When I first heard this, I laughed. Who would linger in hell? But then I thought of my own tendency –much as I hate to admit it—to nurse my wounds and wallow. In Hebrews we are warned to not allow a root of bitterness to spring up among us. When things aren’t going well, it is tempting to create a life that is a shrine to our misery. Our negative thoughts and emotions become a feedback loop that have us spiraling further down into despair. It’s like we create a kind of hell in our own minds. And in doing so, we sabotage our chance for a life lived to the full.
But what can we do if we can’t get out of hell?! How many of us allow the wounds from our past define who we are? That is the real tragedy, being stuck or defined by the painful things that have happened to us. Our resentment and bitterness become a prison.
A Call to Grow Up
I’ve had my share of bitter experiences. Several years ago, my life as I knew it was shattered. I lost nearly everything I cared about. The pain was excruciating. I felt betrayed by God and many people I had trusted completely. I lost confidence that if I just did my part life would be kind. Now, looking back, I think it was a call for me to grow up and lose my naiveté. Life often doesn’t turn out the way we expect it to, but there are gifts along the way, pockets of joy, faithful friends, spiritual growth, and silver-linings in the dark clouds.
I’m in good company.
Some dear friends lost their young son, after a valiant fight and many prayers, to a virus he caught when his immune system was weakened from cancer treatment. Not fair. My friend, his mother, is one of the most joyful people I know. When I asked her how she moved on and chose to live with joy again after her son’s death she said, “I’ll forever be affected by his death…it’s always with me. But I decided I didn’t honor his life by ruining mine. When I choose to celebrate life, I honor his memory.”
Using the Pain to Help Others
Harold Kushner wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner’s son, after years of suffering, died at the age of 14 from a degenerative disease. Not fair. Helen Keller, famous author and humanitarian, got a fever when she was 2 years old and became blind and deaf. Not fair.
After all they suffered, here are some things these folks had to say about the fact that life isn’t fair:
“If you have been brave enough to love, and sometimes you won and sometimes you lost; if you have cared enough to try, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t; if you have been bold enough to dream and found yourself with some dreams that came true and a lot of broken pieces of dreams that didn’t, that fell to earth and shattered, then you can look back from the mountaintop you now find yourself standing on, like Moses contemplating the tablets that would guide human behavior for a millennia, resting in the Ark alongside the broken fragments of an earlier dream. And you, like Moses, can realize how full your life has been and how richly you are blessed. ”
– Harold Kushner
Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.
Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.
Finding Meaning in Suffering
Dr. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist from Vienna who spent many years helping thousands of patients. In 1938, when the Nazis took over Austria, he was forbidden to treat Ayrian patients because he was a Jew. In 1942, Dr. Frankl and his family were deported to the first of several concentration camps in which he stayed for 3 years. As we all know, millions were over worked, starved, tortured, and murdered during the Holocaust. During the remaining years of World War II, Frankl’s mother, father, brother, and wife all died in the camps.
Remarkably, Frankl didn’t give into bitterness and despair. He observed that the inmates who survived were the ones who found meaning in their suffering. For example, they endured dehumanizing treatment in honorable ways, helping others, and holding on to their faith in God. Some inmates determined to survive so they could bear witness to the unspeakable things they had seen and experienced.
After all Frankl endured and lost, he wrote a book: Man’s Search For Meaning which was originally titled Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. Frankl’s book has been translated into 40 languages and millions of copies have been sold throughout the world. It is considered by many to be one of the most influential books ever written. Here are some of his powerful insights:
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
― Viktor E. Frankl
Red poppies are typically a reminder of the death and sacrifice of fallen soldiers. After World War I, in France, little would grow on former battle fields except in Flanders where poppies bloomed. Because their seeds are tiny and they are so resilient, poppies could live where nothing else could. Life and hope emerging from tragedy is what poppies symbolize to me.