The Gift and Power of Struggle

I will never forget the struggle of my sister, who fought against cancer with a nobility and grace that was inspiring and humbling, both at the same time.

She had been diagnosed years ago, was on the brink of death, but fought it then. After she passed the crisis stage, and was gaining her strength, I asked her if she ever thought she was going to die. All of the doctors, after all, had thought she would …but she looked at me, straight in the eyes, and said, “no, never.”

She went years in remission before the dreaded disease returned two Thanksgivings ago. She was not happy it had returned, but she was ready for the battle, and battle she did. Several times doctors thought she had played her last card, but she rallied each time. It was as though she was saying that she might be going …but she would go on her terms, not on the terms of the doctors.

She died last year, but I cannot say she lost the battle. She fought and won, I believe, because she stopped fighting when she was ready.

Elbert Hubbard wrote that “there is no failure except in no longer trying; there is no defeat except from within, no really insurmountable barrier save our own inherent weakness of purpose.”  My sister was not a failure because she never stopped trying, she never felt defeated from within, and she had an inherent  purpose to live for a long time. Her focus and willingness to struggle gave her not only more days but quality days. She refused to give in. It wasn’t denial; it was determination and faith and hope that kept her going. She knew very well how sick she was, and yet, she “looked to the hills from whence came her help” (Psalm 121) and held on with the expectation that she would be able to hold on.

She was willing to struggle.

Sometimes, when it comes to race in our country, I wonder why it is we are not willing to struggle and to come face to face with our very personal disease. I have read much of the vitriol that has been spewed since President Obama won last week’s presidential election, and have been saddened. It is all so clearly race-based, but nobody will say it. Nobody wants to admit and face and deal with our issue. As opposed to my sister, who, invaded by a deadly disease, engaged in the struggle to fight it, America runs from the disease called racism and denies it exists. And so we are being consumed, even today in the 21st century, by this ever-present reality. It is like an autoimmune disease of our society, affecting our central nervous system and thereby affecting the very things we need for a full and vital life.

Why in the world do we run from it?  Well, a big reason is because we, America, are not a community. We call ourselves  the “united” states but we are not. We are far from it. Post-election, several states are circulating petitions to secede from the United States. There is no community. We are a conglomerate of different races and ethnicities, but we are far from having the commitment necessary to be a community. We do not respect the differences of each other; in fact, we live in ignorance about who each other is, and so, far from commitment and community, we live in ignorance and therefore, in fear of each other. M. Scott Peck, author of several books including The Road Less Traveled and The Different Drum, says that commitment is the willing to co-exist, and says it’s crucial in order for there to be true community.

We don’t have that in our country, and so, in this 21st century, racism is as ugly and as potent as it has ever been. People are referring to President Obama as the “n” word; they are calling him “monkey” and worse, and they feel all right doing it. Racism has never lost its place as an accepted way of thinking in America and since we are so unwilling to struggle, it seems highly unlikely that it will ever go completely away.

In any struggle, we have to see ourselves as we are, not as we would like to believe we are. Real struggle begins then, because with the admission that we have some faults and some issues, we have to do some real work. We don’t want to do that …and so bad, toxic emotions and feelings fester within us as individuals and within this nation as an entity.

The gift and power of struggle is that if we are courageous enough to engage in it, we come out stronger. We are no longer afraid of what used to frighten us. We are able to stand in the face of adversity because in the process of struggle, we learn our own strength. America likes to talk about being strong, but she is not. She is a nation divided, and therefore, is weakened more than we would like to believe.

We don’t want to struggle because we don’t want to hurt, but hurt is a part of the process of life, says Joan Chittister in her book, Scarred by Struggle; Transformed by Hope. It is in having the courage to struggle that we learn to feed on hope, and in that feeding, we become stronger.

I wish America would be willing to struggle. I wish she would stop being afraid and stop living in denial. It is so past time for us to be talking about the virulence and presence of racism here. To struggle with it genuinely would be painful, yet after the pain, there would be a new America. We would be able to move on to other things, which we must needs do, but we limit ourselves just because we do not want to struggle. We do not want to change. And because we do not want to struggle and change, we won’t, not anytime soon.

A candid observation …


When Things Fall Apart

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clearly, for a large number of Americans, things either have fallen or are falling apart in this nation.

Conservatives, bitterly disappointed over the outcome of this week’s presidential election, have resorted to calling for a revolution (Donald Trump) to saying that “America died” (Victoria Jackson), to a musing that America is no longer, “traditional,” the country of our forebears (Bill O’Reilly)  to Karl Rove refusing to acknowledge President Obama’s victory on Fox News. Gov. Romney’s loss has left a bitter, bitter taste in the mouths of too many.

America, for many, is suffering, a suffering that goes to her very soul. Things as they were, comfortable for white males, have changed, and the change is horribly bitter. I am reminded of Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” where he writes:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

For many, anarchy has come to America.

Karen Armstrong said that when things change as radically as they are in America, there is a resurgence of fundamentalism. People run to that which they know, that which seems safe. But it seems that even fundamentalism in this nation, that which the Christian Right has held onto and used to its political advantage, is changing. Younger religious people are pulling away from a religion that is exclusive and, too often, mean-spirited in the name of Jesus.

Things fall apart.

Joan Chittister, in her book, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, writes that we are living in an era in need of a spirituality of struggle. Nothing is the same as we knew it, no matter who we are.  With the emergence of a global economy and a global political awareness, everything has changed. We are no longer able, as Americans, to sit content in a cocoon. We are touched by the whole world; the whole world has access to us as never before. We, for a while had access to them. Now, they have access to us. We don’t like it. This new reality is not comfortable.

In our own country, the demographics of a nation clearly in the grip of change has upset everything.  I watched rallies at which Gov. Mitt Romney spoke during the presidential campaign, and was sad. There were so many white faces, and so few black and brown faces. Did he really think he could ignore such a large part of America? Chittister says that “we are people born in a white, Western, Christian culture that we watch become more brown, more Eastern, more polyvalent every day.”

And, she says, “it shakes us to the center of our souls.”

Change for individuals, things falling apart for individuals, is no easier for them than it is for a nation as great as is the United States. We as individuals, many of us, are experiencing change so radical that our souls have been shaken almost to annihilation. We do not like what we are feeling, and we want it to stop. But change, once it begins, seems to have a mind of its own. It continues to its fruition, and all we can do is deal with it.

Chittister says that some of us fall into deep depression as the change in our lives takes its course. She says that “the spiritual question becomes how to go about each dying day without giving in to the death of the soul.” That question, she says, is at the crux of a spirituality of struggle. And how we handle things falling apart will either result in clinical depression or spiritual growth.

It feels like much of Conservative America is headed toward clinical depression. We as a nation are not doing so well with the onslaught of change that is confronting us. We grew comfortable in our complacency. We didn’t want to change. But in spite of our protests, change is marching through our very cores. Things are falling apart.

My prayer is that fewer and fewer individuals are reacting as poorly to the changes and challenges and struggles that are happening in our personal lives. Most of us don’t want the changes that come into our lives, sometimes uninvited and sometimes, invited by our own actions.  We like sitting in our saucers. It’s comfortable there.

But life is about change. Life is about things, as we have always known them, falling apart.

The hope is that even as things fall apart, we will remain intact, and become stronger. That is especially the hope I have for America. Maybe it’s because the re-election of President Obama is still too new, too raw, but right now it doesn’t feel like America is growing stronger. A politician from Texas said something about “divorcing” from America. That would be secession, right?  We as a nation don’t seem to be doing too well with the changes. It feels like we are …falling apart.

A candid observation…

When We Are Unwilling to Struggle

Joan Chittister writes in her book, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, that Western civilization, “and the United States in particular, has developed to the point where pain is unacceptable.”   Because of that, our country is unwilling to struggle with the things which are always with us. Racism is one of those things. It sits in the middle of everything we do, like a grinning Cheshire cat, knowing that it does not have to worry about being confronted honestly. Many will say that even the mention of racism is foolhardy, that it is gone and has been for a long time. Those who pull “the race card” are immediately ostracized and criticized.

And yet, the Cheshire cat stays amongst us. In this last presidential campaign, the cat walked quietly yet persistently into campaign rhetoric, shaping words that belied the rancid presence of racism. Bill O’Reilly, after President Obama, said “Obama wins because it’s not a traditional America anymore,” he said. “The white establishment is the minority. People want things.”

The entitlements that Republicans want to slash help poor, black and brown people but a whole heap of poor white people as well.   There is a resentment there, always right below the surface. People who are on government assistance are viewed as leeches. They want “things,” as O’Reilly said.  I guess well-to-do people don’t want things? Isn’t having “things” part of what America is about? And those who do not have the things that they see the well-to-do, or at least comfortable, people have yearn for the day when they’ll be able to have those things too. That is part of the capitalist ethos, isn’t it?

The Cheshire cat grins and walks quietly away. America will not struggle, will not confront her, and she knows it.

We don’t like to struggle, and yet it is through struggle that we become whole. Struggle happens when we confront ourselves, our weaknesses, our issues, our fears, our fears. Struggle happens when we see ourselves for who we are, not for what we would like to be. When we refuse to struggle, our issues clog us up.  We are always on defense, always trying to justify ourselves and where we are. We do not grow if we refuse to struggle.

America is not nearly the nation she could be, because we refuse to struggle with this dogged racism. The Republicans have awakened; the nation is not lily white anymore. They will have to pay attention to people of many colors and hues. Demographics. Mitt Romney lost  to every demographic except for white people  We as a nation do not want to struggle…

And we as individuals, many of us, refuse to struggle and so are not nearly what we could be.

Chittister says that “struggle is not one thing; it is many things.”  The things with which we refuse to struggle are toxic and can pull us into pits so deep we cannot get out.  We refuse to admit that we are not perfect, and we refuse to get help to address our imperfections. That causes deep pain. Individuals try to get rid of the pain by overeating, taking prescription meds, doing drugs…anything to stop the pain. But because pain cannot and will not go away until we walk into the chaos instead of running away from it, we have to keep on doing self-destructive things in order to breathe without hurting.

Our country lives in denial. We as a nation deny that racism is as rancid as it is, that it permeates everything we do. We have tried, consistently, to push it under the carpet, but it doesn’t stay.  “This country is more divided now than it has ever been,” I heard Mary Matalin, a Conservative, Republican pundit say, She said that President Obama made it so.

The Cheshire cat grins …

I am not at all convinced that America will ever seriously deal with racism, because we keep ingesting and digesting denial. We keep the toxicity of racism with us, even though we deny it’s there.

But I would hope that we as individuals, those of us in the midst of a struggle and those of us who are avoiding a struggle in which we need to engage, would not follow our country’s example and struggle as we need to in order to grow and to become new. Chittister says that “hurt may actually be a part of the process of life.” If we find the root of our pain, we can do what we need in order to get it out, or at least take away its power. If we don’t address and treat our pain, it grows and metastasizes. like a cancer.

If we are unwilling to struggle, we cannot feel the joy of being freed from the grip of our issues. Chittister quotes Helen Keller, who wrote, “The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”

If we are unwilling to struggle, we stay in the valleys. Because of her denial of racism, America sits in a valley, not even traversing. Just sitting.

The Cheshire cat is smiling, licking her paws, settling down for a nap.

A candid observation…



Cover of "Scarred by Struggle, Transforme...
Cover via Amazon


Here we are on Election Day, with one candidate talking about going forward …changing the way things have been done in the past, and the other candidate talking about change …going from big government to smaller government and a balanced budget.


President Barack Obama says going forward will help his policies take hold. There will be health care for more people, young people will find college more affordable, federal regulations on banks and financial institutions should help consumers. Change…that’s all change…


And Governor Mitt Romney says he will balance the budget. That sounds good, except that with a balanced budget and less spending,  somebody is going to suffer. Less spending usually means less spending on programs that help the masses. Although economists say that less spending should be accompanied by more taxes, it feels like the emphasis will be on less spending, which means …change.


Change, no matter which way it comes, hurts. Joan Chittister, in her book Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope,” writes that “change means movement. Movement means friction.”  But, she says, change is necessary because it is in change that we grow. If we cling to the present, she writes, we “cut off the wings to the soul.” Every day we should be “growing into more” or else we “retreat into less,” says Norman Mailer.


So this change in our country …whether it’s from President Obama or Gov. Romney…is a sign of life.


Thing is, we resist change.  Collectively and individually, we resist it. We grow comfortable in our spaces, even if those spaces are not good for us, even if those spaces are toxic. To change means we willingly engage in struggle, and struggle is wearying. We would rather vegetate, even though we wail about things not being right. We wail, but we do not want to do the work of change. Too much friction. We don’t want scarred knees.


If the truth be told, President Obama has brought about a lot of change. Many have not like it; there was movement and therefore, friction, lots of it. There wasn’t as much change as he wanted, but there has been change. And if Gov. Romney wins, there will be change that will rub lots of us the wrong way. There will be friction and struggle; there will be scarred knees.


But that means that there’s life. Where there is no movement, there is no life. Where there is no change, there is no life, either. Change comes unannounced and uninvited too often; in fact, because we resist change so much, the only way change can really happen oftentimes is if it DOES come uninvited. The good thing about presidential politics is that we know that with whomever is in the White House, there will ALWAYS be some kind of change that’s going to rub someone the wrong way. Sometimes, the change, like FDR’s New Deal, helps the masses, and sometimes, the change helps far fewer people. But we know change will come, whomever wins.


In our personal lives, change has to crash through our protective doors, invade our spaces of familiarity in order to get our attention. Change has to force us out of saucers and onto the ground; it has to make the scales fall from our eyes so that we can see what we have been trying hard not to see, and make us break into a jog instead of shuffling along where we’ve always been, satisfied.


In the case of politics, our country doesn’t decide to become new; the election of a new president forces newness upon us. But in our own lives, change, if we embrace it, means that we decide to become new, that we “do the work,” as Iyanla Vanzant says. The essence of struggle, says Chittister, “is neither endurance nor denial. The essence of struggle is the decision to become new rather than to simply become older.”


Well, if that’s the case, and if more people could and would understand change as an opportunity and not a curse, then perhaps we wouldn’t avoid the struggle so much…and just get into the process.


And even in the case of the changes thrust upon us by each president, perhaps it might help us and our country if we would accept some of the changes with a little less resistance. We might benefit from that.


A candid observation…


The Disease Called Fear

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933. Lietuvių: Fra...
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933. Lietuvių: Franklinas Delanas Ruzveltas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who said, in his first inaugural address, that “the only thing we have to fear …is fear itself.”


The year was 1932. The country was in bad shape economically, and by 1933, the depth of the depression had hit head on.  People were deathly afraid, and Roosevelt not only knew it, but he knew times would get worse before they got better. The things they worried about most, he said, were “only material things.”  Said he, in that inaugural speech: “In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.”


He said that “happiness (didn’t lie) in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, the thrill of creative effort.”


Those were powerful words, a balm to the anguished citizens of the United States who were facing a horrible reality. A new normal. It was scary because all that Americans had come to know and love as “American” was being challenged and changed before their eyes…and they could not see where the changes would lead. Would they have their homes? Would they have a job? What would they eat? How would they eat? When was the nightmare going to end? FDR’s words were powerfully comforting, words I’m sure some people came back to again and again.


There is a lot of fear swirling around now. Hurricane Sandy has thrown people into pits of despair. The economy has had people carrying fear around like a heavy suitcase. Some people are afraid for the country if President Barack Obama wins, and others are terrified for the country if Gov. Romney wins. There is no peace in the land right now.


Why? Because the disease of fear is stalking. It is stalking our country, it is stalking individuals, and it is stalking with a sense of arrogance. Fear relies on control, and it manipulates people to much that they acquiesce and give in to being controlled. Joan Chittister‘s book, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope talks in depth about fear. She says that “fear paralyzes a person,” and keeps people from doing things they know they should do. It makes them afraid to even try, and in so doing, lose their peace of mind. Chittister says we as humans must ask ourselves, “What am I willing to lose in order to have peace of mind and integrity of soul?” She says that it’s “not the grappling with a thing that defeats us; it is the unknown answers to hidden questions that wear us down.”


Fear, she says, “cripples us more than any disease ever could. It takes eminent good sense and turns it to gelatin.” Finally, she says “oppressors do not get to be oppressors in a single sweep. They manage it, because little by little, we make them that. We overlook too much in the beginning and wonder why we lose control in the end.”


I wonder what the world would be like if people were not so susceptible to fear. I remember a friend of mine in seminary, who said that his father hated racism but was afraid to speak out about it because he was afraid his church would fire him. I think how people have been intimidated into not speaking up when they’ve known they should, because they were afraid of the consequences. I am sure that, in light of Hurricane Sandy, there are some people who know that there are some predatory companies out, ready to suck the life blood out of vulnerable people, but will not say anything because they are afraid. I think much of the police brutality we hear about comes about because white officers are afraid of African-American males, not because the police officers are bad people. Young women who get caught up in life on the streets stay there far longer than they want because they are afraid of the pimps who initially lured them into “the life” with material things and the young girls translated “gift-giving” with love. Some people honestly think that the Palestinians are getting a raw deal in Israel, but they are afraid to say anything for fear of being called anti-Semitic.We have all heard stories about neighbors who suspected that a wife or children were being abused, but didn’t say anything because they were afraid. We have probably all seen something that we knew was wrong but have been afraid to say something because we don’t know what our “courage” will mean for our lives   Fear is like a mean overseer, stalking lives and countries and situations with a huge whip.


We are afraid of bettering ourselves, stepping out of comfort zones into an “unknown” and so we stay in situations that stunt our growth. We are afraid to move and afraid to stand still. It is no wonder that Thoreau said that many of us live “lives of quiet desperation.”


Chittister says that “moral maturity requires us to choose truth over self-preservation, whatever the cost.”  If we do not do that, as individuals or as communities, oppression and injustice gets to run its course, unopposed.


That’s what fear expects us to do: cower so that injustice can have its way. Sadly, fear is way too often the driver of the car, and it spreads its toxicity everywhere. Fear moves faith and hope out of the way. Fear will account for a lot of people making bad decisions in difficult times; it will add misery to people who are miserable enough.


At the end of the day, we have to decide whether we want to fuel fear and watch it metastasize throughout our spirits, robbing us of opportunities to be free, or if we finally want to face our Goliaths…whatever the cost.


Too often we leave Goliath standing upright, laughing at us.


But as long as Goliath stands, we cannot be free. And …we were made to be free.


A candid observation…