Tag Archives: struggle

Oh, Bravery. Do You Have to Be So Hard?

“We say God uses all things for good, but we don’t know how to participate in that process of redemption because we can’t acknowledge that we are in pain, that our beliefs are shaken and that the way we think, feel and live is changed. We are unable to get to the good that God works because we cannot face the bad that life brings.” – Adam McHugh, The Listening Life

Why do I do this work? It’s so tiring and requires so much. DSC_0227 (1)And there’s so much to fix. Seriously, who would choose to do this day in day out, analyzing and assessing people’s problems, weighing the meaning of sentences and arguments and trying to improve them?

I love editing, but it’s honestly crazy-making. And even if I finish my part, so much is always left undone, unsaid. And the pain of the work remains.

And is anything really any clearer in the end? Maybe the bigger question is, does any of this work really matter?

It seems obvious that it does. And yet, when I’m so exhausted, it can’t be worth such struggle.

Recently, we had to repair a broken pipe under the house. We’d have liked to ignore it, but had no choice. It seemed wiser not to do the work—no treasure chests found buried in the yard, avoiding it seemed the expedient answer. But the trouble would have remained. And the fear and anxiety would only have increased.

IMG_6503Similar with relationship struggles, I often want to ignore the issues underneath—forfeit understanding and comfort. But the expedient answer is really no answer. The only thing to do is reject the laziness and fear and work to get at the real trouble.

With any struggle that arises, not facing the work required, we won’t improve or benefit from it. At writing, if I aspire to say the vital things too long unsaid, and develop the skill and wisdom that can inspire people, there’s nothing to do but to face the struggle and work.

As with the present editing struggle, the question to ask is, What will I wish I’d done?

Oh, bravery is needed. But who thinks of it?

IMG_6505We don’t want to say we lack bravery to face our struggles because it only adds to the hurt. And we fear pain. Who wants to risk time and resources without any assurance of success? We all know the hurt of multiplied struggles. We’ve all experienced loss upon loss, and we know how risky our work can be. But in life, as in writing, processing happens as you keep going, keep risking, keep fighting.

Processing is progress. If only we can admit that we’re struggling.

Who isn’t facing troubles? And what trouble can patience not overpower? The happiest lives didn’t become so by avoiding struggle. What meaning could the world know without the knowledge of suffering in bravery?

When a pipe needs fixing, somehow the money arrives. When relationship struggles crop up, there’s time to listen. Can I trust that similarly in book work, the stamina and hope to believe will be found and lives will be changed—my own included—despite and even because of the struggle?

Do we seek our true work in learning to receive whatever comes with openness and grace? And will it not bring us the true treasure we seek? Can we trust, even now, that all good things come as we learn to give all we have to the struggles that truly matter?

IMG_6508Practicing this trust may be the way receiving all things is opened.

Maybe it’s only through such perseverance that anything truly great can be brought into the world.

But I don’t know. I’ve only begun to listen to this through struggle. With strengthened endurance, to begin to respond to it. But it seems only in struggling to listen and listening to struggle—to our own and our neighbors’—do we learn this bravery.

I know this fatigue and anxiety are temporary. And learning endurance is worth the struggle. Regardless of any struggle, if we aim to express love—to ourselves and to others—it can make all the difference. Can I aim to be one who takes time to listen to what our struggles are saying—even when they seem not to be saying anything?

This is the skill I want. For this is how I’ll remain focused on what really matters. And for this, I will continue on until I am blessed with a tested bravery.

“When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.'” – Genesis 32:25-26

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

What’s Really Left to Say?

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
– Graham Greene

It’s Saturday and I’m still working. I’m tired, worn out.

Tea, I think.

Lord knows, I’ve had plenty of coffee. And still the words on the screen are blurring.

Seems I’m never not working these days. Even now, I’m on my computer.

I head into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

I know too well the strain of a too-crowded mind. Maybe I ought to take that long walk.

The kettle snaps and cracks under the heat.

I’m lucky to have this job that allows me mid-morning tea. Gallup polls show one-fifth of American families struggled to afford food in 2013. As of January of this year, almost 50 million Americans live in poverty, by some counts the largest number ever….

Living out our belief in the messages of these books I work on, it’s a wonder we make it. The bills may have to go on credit cards again this month.

The reasons for this are numerous, of course. The trade off for my investment of time and attention on books is a difficult commodity to charge for. But it’s our income, our livelihood. And hence, the source of my untold stress.

Heat pours from the burner and I hold my cold hands over it. Thank you, God, for this inexpensive natural resource and the incredible investment it represents. I think such things to remember how fortunate I am. I need to remember.

The kettle whistles and I turn off the heat, find a hot pad, pull the stopper. Steam rises and the mug warms quickly in my hands. How many times have I performed this ritual since beginning the book?

Truthfully, this book has always been too much for me. I’ve felt this burning passion to write this story for well over a decade. But I knew I didn’t know how to write it. And it seemed no one could help me.

I find Charlotte in the living room and carry my weight silently and sit.

What really is there left to say?

I sit with my tea and look out the window. The best books are all written. Each of them a work of singular perfection, of perfect culmination. The best stories, the best subjects. So much more than my little contribution.

I can’t possibly add something useful. It’s all been said already. What’s the point of writing at all?

When all the stories you could tell have been told more eloquently and completely, what’s left to be said? Regardless of the details, there are few truly worthy in the end.

How can anyone think their words merit mass interest, faced with the glut of worthier lives?

I watch my Charlotte read by the window and pick up the book next to me, the one by an author who knows this struggle to find meaning in the word work. Bird by Bird. 

“You simply keep putting down one damn word after the other, as you hear them, as they come to you. You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clear the dinner dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.” 

Charlotte looks up from her book and suggests we go outside later to play in the sunny side yard. I smile and slap my knee. “What a perfectly fabulous idea!”

She smiles and goes back to reading, happy and oblivious.

And the thought comes: has she just provided my answer?

Maybe in the end, there’s only one thing left to do: to forget it all. 

Forget about all those other books, other people’s lives. Forget the result of someone else’s work and tireless effort. They too faced this fear and kept going. And now their work stands as a testament to the boundless human spirit just as mine will be. As untamable as the will behind all creation.

In the end, what else is there to be said?

To write, to be free, is to be alive. Maybe I need not work so hard to remember this, but only to forget everything I know, like a child with a book and not a care in the world. Would we call her stubborn? Would they say she’s “bad” for expressing her interests so single-mindedly?

Of course not. We’d know there’s play to be done. This play. This adventure will be had.

I watch her and think, Can I forget all my reasons, my excuses, and leave it all behind once again?

Don’t I know this by now: that I am the only one who can get me to forget?

“I love you, Dad.” She peers over her big book at me.

“You do?” I tease. “I love you too, kiddo.”

What is writing, in the end, but this very letting go of every other thought but the one that sits loosely in the open hand, the one that trusts that the words to speak will be there when we need them, whether anyone ever reads them or not?

What you’re writing, if it matters to you, it is good. And you will say that to yourself when you’re done: “That was good.”

Good. 

And it will be.

Wouldn’t I love the book more and give it my all if I wrote for this higher purpose? If regardless of all that’s been said, when I’m through, I simply wrote for the sheer unbridled pleasure of it? Then there might be this record of a journey to freedom to enjoy. And maybe, hopefully even the suggestion of freedom in a true companion, a lifter of our heads.

Maybe only when I do reach that land, that far distant shore, then, and only then, will I be able to say that I—myself—have said all there is to say.

The tea done now, I squeeze out the bag. Having given it all, it’s set aside. Nothing held back.

I blow and sip. And it’s perfect–strong and full, just how I like it.

“To participate requires self-discipline and trust and courage, because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, as my friend Dale puts is, How alive am I willing to be?” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

What might live if you can just forget all that limits you today? Will you go for it and write free?

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

Pursuing Adversity

“We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.”

–Helen Keller

This isn’t something I planned to write about.

Tahoe pine
In fact, when it comes to avoiding struggle, I’d like to maintain my silence and let the subject pass right by. There are probably plenty of other things equally valuable I could choose. Which should prove how little I have to offer on this topic.

My wife will tell you I tend to talk big about facing challenges–so much so, she suspects I’m a masochist. But there’s a big difference between talking big about a widely-recognized principle of great writing, and living it. I’m a failure at joyfully embracing anything involving struggle. And I’m an expert at pretty much the opposite.

I do it without even thinking. Out of habit and probably simply by nature, when I have to do something hard or even mildly unpleasant to me (which is often even something pleasant to most people), I rarely consider criteria beyond whether it will be uncomfortable and how long it will last. And do I stop to think whether this impulse to avoid what’s difficult and challenging is really good for me?

How much longer does this piece have to be?

I’m not sure when it happened, but I tend to make my goal in life to escape it unscathed.

There’s in-born sin in me, and it’s rooted right here. The self-preservation instinct, a vestige of survival in my protective caveman brain senses a threat and begins either avoiding or eradicating.

Housework. Traffic. Hot car drives. The only good struggle is the one behind me.

Yet somehow I still manage to esteem the very successful people who have this curious disease of seeing challenges as opportunities. Yes, the poor sacks, I think. Oh, I click my tongue for you. If only I were more like you.

And thank goodness I’m not.

In fairness to myself, not wanting to die is an important default setting I have, especially when faced with a high ledge, sharp kitchen utensils, or the occasional distant tornado. I’m glad for the wisdom that convinces me to take the stairs rather than get in the empty elevator with the creepy drooling guy with a switchblade. Yet left unchecked, I suspect this protective caveman brain keeps me from some important discoveries.

Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn wrote, “Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”

Tahoe conifer

Over our vacation we went to visit my parents and grandma at Lake Tahoe. There’s a tree that grows in the mountains of California that can endure centuries of severe conditions. Bristlecone pines have found ways to adapt to the adversity that actually extended its lifespan.

Having backpacked the wilderness many times with my family here, I might have learned this earlier had I been interested in something other than my discomfort. But my distaste for camping, the dirt, the food, lack of solitude, and now all of that far past and me living far away, it’s breaking in.

I’ve learned that another tree nearer home called the Modoc Cypress actually needs forest fires to reproduce. The cones remain closed for years and only open once the tree is killed in a wildfire. The seeds can then colonize the exposed soil and rise like a mythical Phoenix from the ashes. It’s currently listed as a vulnerable species because of fire suppression.

Modoc cypress conesSo suppressing forest fires is killing the trees.

I’ve actually collected such stories for years. Chickens who don’t fight their way out of their shells die earlier and are less resilient. Trees without winds don’t grow as strong. Kierkegaard: “With the help of the thorn in my foot, I spring higher than anyone with sound feet.” Yet failure-to-thrive has still run rampant through my system. I’m unambitious and dare-I-admit disobedient for avoiding discomfort.

I’ve got to stop considering adversity as horrible and disastrous. I’ve got to stop considering it altogether.

Sure, all adversity could be evidence of an adversary. But so what? He’s God’s devil.

Does it disrespect the devil to decide I don’t have to hand my new birthright over to him?

With the recent evidence of my mortality (okay, the gray in my temples), I’m wondering if maybe this little tendency shouldn’t be the next thing to go.

Flying insects undergo a death as pupa before receiving new life. Can I learn to face struggle and difficulty as necessary for my development? For the price of receiving my wings?

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross