“Maybe that can be your next blog post!” my friend Linda said to me the other day during a conversation. My friends often say that to me since I started this blog, reminding me that there are so many rich answers to the question of where God is in my life.
Linda and I were at “Movie Night”, something that happens once every two months. It is hosted by Watershed, and anyone who loves movies and meaning is invited to come down and join us. Friends and neighbours get together and there’s always great coffee, popcorn, dessert, lots of laughs, not to mention a movie and meaningful discussion afterwards. (Check the movie night link.)
The movie chosen this time around was “Of Gods and Men”, a true story set in Algeria about some Trappist monks who had a tough choice to make. A group of fundamentalist terrorists were threatening their village and the monks had to decide whether to leave or stay. It’s an inspiring story. I’d highly recommend it.
We were talking about choices in the discussion afterwards. We all wondered what we would have done in that situation. Would we have made the harder choice and stayed with the people we loved and served, even if it meant possible death?
We are not usually (or ever) in such a life or death place of decision, and this led me to wonder about the smaller choices in our lives. “There are many smaller occasions when we have to choose between what is easy and what is difficult,” I piped up during the discussion. I was reminded of a time that I came to a crossroads.
I teach in elementary school, and every spring, the administrator sends everyone a sheet asking about our intentions for the next school year. Are we planning to retire, move to a different grade, stay in the same grade? You get the picture. In the early years, this was a difficult decision for me to make. I love kids but I often found teaching difficult. Still do. It is a complex job, one that takes equanimity and energy to do well. “You want me to do this for another round?!” I wanted to write on the intention sheet. “Let me be a cashier at Safeway, or pour coffee at Tim’s…anything but this!”
Fortunately, I have a group of friends who encouraged me not to take the easy road. There was one year in particular, back in 2003, when I came to a crossroads. The school that I’d been at for six years was closing. This transition point gave me the itch to want to do something different and I remember asking my friends Cal and Bev for advice. I remember the year and the advice because I wrote an article about it afterwards, and this week I took the time to read it, called, “Why I’m Sticking With Teaching”.
We ended up talking about my tendency to want to squirm out of difficult situations when the going gets rough. “This is my temptation too,” Cal empathized.
Life was bringing me the lessons I was meant to learn in the difficulties I experienced in teaching. I can see that now. But at the time, I wanted to do anything but apply myself. The teacher became the one faced with the most lessons.
Usually (if not always), these life lessons that come to all of us involve struggle and the choice is always before us – to develop character amid the difficulties or not. “Will you distract yourself in a million ways, and resort to a situational cure like scampering off to a new job? Or will you accept the suffering life brings, and with God’s guidance let it be a chance to deepen as a person?” This is the question Cal and Bev asked me.
This is not to say that a person should never take a new direction in life. For me, however, I knew that a job change wasn’t the answer. I knew the answer was sticking with teaching. With the encouragement and unconditional love of dear friends, I took the harder path, the one less traveled, and over the years I have been every so slowly learning the lessons before me.
One big lesson has been from the course called “Becoming Human 101”. I am perfectionistic by nature, and teaching got my feet tangled in the sticky mud of real life. Too often my anger made me miserable by day’s end. I found a question before me from God: “Lydia, who will you be? Will you remain rigid, demanding that life be what you bargained for? Or will you let go of your expectations, letting me use your circumstances, no matter how difficult, to shape you into a person of character?”
The internal taskmaster who used to crack the whip has become, over the years, more of a gracious mentor (mostly taking the form of my encouraging and faithful friends at Watershed), reassuring me at every turn that I am free to be human because I am loved unconditionally. This mentor, also known as God, also gives me the courage I need to stay in a difficult place and lean into the lessons before me, developing the fruits of character such as patience, love, peace of heart and kindness.
Another big lesson I am learning is that “I am not my job”. A famous theologian named Paul Tillich coined the phrase “ultimate concern”. What is our ultimate concern in life? Is it our jobs or what we “do”, or is there “Something Greater” out there that our jobs and our very selves are contained in? How connected are we to our deepest values? My friends reminded me to keep my eyes on God, not on my own performance or my subjective sense of whether I was doing “well” or not.
“Beautiful things are seldom easy,” says a poster I remember on my cousin’s wall from my childhood. The saying is set on a picture of a flower growing up through a crack in the pavement. I often remembered this poster as I went through the years. I started out in life expecting easy street, but I have learned that the difficult road is where all the treasures lie.
And there have been flower treasures growing up through the cracks! For one thing, I no longer hesitate when that intention sheet crosses my desk every spring. Somehow I know this is the place for me. But more than that, I have had greater peace of heart with the kids. “The major task of aging is that of mellowing,” said a quote given to me on my 50th birthday this year. Maybe mellowing is the best word for it.
I still have a long way to go, but I wouldn’t change my job for anything at this point. Difficult days still give me that knee jerk reaction of wanting to toss in the towel and go pour coffee at Tim’s! But I have another option now, to pray and stay in the difficult place, trusting that God is working out his ways in me and that God will provide for me, giving what I need to face the day.
Here is that quote in its fullness, with a blessing to you all as you enter your places of difficulty, whatever they might be, with a sense of trust and hope.
The major task of aging is that of mellowing – grieving, forgiving, letting go, accepting vulnerability, and moving beyond the greed, ambition, competitiveness, and perpetual disappointment of youth. –Ron Rolheiser