when the thieves come

One of my mentors first brought my attention to the adage:

“We’re here to build character, not be one.”

This has been a most meaningful concept which drifts in and out of my consciousness, usually at two separate times: when I am facing an opportunity for growth, and about to take that opportunity – or when I’m watching someone else at that same juncture.

I believe most people have a tendency to resist growth. We resist growth and as a result, our lives get more painful and pinched. We become consumed in obsession, or rage or anxiety, our ambitions, our “busy”, our self-absorbed “life isn’t good enough”. Our days can go on this way for years. It’s a painful way to live.

At best we try to manage and direct our growth. “I’ll read this self-help book and then I’ll feel better.” “I’ll pretend everything is okay and then somehow it will be.” “I’ll tell the story about how I’m the victim so everyone will see how Special I am.” “After I get this job/quit this job/get a boyfriend/lose this boyfriend/move/stop moving I’ll feel better.” Ad infinitum.

In rare cases we will see the futility of this life, this resistance. We will feel a pain – maybe a little, maybe the most we’ve ever known. We will give in, give up, let go. We will be come teachable. Perhaps we’ve been wrong about the whole business after all!

Then, and only then, are we able to grow. And wonderful things are ahead.

Let me tell you a recent story from my life.

Almost a year ago now, our family was wronged by members of another household. The painful experience was swift, baffling, hurtful, and confusing. Despite my path of faith, wonderful friends, family, and mentors, I felt cast into darkness.

I relied on my faith as I never previously had. It was the only place I found even a little comfort. I talked with my mentors and trusted friends. I tried to take helpful, sensible action and help my family – and myself. For a long time, I was almost numb to the fact I’d been wronged. I was so busy trying to figure out how to recover our losses I didn’t have time for the people who hurt us. Over time I began to know they had hurt my family in a way that I found difficult to take. My mind began to obsess – how could they do this? Why did they do this? What is wrong with them?

It has been a while now, and my family is doing well. But these memories are sometimes painful. On my drive to and from errands I see the house where these people live. I am reminded of my pain, humiliation, fear, and confusion on an almost-daily basis. Sometimes I see the parties who hurt myself and my family.

What should I do? Should I bring up my grievance? Should I, as so many do, nurse that private grudge and relive my past pain? Should I knock on their door and extend an olive branch?

This is where I have an opportunity to grow.

My old behaviors are not healthy or helpful. They have me wishing revenge, or that harm would come to those have hurt me. Sometimes, my old behaviors have me go the other route – that of denial. Constantly wanting everything to be “okay”. I want to have a talk with those who’ve harmed me so we can sort it all out, drop the ill-feeling. I want them to, if not admit they wronged me, at least tell me they like me and wish me well. I want to manage my reputation – I want people not to know the worst about me (or my family); I want people to hold me in high regard.

These are all attempts to manage my pain, or to make it go away. Plain and simple. When we see we are trying to manage our lives, we can laugh – a little.

“Building character”, for me, means to accept that I’m in pain, that I was wronged, and that I refuse to wrong others. I don’t have to be friends with these individuals. I don’t have to “have a talk” with them where we (supposedly) clear up any misunderstandings. I don’t have to do anything about them except refuse to nurse a grudge, and to extend to them courtesy, my well-wishes – and leave them be.

It can help, sometimes, to take the long view:

The other day I received a thorough and heartfelt apology from someone who believed she’d wronged me three years ago. Her infraction had weighed on her mind. She detailed her wrongs, and apologized thoroughly.

I ask myself this: I must live in a way that I will be okay if I receive an apology in three, ten, twenty years. But I also must live in a way I will be okay if I never receive an apology, if I never know why these people sought fit to hurt us.

I refrain from causing harm to others. I will not gossip, or wish them will. I will not slander their characters (aloud or in my mind).

I refrain from causing harm to myself. I will not constantly relive painful memories. I will not criticize myself for the pain I felt (and sometimes feel), for my best-attempts when I suffer, or for my mistakes.

“Patience, persistance, & prayer”. It ain’t glamorous, it ain’t exciting. But growth? Yes. It makes for growth.