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Reflections On Resiliency
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Me with Tim Sprowls and Barry Drusedum—

my brothers from another mother and

roommates at IUP.

I’ve just returned from a great couple of weeks back home in Pennsylvania, where I spent some time studying in libraries, looking for obscure Civil War monuments in Gettysburg (see last week’s post for details), visiting family, and—during this past weekend—having a reunion with my college roommates Barry and Tim. We gathered in Indiana, PA, where we graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and earned our commissions as Army officers through ROTC. We hadn’t been together in at least two decades, and yet our gathering felt like we had just been away for the summer and were catching up at the start of a new semester. 


We each traveled different paths into the helping professions after graduation. Tim recently retired from the Pennsylvania State Police after 26 years as a trooper and now works with parolees to help stem the tide of the opioid crisis that has hit Pennsylvania hard. Barry is a nurse who works as a project manager for a pharmaceutical company after some time working in hospitals (imagine a 6’4” guy with the build of a linebacker coming into your hospital room and saying, “I’m your nurse, and you will take these pills.”). I, of course, was called into the ministry. Each of us has had the opportunity to see some of the best and worst that humans deal with on a daily basis and that led to some great conversations in between sharing laughs and great memories of our years together. 


During lunch on Saturday, our conversation turned toward how things have changed in the last 30+ years since our graduation. We’ve changed, of course—our hair is a bit thinner and our middles a little thicker—but it’s especially amazing to think how much the world has changed during that time. We went to college before the internet and the cell phone, which meant that we had to type our papers on a typewriter and look up information in books in the library using actual cards in an actual card catalog. The campus that we knew has largely been erased and replaced with new buildings, walkways, and coffee bars that seem to appear around every corner. To be “online” in our day meant actually standing in a line in the gym to register for classes. As we walked around the school and the places we used to haunt, everything seems different. 


But it’s not just a nostalgic look back that drew our attention to change, it’s what we’ve all seen in the lives of people and in our culture over the last few decades. I don’t think many people would debate that our culture has changed in the last couple of decades. Some of that change is for the better, but we’ve also each seen a deeper level of despair and pain arising in our work with people over time. In 1986, school shootings were not a thing—in fact, in my high school guys used to bring their hunting rifles into the school to work on them during shop class. Drug and alcohol abuse were certainly present on the college campus, but not prevalent in the culture at large on an epidemic scale. Suicides were rare, especially among young people. We were anxious about the looming threat of nuclear war and the fact that we might be on the front lines of it, but beyond that there seemed to be less anxiety in general in the culture. People tended to be more civil, more respectful, and more aware of their neighbors. Kids played outside in impromptu pick up games of baseball and football, and “play dates” were something not arranged by parents but by kids roaming the neighborhood unfettered during the summer. 


Granted, this is a personal observation and certainly one could cite statistics that things were just as bad in the 80s as they are now, but that the 24-hour news cycle just makes us more aware. But whether it’s perception or reality, the three of us gathered at lunch agreed that something has changed. But what is it? Tim raised the question and it is an intriguing one. Pundits and politicians have tried to name it, while others cite technology and the tenor of our political discourse. I think it’s more basic than that, however. Indeed, some of the reading I’ve been doing during my renewal leave has brought these things into sharper focus.


Psychologist Jordan Peterson has become a wildly popular lecturer and author (His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is well worth your time) because he seems to name the basic problem: we’ve created a culture in which people no longer know how to deal with the suffering that inevitably enters every human life. We’ve tried so hard to mitigate and prevent people, especially young people, from experiencing any emotional or physical pain that emerging generations are ill-equipped to handle it when it comes. As a result, people tend to medicate, act out, or become nihilistic and hopeless in the face of adversity rather than becoming the resilient, strong, healthy people we were created to be.


Peterson’s basic thesis reminds me of what Westley, posing as the Dread Pirate Roberts, says to Princess Buttercup in The Princess Bride when she accuses him of “mocking her pain.” Says Westley: 


Life is pain, highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something. 


While not overtly a Christian book, Peterson often cites Scripture as a kind of template for human life, especially in this area. Jesus, in effect, spends much of his time teaching his disciples how to prepare for adversity: deny yourselves, pick up your cross, rejoice when experiencing persecution, forgive those who hurt you, and on and on. Jesus himself provides the example of one who is not only able to endure suffering, but to embrace it in order to bring about a greater good. History is replete with stories of those who have followed this way and brought health to those around them who followed their example. 


In a world where children are often wrapped in metaphorical bubble wrap for safety from birth, where everyone gets a participation trophy, where hurt feelings seem to cause an existential crisis, where ideas that challenge one’s own are seen as “harmful” or “hateful,”  where half of marriages end in divorce when the going gets tough, and where the constant bombardment of news raises anxiety on a mass scale, it’s clear that one of the things we need is to revisit the need for resiliency, training each other and our children to learn how to overcome adversity and how to suffer on behalf of a greater good. Our culture has continuously pounded into our heads that are primary pursuit is happiness—that if we were just happier (which implies shielding from difficulty and pain), we would be better. But the great stories of the world and the witness of history would seem to say otherwise. As Peterson puts it, “Pain matters more than matter matters. It is for this reason, I believe, that so many of the world’s traditions regard the suffering attendant upon existence as the irreducible truth of Being…It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.” 


There is much more to say about this (I feel a sermon series coming on!) but I think this is a basic truth. Indeed, in my reading on pastoral longevity and digging in for the long haul in a pastorate, the theme of resiliency recurs again and again. We have to be equipped for life for the long haul and that involves some real focus and preparation, making people more competent than protected. 


It occurs to me that this was one of the things John Wesley wanted the Methodists to drill down on. He put them into small groups called class and band meetings that provided support systems for people to help them build resiliency in body and spirit. He insisted on developing personal disciplines of prayer, Scripture study, and fasting to train the body, mind, and soul for resiliency in the midst of a hostile culture. He preached things that were difficult for people to hear and didn’t give up when they threw things at him and even threatened his life. Our spiritual heritage from Genesis to the present is one of constant attention to competence in facing suffering. 


If the church would return to that focus, rather than feeding the pursuit of happiness and avoidance of pain so characteristic of our culture, I believe we would see a resurgence in interest and perhaps bring forth a cultural revolution. Jordan Peterson is on to something—his lectures are wildly popular among Millenials who have been enculturated to believe the precise opposite of what he (and the Scriptures, for that matter) is saying. That tells me that there is a hunger for the truth—that real health and real life has more to do with “developing character in the face of suffering than with happiness.” 


I loved being with my dearest friends this past weekend and seeing how each of us has persevered and are living healthier lives because we had good models and training in resiliency. Each of us learned in the Army that when a person reaches the end of his or her self-perceived limits of physical, mental, and emotional endurance, that it’s also possible to endure just a little more. We’ve seen in each of our professions how some people have endured great suffering and have yet shined through it and inspired others. 


I think training others to do the same is one of the most important tasks of ministry. “The person who wishes to alleviate suffering,” says Peterson, “who wishes to rectify the flaws in Being; who wants to bring about the best of all possible futures; who wants to create heaven on earth—will make the greatest sacrifices, of self and child, of everything that is loved, to live a life aimed at the Good. He will forego expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will in that manner bring salvation to the ever-desperate world.” 


I pray that I can be that kind of pastor in that kind of church! 

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