I've found myself thinking lately about how we are affected by what life hands us. We have control over a limited piece of our lives because we simply can't control the behavior of the people that surround us. We also have little to no control over things like natural disasters or diseases or accidents. Despite the pop psychology fads that tell us we can control the world with our thinking, this just isn't true. People choose their own paths and we cannot make them do what we want. Stuff happens in nature and as individuals we have little control over it. Our bodies get sick, despite all we might do to prevent it. The result is that unexpected stuff comes our way on a daily basis. Most of the challenges we face are small, perhaps, but others are big, life-changing events. What we can control is how those things affect us. How we allow them to alter our perceptions, our reactions, our outlook on life, our interactions with others, the very way we walk in the world - these are things over which we have more control.
I've found myself thinking about this as I've watched what life is doing and has done to many of those I love and to other people around me. I've found myself thinking about this as I've watched the decline in our society, the increasing violence and hatred and anger and fear.
I watched a woman I deeply cared about many years ago become bitter, cynical and angry after her husband left her to run off with a woman 25 years her junior. I watched that decline, I experienced it as little things would set her off and lead her to make nasty comments. She didn't seem to be in control of anything anymore, but was just rageful and nasty to a world that she felt had so deeply injured her.
I watched a man I deeply cared about withdraw from the world after being put through a bureaucratic hell after he stood up to an injustice. I watched that and experienced it as it became harder and harder to connect with him. Phone calls were no longer returned, he went to live in isolation from everyone and everything.
We read in the news story after story of people who act out in extreme violence, either alone or in groups. These are people who've also experienced tragedies and injustice and they have responded to it by inflicting damage on others. Big damage. Serious damange. Life-ending damage.
And then on the other hand, all the people I most admire and look up to are people who have survived unspeakable crises and tragedies and who have come out the other side as people of peace, promoting love, forgiveness, and a vision of a world in which these horrible things don't happen anymore. They act out the belief that we create the world we want and they choose to turn their suffering into wisdom, into compassion, into grace and into a deeper love for the world and for others. Many are the typical people we honor and respect: Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, Jesus. Others are less well known - Corrie Ten Boom, Maya Angelou. Still others are people I've been blessed to know personally and to interact with. Ben Weir is one of those people for me. He was taken hostage in Lebanon (by another extremist Muslim group) and held in captivity for 16 months. And yet, he wrote and spoke and preached and taught nothing but understanding, forgiveness and peace. I have been blessed to know him personally, to call him "friend". But he's always been more than that for me. He has been a model for how to walk in the world, not allowing the pain and suffering to injure one's soul, to damage one's spirit. He still advocates for conversation and understanding between people of different faith traditions, and he still treats each individual as just that - a person, a child of God, a person on the way.
I am in contact with a prisoner who, when we talk, shares with me stories of joy in the midst of living in hell. He boosts my spirits more than I boost his, often, because he chooses to focus on the good, even in terrible circumstances. He told me today that he takes the bread he is given for breakfast each day and feeds the birds with it; that he finds amazing grace and joy in being able to care for the animals around him in this way. It means he eats less...he is given a set amount and he chooses to use it in this way. But he has found that the joy of feeding others (even birds) is more important sometimes than eating a full meal himself.
The choices that both of these men and so many others make; that choice to see and choose good; to see and choose peace, forgiveness, joy, LOVE in the midst of horrific circumstances, it calls me to task. It calls me to task every single day.
I complain about little things. I get upset over things that really don't matter in the big scheme. And then I think about these folk. I think about what others go through and have gone through. And I realize that if they can choose to allow their hardships to make them better rather than bitter, to teach them forgiveness rather than revenge, to make them graceful rather than angry, to soften them rather than make them cynical and violent, what excuse do I have for not choosing the same?
I'll admit, I worked hard to move the big crises in our lives into a place where they softened me, deepened me, made me more whole, more grace-filled, more compassionate. But there has been other "damage" sent my way that has not gone to this place in me. I look back, and some of these things were big and some were small, some were intentional, some were not. But I have allowed my soul to be damaged by certain folk, by certain actions, by certain choices others have made. Even as I write this I feel that anger tugging in me again, calling me to wish bad for those who have hurt me, to choose to fight back rather than to forgive. I think about what I lost, what I gave up to those people and those situations. And then I remember that allowing another to damage me is a choice I make. Whatever their intentions, I make the choice about where it goes in me. I cannot change what they did. I cannot change how others were impacted by their behavior. I cannot change their actions, thoughts, feelings or intentions. But I can change how it affects ME.
One day at a time I choose to seek peace and forgiveness rather than anger and revenge. One day at a time I choose to breathe in life rather than breathing out rage. One day at a time I choose to call on the spirit of peace rather than the spirit of violence. One moment at a time I choose gratitude for the gifts that surround me this day rather than bitterness at the brambles that have crossed my path.
I am not as gifted as my heroes and models at choosing love over fear or anger. But I am working on it. And I begin that path towards shalom, towards wholeness, with gratitude for those who do model a way for peace for me. Thank you God for these souls who choose a different way. They give me daily hope that this is a path I can learn as well.