I used to view myself as a victim.
Of neglect. Of addiction. Of abuse. Of a failing economic system. In short- of hurt.
I used to lament my pain as I watched the seemingly perfect lives of people around me play out beautifully while my world fell apart. I felt isolated and alone in my suffering. There were days when I would scream in rage at the injustice I felt. I tried hard to be happy. I must say, I put on a phenomenal show. No one could have guessed throughout my time in school that I came home to abusive and neglectful parents each night. No one could have guessed that we had no money and were always fighting. No one could have guessed the hell I was living in. I excelled in school and had good friends and from the outside, everything looked lovely…but at the end of the day, I could only watch with envy as my peers enjoyed time with their big, happy families and luxurious lifestyles.
“This is isn’t the way life is supposed to be,” I would whisper between tears at night. “Why is everything so hard?”
It’s true that life isn’t supposed to look the way mine has, but I think “why” is the wrong question to ask.
Asking why life is hard is a question founded on the assumption that life is normally easy.
Don’t get me wrong. When God breathed life into creation, He intended for things to be AWESOME. The original design was for peace and perfection…but then there were two humans and a sneaky snake and the original design got twisted real fast and life no longer looked beautiful the way it was supposed to.
I was listening to a sermon this morning by my favorite pastor on the topic of unanswered prayer and he made the statement that, “Life is tough. Some prayers aren’t answered because creation is subjected to frustration and has not yet been fully “liberated from its bondage to decay.” (A quote directly from Paul in the New Testament) Tragically, life in such an environment is inevitably going to be acutely difficult at times.”
He explained that in middle class America, we’ve lost sight of the fact that life is hard. It’s always been hard. The tough stuff, the “acutely difficult” stuff, is NORMAL…and in fact, it’s inevitable. My generation (90’s babes, hey!) is one that was born during a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity in the West. In the few decades before 9/11, peace and economic growth swept across the United States. It’s really the only thing we’ve known, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Jesus tells us that, “In this world you will have trouble.” He doesn’t say you might have trouble. He says you will. We need to adjust our expectations and our responses accordingly.
We are a generation that operates under the impression that life is supposed to be easy.
The truth is, we are living in a false reality that makes promises it can’t keep.
We are living in a time that has commodified the idea of ease. Take the technology industry for example. Every new iPhone, app, and gadget is advertised under the pretense of making our lives more easy or simple. As our world becomes more busy and fast-paced, we cling tight to promises of simplification and somehow manage to start believing that life as a whole should be just as easy and simple as asking Siri the weather.
In some sense then, I have been a victim. Not necessarily of hurt, but of the constructions of a false reality.
I’m not alone. I think many of us wrestle with the difficulty of this life. It isn’t easy when we lose loved ones or get fired or get broken up with or get our car stolen. But we also have to remember that we aren’t alone in our experience of suffering and how we manage our suffering determines our character.
One of my favorite quotes is by Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American poet who wrote that, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
I think our scars serve as symbols of victory if we let them.
I sat at a bar with some friends a few weeks ago and we talked about my upcoming graduation. I will be a first generation college graduate. My family is poor, to be blunt. We had absolutely no money to put me through college when I graduated from high school. I worked the entire time that I was in school…mostly multiple jobs at one time. I transferred schools twice. I studied hard so I could get scholarships. I took breaks from school so I could work to pay for tuition. I took a social work class my freshman year of college and read statistics that literally said that someone in my situation was almost guaranteed not to finish college. Today, I am one week away from graduation.
As we were talking, one of my friends looked at me and asked, “Would you change your experience if you could? Would you change it to make it easier?”
Honestly, my answer is no. Would it have been nice if my parents could have paid for me to go to school…or at least been able to take out loans for me to go to school? Absolutely. Would it have been convenient if I could have spent my weekends studying or hanging with friends instead of working multiple jobs? Yes. But would I be the person I am today if my experience had been different? Of course not. And the truth is, I like the person I am today.
My experience of suffering has changed me all for the better. It has made me empathetic. It has given me a story of redemption. It has produced great character in me.
But my character hasn’t come without great intentionality. Suffering inevitably leads us down one of two roads. We can use it to fuel anger and become bitter or we can use it to learn and grow. I didn’t want to be bitter. I didn’t want to resent my family or my life situation. I wanted to take my life and use it to understand others better.
Instead of asking why life was hard, I started asking what I could learn from the hard stuff.
It’s easy for our hearts to grow hardened against a world that’s hitting us with all it’s got. It’s tempting to numb our feelings when we feel overwhelmed by pain or grief or frustration. Hard hearts aren’t the strong ones, though. The people who are numbing themselves to their pain are oftentimes the ones who believe that life should be easy and are bitter because it isn’t. Bitterness is an awful, awful thing and it hurts the feeler more than anyone else. I have never wanted to become bitter, so to avoid it I’ve had to be willing to sit with my emotions and deal with my pain even when it is hard.
If I’ve learned anything through my experience with suffering it’s this; the world is harsh, but we must remain soft. Avoidance and denial don’t solve problems. Admitting that we are hurt isn’t weakness. Our culture teaches us that in order to be strong and powerful, we must remain emotionless and push ourselves away from the things that cause us pain. In reality, the only way that we rid suffering of its power is by returning to places of pain with softened hearts and a willingness to learn from our experience.
There is a redemptive beauty in admitting that we are hurt, but not broken, and therefore willing to embrace the growth that can come from our pain.
So I’ll take my scars and today I’ll tell my story with newfound confidence and hope. This life will never be easy and there will always be trouble, but my character is massive because of it- and yours can be too.