Have you ever had a foundational lesson in life that you weren’t able to absorb the first time you “learned” it – so you encountered it over, and over again until you reach a point where you could finally absorb it?
I don’t know about you, but I sure have. The lesson that it’s taken me 54 years to learn is this: pain is one of the greatest teachers I have in life.
On the surface, the concept doesn’t sound too hard to internalize. So why have I spent most of my life resisting it?
There are lots of reasons, I suppose. One of those is that I was born into a society that privileged people like me. I was white (or of German-Norwegian descent), middle class, and male. My racial, economic, and gender privilege taught me a false lesson that I had a hard time unlearning: that things were supposed to come easy to me. When didn’t come easily, I figured something had gone horribly wrong – so I simply doubled down and tried to force my will onto things until they got back on track.
Then I encountered two things in life that exposed the weakness of that lesson. First, I came out as a gay man at the age of 25 and experienced life as a member of a marginalized community for the first time. And when you belong to a marginalized community, life is anything BUT easy. And second, I got into the 12 Step movement. The 12 Step community taught me something that is true for virtually all of us (whether or not we are addicts): we usually have to hit bottom, before we will become willing to let go of those things that don’t work and embrace a new, healthy way of living.
It’s sort of funny that it took those two experiences for me to learn that lesson – because I had been raised in the Christian church and had been taught the story of Jesus since I was a toddler. That Jesus story teaches that the old life must pass away (or be crucified) before you can get a taste of new life (resurrection).
I guess I failed to learn that lesson because many in the church taught me that the death/resurrection cycle was true primarily for Jesus. They insinuated that because of what Jesus did, we faithful folks get to skip over the death (or trials) part and get right to the good stuff.
I could be frustrated and bitter that I bought into that thinking for far too long – which cheated me out of the ability to make heart and soul-sense out of my challenges in life. I try not to do that, however. Instead, on my good days I tell myself I wasn’t ready to embrace the hardships as a part of the life cycle, yet. I needed to accumulate life experiences to prepare me to better understand.
So how does this new way of thinking – that hardships and trials are a natural part of life’s process of growth and evolution – affect my way of being in the world? In particular, how does it help me regularly embrace hope instead of cynicism or despair?
Let me use a contemporary issue to show you.
Like many, I have been completely distraught about the threats that have arisen to a women’s right to make decisions for her body this past week. The prospect of this being called into question nationally has frightened and frustrated me more than I can say.
In the midst of that fear and frustration, I have tried to remember the foundational lesson that I’ve recently embraced: that sometimes things must get worse (as a country, we need to hit bottom) in order for a new and better life to emerge.
So what new things might happen if Roe vs. Wade gets overturned?
Many things: one of which is perfectly captured in this cycle of death/hitting bottom and new life/recovery. Let me tell you what I mean when I say that.
One dynamic that plays itself out all the time in the United States is that when a new law is established, the opponents of the measure get VERY angry and VERY loud – while many of its supporters quietly sit back and grow complacent.
This dynamic (angry, loud opponents who scream vs complacent supporters who quietly sit back) creates the false impression that the angry, loud folks represent the majority. When it comes to abortion rights, this is clearly NOT the case. As a 2020 poll conducted by NBC News/Survey Monkey shows, roughly two-thirds of Americans support Roe v. Wade! There are not many things that two-thirds of Americans support – so this is remarkable.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, it will then accomplish two things. First, the majority of states will pass (or affirm existing legislation) that supports abortion rights at the local level. States that try to outlaw abortion completely will be in the minority – and will face a huge backlash from businesses and consumers alike. Second, it will create a tidal wave of support for women’s rights as a whole (and reproductive rights in particular) that will dwarf the previous efforts of those opposed to these rights. The opponents of women’s rights will have awakened a sleeping giant that is far greater in size than they ever imagined!
Of course, this process of letting trials, or setbacks produce powerful expressions of new life takes time. And my greatest fear is that during the interim, many women might lose their lives (or experience horrific medical traumas) in their attempts to control their own bodies. My prayer is that those of us who are supporters of women and women’s rights will band together and create a network of care that will carry us all through this temporary stage of things safely. It happened in the days leading up to Roe v. Wade, and it will happen again if needed. Millions and millions of your brothers will stand shoulder to shoulder with our sisters in support. We have your back!
So if you are someone who has been overcome with hopelessness and despair at the threats that have arisen to women’s rights, take heart. While things may SEEM to get worse in the short-term, these temporary trials will usher in a new age – an age when women’s rights of all forms will become a given in a way that today we cannot even begin to imagine! Until then, let’s be there for – and with – one another to encourage us on this journey of becoming.