There are seasons of life where nothing feels certain. Times when you aren’t sure what happens next. Places on the road where the truth of life’s unpredictability is too real.
This is where I am now, at a place where many things are uncertain, challenges and difficulties are everywhere. Worry and frustration over people I love hurting and going through difficult times and trials, no way of knowing how it will all work out in the end. Concern over other aspects of life that are out of my control. Finding my way slowly and, at times, painfully through circumstances I wasn’t expecting or desiring.
In seasons such as these being open, staying open seems a humongous task. My wants and needs are not evil or bad but I know they will only bring suffering if I choose to believe they are the only way. Accepting whatever life throws at me, walking life’s path not being able to see far ahead, letting go of anything preconceived and accepting what is given will take courage.
It seems to always come back to trust and acceptance.
One of my favorite wisdom images is that of a waterfall slowly wearing down the rock it is falling upon. It is one of the paradoxes of life; softness combined with persistence is more powerful than the hardest substance or obstacle.
There are many things in life which are hard to overcome. Diseases, health issues, broken relationships, betrayal, and death of loved ones, are never easy to face or deal with on a long-term basis. We’d rather bad things were quick. It’s why people become addicts of all sorts. To rid ourselves of the pain, almost anything else seems preferable.
Life is hard. No one said it would be easy and yet for most of us, our expectation is that it will be, until… Until something happens when we’re young or old that changes our understanding of life being fair, equal, honorable. Bad stuff happens and when it does something inside us breaks and we’re faced with the decision to harden our wills or our hearts.
If we harden our wills, let them be soft but strong, accepting life as it is not as we wish it to be we can overcome almost anything. If we harden our hearts, we keep people at a distance, refuse to be engaged in a dangerous and painful world, and wall ourselves off, stone cold, inside and out.
The choice is ours. It is the choice of living at peace or becoming the walking dead.
What We Know –
Wisdom begins when we realize we know nothing.
Philosophers tell us that everything changes, doesn’t stay the same. Mountains wear down, skies fall, mighty trees topple and the greatest among people are but a wisp of wind, sound, and fury signifying nothing.
Reducing our ego is one of the hardest wisdom disciplines. One of my favorite wisdom proverbs says; “Take compliments and criticisms with equal value.” Too often we believe the good and ignore the not so good. It’s easy to focus on what others like about us. We wrap ourselves in the words of friends, families, even those whose positivity drips off their tongue like poison, people who see us mere objects to use to further their objectives. Ego builds us up only to be pulled out from under us by someone with a bigger, stronger ego. We fight back and when one take on another, no one wins and out of control egos only destroy never heal.
Humility is wisdom’s greatest and most difficult lesson. Saying; “No” to puffery and stroking; “Yes” to a self-awareness that leads us to a place where our egos are not bruised, or quickly heal, from a careless word, a selfish act, a purposeful plan to defame, defraud, demolish. Wisdom tells us; “Smaller egos take less time to heal because the wound isn’t as big.”
Socrates once said; “There is true joy (bliss) when we realize we know, and are, nothing.”
Burning Brightly –
On Saturday I had some old mail, leaves, limbs and small pieces of wood to burn in our burn barrel. The leaves and limbs had been in the barrel for several weeks and had become damp from recent rains. I added a little fuel, lit a match and threw it onto the debris. The fire started almost immediately but it didn’t take long to burn up the fuel and the limbs and leaves on top. However, once it began trying to burn the damp portions in the barrel, layered and compressed in the barrel, there was a lot of smoke and eventually, the fire would go out. I added a little more fuel, some dry pieces of mail, struck another match and lit the fire again. I repeated this process several times until the fire in the barrel was hot enough to burn away the dampness and consume everything within.
In the same way, there are times in life when our spirits are damp, compressed, buried under layers of debris drenched by storms passed, times which make us feel the fire which burns within have been quenched with only the illusion of smoke remaining.
In these difficult times, when our souls seem filled with smoke, when it’s hard to see, hear or know there’s a flame burning inside we still don’t give up hope. We try, we wait, we listen, look and believe the fire will burn brightly once again.
Love Lost –
This afternoon I sat in a classroom at the local county jail waiting for the men in my class to arrive. At jails and prisons, they’re never on your timetable, you are on theirs. Just outside my class is a phone the residents use to contact “those on the outside” be it family, friends, or others. A man was using his phone time and talking loud enough I couldn’t help but overhear his conversation. He was begging his mom to make contact with the mother of his child and find out if she would bring their daughter to visit him. Apparently, it’s been a while and he wanted desperately to see her, talk with her, be a dad to her.
This isn’t an uncommon scenario for those who are incarcerated. Their freedoms and controls are stripped away. They can no longer go see someone, do something when they desire, but instead must wait and hope that the object of their affection comes to them. I’ve had many dads in my classes who haven’t seen their children since they were incarcerated because the mom refuses to bring them to the jail. There are valid and questionable reasons which inform the mothers’ choice but the father is powerless either way.
Love confined, locked away, kept from its beloved is one of the great tragedies. Love fully blossoms when it embraces, touches, pulls close the one desired. One of the most difficult losses for our incarcerated fathers to accept is the lack of presence in their loved one’s lives. They understand it was their choices which made it so but they also know; “the heart wants what the heart wants.” So, they will keep asking, begging, trying to stay involved in the lives of those whose worlds consist of more than cement walls, metal bars, and constant reminders that love must be stronger than.
Bullets and Breaks –
I saw my first bullet hole in a human body this week. Well, what it looks like with a thin bandage over it anyway. The leg and the hole belonged to one of the men I teach in my incarcerated father’s class. I had noticed last week he was limping and when he came in on Wednesday I asked how he was doing and what had happened. I had no idea the story which would be told.
The tale included drugs, friends pulling guns on one another, a high-speed car chase, resisting arrest, guns on all sides and finally an arrest and a charge of nine felonies. Whew! By the time he finished I was worn out! The most important detail he shared was before everything fell apart, when he was sitting on the couch with a friend and things began to escalate, he said; “If I would’ve stopped for thirty seconds and thought about what I was doing. If I would have just walked away, none of this would have happened.”
Although there was much in his story I couldn’t relate to I certainly know the harm of acting in haste, not taking time to think before I said or did something harmful, in the heat of the moment, only to regret it soon after. The difficulty is that once we do anything good, bad, positive, or negative the consequence will follow. We can’t take it back. “When we pick up one end of the stick, we pick up the other.”
One of the most difficult yet important disciplines wisdom teaches is the; “space in the middle.” It is that place between the event, the action and our response, our reaction. Usually the less space we allow the higher possibility of making a bad decision and dealing with the results of our choices.
The young man with the bullet hole in his leg is looking at a long sentence in the state penitentiary. I hope that he, all the students and their teacher will learn and put into practice the lesson of; “the space in between.”
I’m a low maintenance person when it comes to breakfast and lunch.
For breakfast; a cereal bar or a pop-tart and a cup of coffee and I am good to go. For lunch; a sandwich that has either tuna fish or a slice of bologna or ham. Beth buys fancy-schmancy meat for her sandwiches but she knows to get me inexpensive, store-brand, square, sliced ham. This afternoon I took some ham, two slices of bread, slapped on a little mayo and it hit the spot on many levels.
When I was growing up my family would go camping regularly in the Great Smoky Mountains. We grew up hiking on the Appalachian trail, swimming in mountain streams, sleeping in canvas tents and eating lunches out of a cooler sitting at a wooden picnic table in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.
When I eat my ham sandwich I think about these simpler times. My mind and spirit go back to not having many cares, being surrounded by family and friends, fully immersed in nature and God’s creation. Being older now I realize my parents still had bills to pay, work pressures, the difficult job of raising me and my brother, but my memories of these times are only good, warm and full of love.
These seasons of life are never to be repeated but I can eat my ham sandwich and remember the best of life is found in the simple things.
On Sunday I was working outside, trimming Lemon grass. It can be tricky working with this plant because of the thin, long leaves which can cause a nasty cut if a person is careless. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as vigilant as needed and received a gash in my pinky finger. Small cuts might not bleed much but they can be quite painful. It didn’t take long to forget about the mishap but ever since, each time I apply soap or antibacterial gel, I’m reminded the cut hasn’t completely healed. It’ll take a few more days before the wound is closed and no longer a painful reminder of my carelessness.
Life’s journey is filled with difficult and hurtful places, events, and seasons. Our recovery from these take time and often we encounter reminders of these painful moments which cause the agony to resurface. Our reliving of these can be disappointing and a cause for despair. We think; “Shouldn’t this wound be healed? Why is there still suffering? Will I ever be fully well, whole again?” In these times it’s important to be patient. Recovery moves at a different pace for everyone. You can’t rush restoration and redemption. “Progress, no matter how slow, is still forward.” –Plato
Ego breeds ego.
I have a friend who is dealing with the impact of another person’s giant ego. This person throws his weight around, reminds subordinates of their place in the company’s food chain, bullies, threatens and seems completely unaware of his self obsession. He feeds his ego by feasting on others. Meetings are uncomfortable because other employees aren’t sure who the target of wrath will be for the day. “It seems selfish,’ says my friend; ‘but when he chooses someone else I’m relieved that it isn’t me even though I feel the other person’s pain.'” My friend has tried fighting back, confronted his rudeness, challenged his preconceptions, pointed out mistakes, but it hasn’t seemed to matter. “I’ve found that when I begin to focus on taking him down a notch or two, proving he’s not as great as he thinks, my ego begins to grow and manifests itself in ugly ways.”
As we worked though this issue I reminded my friend that; “Ego breeds ego. When your goal is to win or someone else to lose, you both suffer.” One of the most difficult people to deal with are those with an inflated opinion of themselves, especially when they are in positions of power. Wisdom teaches us that humility, even in the face of the egotistical, is the path we should walk. Power, pride, personal gratification always slips through the fingers of the grandiose. Starve ego, don’t feed it or breed it.
Life is never predictable.
I was talking with someone yesterday about having “blinders” on when it comes to certain people. Some folks we see in a mostly positive light. We emphasize the good, minimize the bad, expect the best and see their potential. For others it’s the opposite. We are blind to their goodness. They are viewed by us in a mostly negative way. We don’t expect the best, focus on their weaknesses, anticipate what and how badly they’ll mess up, hurt us and take advantage of our generosity.
Blinders often come from good relationships or broken ones. We put them on and rarely question if we see the whole picture as it pertains to certain people, cultures and our worldview.
The discipline of viewing life as blessed rather than cursed can be one of the hardest and most important wisdom lessons we learn and put into practice. This is true especially when our journey has been difficult and we’ve seen “more than our share” of heartache, pain and loss. To look for the good, the beautiful, the “miracle” of everyday life influences each breath and every moment.
Out of nowhere they come. Like an assassin’s bullet or blade. Unexpected, unwanted and overwhelming. Moments, seasons which reveal our most painful weaknesses, deepest struggles, greatest need and darkest secrets.
The path of life is never easy nor allows us to become too comfortable. Setbacks, those sections of the journey where our way seems blocked, progress grinds to a halt, backwards the only direction, retracing our steps, navigating through places we thought we’d left permanently behind.
Setbacks. Getting stuck. Walking in circles. The journey of life can drain us of our purpose and passion. We wonder how long we’ll wander, why the journey must be this difficult, if it’s worth the struggle, why we wrestle with the same demons and obstacles so often.
A favorite wisdom quote, and comfort, when the way is hard and setbacks many;
The obstacles (setbacks) in your way are your path to freedom.
I was speaking with a friend the other day about how our thoughts can be our worse enemy. We get into a repetitive, negative train of thought and the tracks take us to bad places. We get down on ourselves, see no way out of difficult present circumstances, lose hope and despair over events and seasons we find ourselves traveling through. Our thought trains can run away with us, drag us to places our minds and spirits have no desire to go.
Taking a breath, slowing down our thinking, letting go of ideas, fears, anxieties is key. A wise proverb says; “Keep the front and back door of your mind open. Allow thoughts to come and go, just don’t serve them tea.” Mindfulness and wisdom teach us that often we cannot control thoughts popping into our heads but grasping and holding onto them is up to us.
Wednesday morning I needed to go to Nashville for a fatherhood regional meeting. I left early to beat the heavy traffic that’s notorious when you’re trying to get into the city. My GPS of choice is Waze. I like the look of it, the ability to alert other drivers of traffic, accidents, construction and be warned if you’re approaching hazards or other difficulties.
With the address plugged in I set out for my destination. Everything was going smoothly and as I approached an area known for a lot of stop and go, standstill traffic, Waze suddenly changed my route. I wasn’t sure what was happening but chose to follow its directions. It exited me off the interstate to another highway then another exit to the right and another right, straight for a few more miles and then another right which brought me back to the same interstate I was on 5 minutes before just a mile or so ahead of my previous spot. It didn’t save me any time or significantly advance my position, it just added anxiety to my journey.
The rest of the trip was event free and as my truck rolled down the road I reflected on our inclination to take short cuts, try to get ahead, around, bypass obstacles on the road of life. If we could we’d skip the painful places, the stressful situations, the locations on the path of life that bring unwanted obstructions, forces us to stop and perhaps wonder if we’ll ever get moving again.
The problem is we can’t steer clear of the unpleasant, traumatic, heartbreaking places of life. We might be able to evade them for a while but sooner or later we must traverse, experience, deal with these or risk being stuck mentally, emotionally and spiritually for a lifetime.
Getting where we need to go often times means going places we’d rather avoid.