o, 25)
This gives us a reason for every temporary act. We live in a world of death, and ends, and shadows, and half-built things, and things that fall down. But we build anyway, love anyway, serve anyway, invent anyway, create anyway, work anyway, because the best of it, whatever it is, we will see again and know it as our own, all spruced up and transformed through Christ.
The quick fix is what I usually want with a health problem. I have a problem, the doctor fixes it, we all walk away happy, like taking the car to the garage. We can approach healing prayer the same way: I have this pain or limitation or sickness, please make it go away so that I can go back to normal life.
Doctors live with this stuff all the time and I am told that they also are aware of the psycho-social aspect to almost any healing: ‘who and what are you?’ is important alongside ‘what seems to be the problem?’ Doctors possibly get fed up of people who present with COPD or obesity, for example, and want a pill or a procedure rather than to make changes in their thinking, their lifestyle or their relationships.
Proper biblical Christian healing is about the whole person, their relationships, and eternity. It is also about the real problem, not just the symptoms. The New Testament (in the book of James) locates the proper place for healing as alongside pastoral care: is any of you sick? – Call the church leaders.
It means that seeking healing through prayer should really be about seeking God. We should expect such prayer to ‘work’, but on God’s terms rather than ours.
Not long ago I was rootling through some computer files and I noticed a list I’d made of prayer requests. There were about seven items in the list, and I think five had already been answered. Looking again, two years further down, and with this list long forgotten, I realized the two remaining items could also be checked off.
This is so fascinating. Where will we all be in five years’ time? What will the world be like? The year 2020 has been a tremor in the normal heartbeat of life. Who would have thought about crashing economies, two million deaths, face-masks everywhere, people afraid to go on the train or to shake hands?
How will history record the past year?
After 2020, the great rises in living standards and shared wealth that had marked that previous quarter century resumed their astonishing and compounding progress
2020 marked the start of serious upheavals that continued for the rest of that dreadful century — called by some the world’s first true Dark Age.
I’ve sometimes wondered what it must have been to be born in my grandad’s generation (born 1899) and facing, but not yet knowing about, half a century of war, death, recession and a long tail of mourning and deprivation.
Or which year in our current century is most like 1913, that summer of the British at their mustachioed, imperialistic peak, a moment that looked like a new high plateau rather than (as it proved) a moment of teetering and fleeting poise, the sunlit dewy morning prior to the slaughter.
My rootling in my computer reminded me that whatever else the next five years will hold or the next 50, for that matter, they will be years of answered prayer. They will be years when our longings have been taken to God and years in which God, mysteriously, but from our perspective, and in response to our cries, spun a golden thread of kept promises and tender goodness into whatever wild tapestry is elsewhere being woven.
Toxic populism has muscled in on the news since 2016, filling our headlines in the way that radical Islam did for a few years before it. The roll-call of men (mostly men) who feel the need to take control, maintain order, and get on with repressing, is familiar across too many countries– just read the news.
It’s a (by now) familiar playbook
Give out jobs on loyalty, not merit
Erode all the things that stand in the way of an almighty state: laws, judges, newspapers, NGOs,anywhere where independent thought and criticism can thrive.
It isn’t, as we are seeing by now, a recipe for success. Cronies aren’t as good at running things as people who get jobs via merit and they pilfer the national good rather than fostering it. Some things, think Covid-19, can’t be insulted away or imprisoned. The flawed mental model of the autocrat cannot bear much reality, nor, for that matter, much wit.
How do you make societies resilient against this kind of thing? I struggle so much with this but I love the 37th Psalm, an extended meditation on the slow, resilient way:
Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; 2 for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
3 Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. 4 Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
7 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.
10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. 11 But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.
35 I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a luxuriant native tree, 36 but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found.
37 Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace.[d]