This is the final part of this series on hope. This won’t be the last time that I’ll write about hope but at least for now, you know what I’m talking about when I use that word. Hope is a graced virtue that allows us to live with a realistic optimism about life. Life is fundamentally good. Our lives are fundamentally good. Our experience of life is fundamentally good. Hope is what reminds us of that truth when our subjectivity gets overtaken by the hardships and anxieties of life.
So, what does hope look like in action? That’s the question that I want to answer in this post.
First, I’ll say that as a counselor part of my job is to help encourage people in the midst of their challenges. I’m there to be a voice of reason and encouragement, to guide them through their pain with clarity and patience. I am always honored when someone opens up and shares their life’s story with me. Yes, I have the expertise on the counseling theories, but what gives me the confidence to help people is that I too have suffered and internally wrestled with these doubts and thoughts for years. As I have tried to make sense of certain events in my life, I know that I can guide others through their pain, too.
One of the worst things we can do in the spiritual life is comparing crosses, because we usually do it in a way that belittles our own experience. Having perspective is okay, but diminishing our experience is not. Embrace and kiss the cross, is what my old spiritual director would say (the great Monsignor Crawford). I say this, because the suffering in my life has not always been the easiest to define. I don’t have cancer. My parents loved me as a child. Kristin and I have never had a miscarriage. Our kids are fairly normal (so far). I say this because I think many of us feel this way. “I don’t have a big tangible event to claim, yet I still feel pretty miserable.” Why is that? Because life is still pretty darn hard.
I feel like I had a pretty normal childhood. I had my conversion in college and gave my life to Jesus at 18, desiring to live the life he wanted for me. I graduated. I got married. We did missionary work. We had our first kid. I went to graduate school. I started my career. But somewhere in my early 30’s things got tough. It’s like life just smacked me in the face and said, “wake up!”
It was the first time that the things I had put my hopes in failed me. It was the first time that I had been hurt by believers and members of the Church. It was the first time that my eyes were open to the insidiousness of evil inside of the human heart. Evil is not always apparent; even to the person committing the transgression. It was the first time that the poor decisions I had made came to bite me and lead me close to financial and professional ruin. It was the first time that I really tasted burnout, cynicism, despair, and hopelessness. My suffering was caused by a mix of my own naïveté about life, trust being ruptured by close friends, false expectations, and a misunderstanding of how grace works.
I’m not a depressed person by temperament. Some people are more inclined to sadness and melancholy, I’m not one of them. So, when I started seeing that emerge inside of me, it scared me. In my 20’s, I never understood how someone could become cynical. Now, in my 30’s, I get it. I tasted it and did not like how it made me feel. I wanted no part of it and made decisions to remove myself from bad environments and have chosen to live a more deliberate and intentional life. I prayed. I read. I studied, because I wanted answers to my suffering and I wanted to be part of the solution for others. That desire is what drives this show.
One of the treasures I read during this time was C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, his personal recollections following the death of his wife Joy Davidman. He offered many great images for his pain, but one that I want to share here is his use of “the house of cards.” He said that we take a lot of time creating a house of cards (as an analogy of our relationship with God). We become pretty proud of what we built, thinking that it is the Lord, but then something happens that knocks that house of cards (and the presumptions that it is build upon) down. What the experience of suffering reveals is that that house of cards wasn’t an entirely correct understanding of God, so it is His right to knock it down. God loves us enough to straighten out our understanding and expectations of him. He wants all of us! Nothing less will do! In that vein, suffering is often the vehicle He uses to call us to that deeper conversion. That is mercy.
I have come to believe in that process in my own life and desire to share that with others. That’s why I care about hope. That’s why I want people to live with hope. It’s easy to punch in the numbers, add up all the bad things that have happened in life and say that life sucks. Despair is easy, as the French poet Charles Peguy stated, in The Portal of the Mystery of Hope. We don’t always know what God is doing in our lives, but we do profess his goodness and love; therefore we have to believe that things are being allowed for a reason.
So, whatever your suffering is, cling to hope. Bring your pain to the Lord. Seek the answers that will help it make sense for you. Find rest. And above everything else resist that unholy succumbing of despair and cynicism. God is with you and he is leading you through it all.
Thanks for reading this three part series! Let us continue to pray for one another.