Moving Ahead After the Letdown
- Friday, November 02, 2001
Finding the Heart to Make New Beginnings
One of the most helpful insights we gain from studies of longevity is the importance of resilience. Centenarians, and others who live to ripe old ages, are often those who are best able to accept personal loss and make new beginnings. This isn't to say that they don't feel the pain of major disappointments and even grieve them profoundly. Still, the point comes when they are able to put the past behind them and move on. And they are remarkably adept at making fresh starts, even at unlikely points in life.
Jeanne Calment was a stunning example of this resilience. This Frenchwoman, who died at 122 in August 1997, held the reign as the oldest living person in the world whose birth date can be documented. Yet Calment suffered many misfortunes during her long life. Her only child died of pleurisy at age 36, her husband died from eating tainted cherries at age 72, and her only grandchild died in a car accident when he was 36. Yet after each crisis she was able to regain her hope again and "turn the page." At age 110 she gave up independent living and moved into a nursing home, where she continued to make new friends and adjust well to her new lifestyle. Even during her last years she never lost her positive outlook -- or her sense of humor (when a reporter asked her on her 120th birthday what sort of future she envisioned, she replied, "A very brief one.")
Genetics and lifestyle factors obviously played an important role in Calment's exceptional longevity. Yet experts who have studied her case are convinced that her outlook on life was a critical factor as well.
Broken Dreams and New Horizons
During our own lifetime we each experience a multitude of disappointments and setbacks. These range from minor losses (a friend forgets a lunch date, your favorite restaurant closes) to major unwelcome turns of fate (the breakup of a cherished relationship, the death of a loved one). The experience of loss is universal -- no one escapes it. Yet the way people respond to it varies greatly from person to person and radically affects the quality of life they lead.
At one extreme are those who never fully recuperate from a major loss. They feel the pain of it for years or decades, and carry continual sorrow over the relationship that didn't work, the loved one who died unexpectedly, the dream that never succeeded. They had banked their hopes so greatly on this one part of life that they can't imagine life ever again being as meaningful without it. Grief for them becomes chronic.
At the other extreme are people who have an uncanny ability to bounce back from disappointment. They may feel the pain of a loss initially as strongly as anyone would. But they are optimists at heart, and in the best cases their lives are governed by faith. In time, they always conclude that life still has many new horizons for them. They aren't afraid to chance a new relationship or risk a new dream, and they often succeed in forming deeply meaningful new attachments to people and goals. Over time, too, their life even becomes richer because of their loss, for it deepens them in significant ways.
The example of such people is so inspiring when we encounter it, for it reminds us that it is possible to make new beginnings when life has knocked us flat, and it helps us find the courage to do so. We should reflect on the experience of these people often, for their optimism is contagious. It is only with such optimism that we are able to recognize the special opportunities God gives us to move forward after disappointment.
Enlightening Examples from Scripture
We can also gain much from looking at how individuals in Scripture responded to personal loss and tragedy. Here Scripture gives us helpful examples at both extremes: we see those who overcame the crush of a major loss quite successfully, and those who never recovered.
One who didn't recover was Jacob. Jacob was so demolished by the loss of a son that he never regained his joy in living. Joseph was Jacob's favorite child among his many sons and daughters, being the first-born son of his beloved wife Rachel. Jacob flaunted his love for Joseph so much that his brothers grew insanely jealous of him. One day when Joseph was sixteen, his brothers overpowered him, threw him into a ditch, then sold him to slave traders who carried him off to Egypt. They soaked Joseph's coat in the blood of a dead animal and took it home to Jacob, suggesting that Joseph must have been killed by a wild beast.
Scripture minces no words in saying that Jacob's grief over losing Joseph was torrential. "Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. 'No,' he said, 'in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.' So his father wept for him" (Gen 37:34-35 NIV).
As we read on in Genesis, it becomes clear that Jacob's grief never relented, but became chronic. Jacob's initial grief over losing Joseph is only too understandable. Yet he never rebounded but became fixated on his loss. The tragedy is that Jacob had many other children yet never formed the intimate attachment with any of them that he had with Joseph, and apparently never tried. God surely gave Jacob numerous opportunities to pick up his life again, yet he remained blind to most of it.
Knocked Down but Not Out
Samuel is someone in Scripture who responded to loss in a more healthy and dynamic manner. Samuel is the prophet whom God called to establish Saul as Israel's first king. To a large extent, his identity and happiness became wrapped up in the fate of Saul's rule and its effect on Israel. Samuel ached to see Saul be a mature spiritual leader and Israel a nation that followed the Lord wholeheartedly in all ways.
Saul failed miserably in this role, and God decided to remove him from power. The news devastated Samuel. He "was angry; and he cried to the Lord all night. . . . Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul" (1 Sam 15:11, 35 RSV).
God allowed Samuel to mourn over Saul for some time. But finally he confronted Samuel, telling him it was time to stop grieving and to devote his energies to a new task. "The Lord said to Samuel, 'How long will you grieve over Saul, seeing I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons'" (1 Sam 16:1 RSV).
Even though Samuel had endured an excruciating defeat in Saul's downfall, God still had important work for him to do and a whole new mission for him. He was to recruit David and set him on the course that would lead to his becoming king. Fortunately, Samuel had the good sense to obey God and move forward, even though it must have been hard for him to let go of his anguish over Saul at first.
The fact that Samuel was able to get beyond his remorse over Saul and turn his attention to David not only benefited him and David but a whole nation of people as well. From the evidence we have, Samuel enjoyed working with David, a close bond of friendship developed between them, and Samuel's interest in life and ministry revived. Samuel is an inspiring example of someone from Scripture who learned to turn the page.
Fresh Heart for Fresh Starts
Some people are simply natural-born optimists. Their ability to see the bright side of a dark situation and reset their sites after disappointment is almost surreal. It's mystifying to the rest of us, who are often flattened by the same misfortune. Most of us have to work at being optimistic. We have to take decisive steps to break the spell of moods that can hold us captive for long periods. The challenge is particularly great when we experience a serious loss, for it can cast a dark shadow over our life from that point on and forever color our perception of what God would make possible for us to accomplish.
In reality, we are much more capable of rebounding from the wounds of major disappointments than we normally imagine. And we have much more control over the healing process than we tend to think. Here are four steps that can help.
1. Take time to grieve your loss. Minor setbacks and daily annoyances, to be sure, are best sloughed off. But major misfortunes need to be grieved. If you have suffered a difficult loss, take time to grieve it. If you can take time off from other activities and focus exclusively on coming to terms with your loss, do so.
Otherwise, try to reduce your other responsibilities as best as you can for a while. Be gentle on yourself, and don't expect to move mountains during this time. Give yourself a reasonable period to mourn your loss, to face the pain you feel as fully as possible and work through it. Scripture could scarcely be more emphatic about the value of doing so.
2. Appreciate the resilience God has put within you. At the same time, remind yourself of the ability God has given you to bounce back from disappointment. God has made us remarkably resilient as humans. He has built into each of us the capacity to let go of past hurts and refocus our energy and affection in new directions.
The failure to appreciate this fundamental fact of human nature can be tragic. One survey found that the most common reason for teenage suicides is being jilted in romance for the first time. The pain of losing at love is so overwhelming that a young person assumes they can never love again, and that life's greatest treasure is forever denied them. In reality, I don't know any happily married person who didn't experience at least one heartbreaking rejection when they were single, and most have been through at least several such episodes.
By the time most of us get married, we discover that it's not only possible to love again, but that we've been able to leave the hurts of past rejections behind us as distant memories. We find that affection can be redirected in the area we would least expect -- romantic love. While this may be the most dramatic way that we experience resilience, it works in all other areas of life as well. Disappointments in friendship, career, church life, and reaching personal goals never have to be terminal blows for us. We can find new outlets for our affection and creative energy that are as fulfilling as the ones we've lost. We usually underestimate our potential for resilience and need to remind ourselves often just how strong it is.
3. Dwell on God as one who brings healing to our hurts through giving us new beginnings. We should also remind ourselves constantly that it is central to God's nature to heal and to bring creative solutions to the deepest hurts we experience. The role of God as a healer in human life is one of the most pervasive themes of Scripture. Scripture not only pictures God healing through directly relieving symptoms, but through changing circumstances -- by bringing special opportunities and serendipities into people's lives. This side of God's nature is shown in countless examples and stressed in numerous promises of Scripture as well, which show that there is a principle of compensation in how God deals with us.
We should dwell on this aspect of God's nature whenever we feel like life has dealt us a rotten hand, and take heart often that he brings healing to our life by providing us with new beginnings.
4. Take bold steps to break the inertia. After we've given ourselves a reasonable period to lament a loss, we need to take determined steps to break the spell of our grief. For many of us, the point when we should do this comes well before we feel ready to move forward. Yet the effect of even a small new beginning can be surprisingly therapeutic. Not a few find that the experience of going out on a single date with someone new following a broken romance is enough to convince them that their feelings can heal and that there is hope for their future in relationships.
When the foundations of our life have been knocked out through a major disappointment or broken dream, we should remember the Israelites' experience in Jeremiah 29 and how God counseled them. Their example warns us that we can become so immersed in grief, and fixated on our loss, that we fail to recognize the special opportunities God gives us to rebuild our life. It can take courageous initiative to break the grip of our grief and forge these new beginnings. We should pray earnestly that God will help us understand when it is time to step forward and that he'll give us the courage to do so. We may benefit, too, by seeking the counsel of a trusted Christian friend, pastor or counselor in deciding when and how to make fresh starts. Yet simply knowing that God wants us to make new beginnings is encouraging in itself. It can make the difference in finding the heart to try.
Copyright 2001 M. Blaine Smith. All rights reserved.
Blaine Smith is the director of Nehemiah Ministries and author of Knowing God's Will.
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