I talked to three people yesterday who are having heart-rending, soul-grinding experiences. As I hung up the phone after one of those conversations, I wondered at how common this is. I gave myself a minute to name all the people I know whose lives are being wrung out by “the tether and pang of the particular” as CS Lewis called it. I came up with 17 people, not counting my own cathartic experience last week and that continues to weigh my heart, loaded on top of a long and grinding circumstance, and I kept thinking of other people in a flood in the minutes that followed. This is common.
This morning I sat and watched a parade from a distance with a friend who is preparing to lead a question-answer session as part of a congregational conference tomorrow. We talked about a scripture in the Book of Mormon that is the theme of the conference, bouncing ideas back and forth about what constitutes a weakness that the Lord could make into a strength. Our first reaction as believers in this scripture is to consider sins and imperfections that we are working to overcome, and I think that’s likely where we stop.
Today, however, we talked about floods and how that makes people who suffer through them weak. And genetic conditions and how that makes people weak. And poverty and famine and slavery and how that makes people weak. And even our singleness – something that neither of us feel weakens us nor is something we are working at all to remedy – but that it isn’t the perfected, ideal state. The world is chock-full of conditions that are not perfect, may not be perfectible, but that give occasion for us to be sensitive and helpful to one another and to receive the sensitivity and help of others. Without those conditions, how could we ever be of service to one another, develop eyes to see needs, be willing to (and have any opportunity to) sacrifice?
Sometimes the existence of the less-than-ideal is the only condition that makes possible our charity, and our strength.
We let that sink in for a bit.
Not everything needs fixed. Not every hard experience is to be avoided.
Taking on the grand questions framed in Job (why does God allow sadness, or rather weakness, as we’re redefining it), we began to see that this ugly, painful, accident-prone, soul-wrenching existence is exactly what we need. We are not meant to live it perfectly.
A vital part of that experience truly making us strong is the connection we feel with others through it. Elder Cook (an LDS apostle) once talked about driving through a sudden, unexpected blizzard with his young children, and when they recounted the experience for their mother, the 3-year-old quivered, “Hope ya know, we had a hard time!” He talked of how his son drew strength from the compassionate reaction of his mother. The recounting was healing, allowing him to draw strength from the experience rather than solidifying fear.
Hard times don’t automatically make people strong. They can make people bitter, fearful, and untrusting of God and humanity. When people feel understood, helped, and empowered (by God or mortal), however, hard times remove fear and build confidence. Hard times can work within our souls and systematically erode false ideas about ourselves, the people we share the planet with, and God. Somewhere during the crisis we make a decision that determines which way it will be for us. It’s not a decision to strong-arm our way through the experience. It’s a decision to be weak.
In these hard times, these weaknesses, we submit to a journey of self-discovery with God, and sometimes we allow him to work through us with someone else. While praying about a situation yesterday, asking why this was occurring and what God would teach me or improve within me, the words clearly came to mind, “this experience is not for your benefit.” I understood that I was not called to account, had not been unusually unwise, and had nothing of particular to work on for the moment (I’m sure it was the briefest of brief moments). Sometimes our hardship is for someone else’s benefit, like Lazarus sitting at the rich man’s gate: hungry, sick, and weak.
The power in the crisis to become strong is directly proportional to the connections we make through it.
Prayer is that first connection. People who reach out to us in compassion are other connections. And our willingness to reach out to others, to tell them, “I hope you know, I had a hard time!” is a vital part of becoming strong too. We shed, finally, the illusion that we do anything on our own and invite the grace of God into our lives. We shed the fear that somehow we have to be perfect alone. We hope someone knows.
It’s only in being willing to be weak that we can ever become strong.
How have weak things become strong for you?
Has it grown easier to hope someone knows?