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Every disability conceals a vocation, if only we can find it, which will turn the necessity to glorious gain.

C.S. Lewis
T he last thirty days have brought some challenges in our extended work family. Cancer has struck close to home in multiple places and we’ve watched those we work with, and care about, struggle with its effects. In the midst of it, we’ve turned the normalcy of our working world upside down with a move and all of the difficulties that arise with such a large endeavor. Today, I step back to look at the burdens, and opportunities, in these trials.

Our hope in life is that we avoid the suffering that comes with it. We strive to live away from the pain that comes with our frail mortality as human beings. We work to mitigate the discomfort that comes at the intersection of our lives with a world that has plans other than our own. All of this we do, knowing that there is no avoiding life’s trials. There is little we can do to prepare for it; there is only walking through it.

That’s ok, to do otherwise is to live perpetually in fear of what might happen. Fear of what might be almost always renders us less effective. Focusing on what we can’t control only fosters a sense of insignificance, threatening to paralyze us when we linger too long in its grip. Preparing for trials or working to avoid them gives us a sense of control, an illusion that offers some comfort but does little to help us when the time comes. And it inevitably comes.

Cancer is one of those shadowy threats that lives in the recesses of our mind until it bursts unapologetically into our life. Often with no rhyme or reason. It springs from the frightening depths that exist beyond our knowledge and understanding – elusively sharing portions of its secrets only to quickly change course and confound us with new twists. In this lottery, we all hope our number doesn’t get pulled.

Such are many of our trials. Dark threats in our mind, until they appear on our horizon and impose their difficulties on our lives. Self-induced or lottery ticket matters little, they come regardless, forcing us to react. Making us deal, cope, mourn, fight, hope, and despair. In the moment, we ask “Why?” and lament our poor fortune while those around us wring their hands helplessly, asking how they might help; wishing it wasn’t so. In this place there seems no purpose, no justification. Only random bad luck.

The recent trials in our work world have left me feeling all of the above, but mostly helpless. From that place of helplessness, I’ve glimpsed the light of purpose, or at least its beginnings. Of course, given the choice, none of us would trade healthy normalcy for purpose in suffering, but that is not our choice to make. Our choice is only what we see in the challenges and where we allow them to lead us.

So, from my heart and in a spirit of healing hopefulness, I share the following observations on finding purpose in our trials.

  • Our trials, and those of others, bring us closer together. Trials remind us that we cannot do this alone and that we need other people. They give others the opportunity to step-up, and help. In our difficulties, we are drawn to the shelter of community.
  • The trials we face help us focus on what is most important. Often brutally. In comfort, it is far easier to get lost in the mirage of competing priorities – balance, fulfillment, entertainment, work. Watching cancer work its insidious plan, we are reminded quite acutely of what is most important.
  • Our difficulties humble us. “Humble” is one of those words that evokes mixed feelings: we want people to be humble but we really never want to be humbled. Humility helps us acknowledge what we can’t control. Humility opens us to the help of others. From this heart, we can truly engage with others in a way that cannot happen when we are in less need or feel that we’ve “got it.” Humility also dials-us-in to the elemental gifts of gratitude, kindness, hope, and love. When we are humbled, we can engage at the most basic level of human generosity and it brings us closer to everyone around us.
  • Trials help us find our best. They test us. No, we really didn’t want the test and would prefer to remain untested, but that is not how this world works. We evolve and survive by growing through life’s tests. Often the same challenges help others find their best. We have to be pressed up against the world’s difficulties to know our mettle – to discover the gifts within that comprise our best self. In adversity, we find strength we didn’t know we had, creativity that laid dormant, energy which may not have been needed before, hope that seemed elusive, and possibility we never considered.
  • Trials give us the chance to see miracles. I witnessed a miracle this week as a brave wife & mother, recently diagnosed with cancer and dying from an acute reaction, was saved in an emergency surgery that almost didn’t happen because of unclear diagnostics and the fear of doing more (or faster) harm. Her battles are not over, she has a long way to go, but through this miracle, she was given the opportunity to keep fighting and to be present for her family along the way; causing me to wonder what other miracles may wait for her, and her family. In our difficulties, we get the chance to see the unlikely happen – the miracle that hints at something beyond this world and a plan that is not our own.

What else can trials do? They can break us, if we let them. Every possible purpose listed above has an opposing side. If we allow them, trials can drive us inward, blocking out those who might help us. Trials can cause us to blame or foster resentment as we ask “why?” and shake our fist at the cold, unfeeling universe. Our difficulties can feed hate and fan disdain toward others as we struggle. Challenges can magnify selfishness as we lose sight of anything but our own suffering or that of one we love making it nearly impossible to appreciate others or even the small victories that appear in our battles. Our suffering will take it all away from us if we allow it.

No one wants suffering. We’d much rather let the trials pass us by and sail through our lives smoothly. But there are gifts in trials. Though we’d rather find another path, they present the opportunity to be our best self and give others the opportunity to shine when all lights go out. In recent weeks, I’ve witnessed all of the above in concentrated, mind-blowing fashion. The depths and the heights on full display as real suffering, real trials were encountered. Though all outcomes are uncertain, what is certain is the power of the human spirit and what can happen when people come together in support through suffering. Difficult yes. Yet, purposeful as well.