Knowing Your Strength

The late Whitney Houston sang a song that moves me every time I hear it. “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” is a powerful exclamation of self-affirmation, set to music, a kind of “in your face, tribulations!” rendition offered by a woman who had been through a self-created and self-imposed hell but had come out standing.

If only she had truly believed what she sang, enough to have left the drugs and alcohol alone.

Though I mourn her exit from this life, her song resonates with me. Several people I know have said that 2013 was a horrible year; the latest article in The New Yorker about President Obama written by David Remnick says that for the president, that was certainly the case  (annus horribilis, writes Remnick).

That phrase apparently applies to more people than I originally thought.  My best friend nearly died and was on life support for two weeks. Two good friends of mine lost their mothers; another acquaintance lost her grandchild in a tragic and horrible accident.  A woman I know lost her husband of over 30 years suddenly. “I had no time to prepare,” she said to me one day, tearfully. “I don’t know what I will do …”

So many people shared with me how 2013  rocked their worlds…and my2013, well, let’s just say that “horrible” is an understatement.

But in spite of bad (or horrible) times, it is amazing that all of those people I mentioned, as well as myself, are still standing. We have not lost our minds or our will and resolve to live and thrive. While every one of those people I mentioned could relate to my experience of being so hurt and shattered that it hurt to literally breathe, they made it through. They, as well as I, didn’t know our own strength. It is bad and/or difficult times that teach us that.

Some years ago, I heard Deepak Chopra say that “bad” times are not bad; they are actually “good,” he said, because from them we learn our most valuable lessons. It is from bad times that we become stronger and we recognize the strength within us that we just do not think about and therefore cannot tap into.

The more we push against the adversities in our lives, the more we push the unmovable, the more muscular our spirits become. Our spirits become “toned” by the hard work of pushing against that which wants to take us out. The late Nelson Mandela pushed forward, though he was imprisoned for 27 years because he dared stare apartheid in the face and become in a movement to bring it down. I talked with a young man who withstood being wrongly arrested and convicted of a crime he had not committed. “I made it, Rev. Sue,” he said. “I made it.” He doesn’t know what his life will look like from this day forward, but he withstood an experience which he would only say was “horrific.”

Life was never meant to be easy; unfortunately, we all learn that. Life is meant to shake us to our cores…Tears are necessary from time to time. Depression caused by bad times must, I think, help in the strengthening process. The good thing is that not all of the “trials” we are to go through come at the same time; they are merciful enough to spread themselves out. Theoretically, by the time the “next” trial comes, the strength we have gained from the previous one has kicked in.

When I think of Whitney Houston, I think that perhaps the strength she had within her hadn’t kicked in yet; it was new. She was coming face to face with it, and getting to know herself in a new way. She was a stronger Whitney who had faced the lions of adversity and come out standing. That was her strength …

But her legs were not strong enough yet. She could stand up but couldn’t remain standing.

My prayer is that the strength I have come to realize I have is sufficient to keep me standing …as well as the strength in every single one of the persons I mentioned above. Every single one of them were knocked down by life. What they went through took the breath out of them. They …and I …found out how hard it is to breathe, let alone stand, when a tsunami overtakes us.

Knowing the strength we have inside is only the first part of surviving trials and pain. What we must do …and perhaps what Whitney did not do …is nurture and feed the new self that emerges with new strength. Otherwise, we might fall down, like Whitney did.

That would mean that the pain we just got through was wasted. That, somehow, is unacceptable. The experience of annus horribilis, though distasteful and unpleasant, is a gift. To not stand up in spite of it …just doesn’t work.

A candid observation …

Look Forward and Up, not Back

This is the first day of the new year and I am promising myself to look forward and up, and not back.

I don’t make resolutions, so I don’t think my decision can qualify as such, but it is a decision, a decision which will be very difficult to do, I might add, but it is necessary. I have to look forward and up because if I don’t, I will get stuck in the past.

What I want most of all is for my life and my work to make a difference, even now, though I am not a spring chicken! I still believe that miracles happen, no matter one’s age. I still believe there is talent and are gifts inside me I have yet to birth. I cannot afford to get stuck.

Iyanla Vanzant has said that in order to grow, people have to “do the work.”  She wrote, in her New Year’s message, “Do not be a slave to what “used to be” be open and willing to be do a new thing in a new way.  It about a new level so STEP UP with your head up!”  Moving forward and up means looking in, which is never pleasant, and yet, doing the work needed to keep our focus where it needs to be involves looking in and seeing what is there, not what we wish were there. It is, frankly, a “yucky” exercise, this looking in, but after the yuck comes release from something that has kept us from being our true, authentic and gifted selves.

What I want is, in spite of my weaknesses and foibles, to make a difference for somebody. I can give something, some part of myself, to someone who is struggling, who is sad or lost. I can share what I have and add something to someone else’s life.  I am fairly reclusive, but I can ditch some of that and share what I have been given by God.

As I write this, I am thinking about how many people are struggling on this, the first day of a new year. I am struggling, but my struggle is nothing compared to what others are going through. I have a friend whose son is critically ill; he was in and out of the hospital so many times last month that I wondered how my friend was holding on. Yesterday she called and said he was in the hospital again …on the eve of a New Year. She cried. I cried with her. She said, “I so wanted him NOT to be in the hospital on New Year’s Eve.” I can share some of myself with her.

I have another friend who lost her mother three weeks ago…and her mother last week. I have had a lot of loss in my life. My mother, father and sister have died. As a pastor, I have lost so many people I loved. I can share with my friend, who, at 52, had never lost anyone close.

I think it was Deepak Chopra who wrote that there are no bad experiences; what we call “bad” are really life lessons. And I have learned that we waste good lesson time if we do not study what happened, do the dreaded “look inside” exercise, and learn the lesson or lessons we were supposed to learn. Another friend of mine calls the experiences that come from bad times “blessons.” A blessing and a lesson, rolled into one. Looking at my own struggles as “blessons” helps them to be bearable, and encourages me to get on with my life, to look up and forward …and not back.

My friend with the sick son sits today in a hospital where she sat all night at his bedside. She is afraid to leave. I am sort of afraid to go to her, because I don’t want to see her hurt …and yet, part of looking forward and up is about seeing who’s out there who can use what I have. I have lots of compassion. I can share that.,

I will be writing out my goals, personal and professional, for 2013 later today. Part of the plan is to look up and forward. In everything I do, I will have to make sure those two things are being done. I am going to force myself not to look back. I am going to leave what’s behind …”back there,” take my blessons, put them in a place close to my heart …and move as God directs.

I think people who make a difference in the world must do that sort of thing, don’t you think? I do…

A candid observation …