Courage in Suffering

My child, when you come to serve the Lord,
    prepare yourself for testing.
 Set your heart right and be steadfast,
    and do not be impetuous in time of calamity.
Cling to him and do not depart,
    so that your last days may be prosperous.
 Accept whatever befalls you,
    and in times of humiliation be patient.
 For gold is tested in the fire,
    and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation.


My sister just recently decided to become a mail carrier after ditching her job in the city. On the first day of training she nervously sought to fill a dead spot in the conversation.

“So, do we organize the letters and packages on our route alphabetically?”

The man looked at her compassionately. “Um, so we organize by the numbers on the mail boxes.”

My sister had been up since 4 am, was considering buying a new home, was recovering from Lyme, had failed the first mail carrier driving test, and had taken on a new labrador retriever puppy we later discovered came from a puppy mill. A few days later the same man spotted her at another training.

“I remember you!” he said with a smile.

“Yes, I’m the one who asked the moronic question.”

He laughed. “I have to admit that I thought they were really lowering the standards around here.”

My sister is funny and resilient. She takes humiliation quite well.

Guess who has the puppy now?

Children who have suffered from severe abuse have an uneasy relationship with shame. A well-loved child will be told no a million times. These little reprimands followed by hugs and kisses allow the child to experience shame in small and useful doses. It prepares them for a lifetime of mistakes and learning from those mistakes. An abused child often was made to feel shame and humiliation for unjustifiable reasons. In many cases, because of the parent’s own faulty shame response, the child becomes a hated thing. Our adopted daughter cannot take any personal responsibility. To do so releases such intense shame — a shame that causes her to hurt others.

God does not seek to shame us into submission but he allows us to learn through suffering. We all know there is no escaping suffering. It’s why some people prefer not to imagine a creator at all. A year or so ago a blogging friend AMY mentioned that she picked a word for each year. I liked the idea. COURAGE instantly came to mind.

I’m writing a novel based on my ancestors. As a timid person who hates to be humiliated I felt I really needed to explore the lives of my courageous ancestors.

Consider the generations of old and see:
    has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed?
Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken?
    Or has anyone called upon him and been neglected?
 For the Lord is compassionate and merciful;
    he forgives sins and saves in time of distress.

 Woe to timid hearts and to slack hands,
    and to the sinner who walks a double path!
 Woe to the fainthearted who have no trust!
    Therefore they will have no shelter.
 Woe to you who have lost your nerve!
    What will you do when the Lord’s reckoning comes?

My ancestors cut through forests as panthers with yellow eyes stalked them at night. They lived off of turnips and beechnuts. They were captured by Indians during the French and Indian War and threw tea overboard when the government overstepped authority. They fought and died to end slavery.

I’m afraid to make phone calls.

So courage became the word of the last year. I hate superheroes. MY CHARACTERS are as flawed as I am. I can’t connect with perfect people. I’m too much a perfectionist to want competition. The good thing about aging and becoming just a little bit wiser is that I see what my problem is: Pride leads to fear of humiliation which leads to stepping back when I need to step forward. More pride, more shame, more cowardice … repeat.

One of my ancestors was sent home from the Civil War because he’d had loose bowels for so long that he was coughing up blood. What unimagineable courage it must have taken for him to reenlist a year later upon recovery. Yes, the bonuses would have been appealing to a poor farm boy, but I refuse to belittle his self-sacrifice. Imagine the many large and small humiliations suffered by the patients in those old-fashioned hospitals.

Not much has changed. Two doctors once stood face-to-face across a hospital bed fighting over who might better find a vein to draw blood from me as I lay dying. I didn’t choose that indignity so I don’t think I was courageous, yet it did refine me. I appreciated compassionate doctors and nurses more. I appreciated the hospital workers who without my prompting prayed over me. Their prayers must have worked!

Humiliations come to us even if we do not seek them. The courageous do what’s good, true or beautiful even when they know the humiliations they will most likely suffer.

Those who fear the Lord prepare their hearts,
    and humble themselves before him.

The beginning of wisdom is accepting that we cannot hide from humiliation. Yes, we will fear it and dread it. But the ancients all seemed to understand the glory of courage and the refining value of suffering. This last year I had to decide if I would forgive our daughter’s rages that so often were taken out on me. I had to fight to get her to safety and bare my soul to mental health professionals who no longer had souls of compassion.

If I hadn’t been thinking about courage and humility I could not have escaped with my sanity. I’m stronger than I thought I was, but weaker and more reliant on others than I would ever have admitted. That’s okay. It’s actually good. I’m not as brave as a soldier overtaking a breastwork, but I’m not as afraid as I once was of life’s refinery (I should probably knock on wood or something after saying that).

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