of the most helpful insights we gain from studies of longevity
is the importance of resilience. Centenarians, and others with
exceptional life spans, are often those who are best able to
accept loss and make new beginnings. Not that they don’t
feel the pain of major disappointments and 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.
was a stunning example of this resilience. By the time she
died in 1997 at 122, this Frenchwoman held the title of the
world’s oldest living person with a documented birth date--a
record still unbroken. Yet Calment suffered many misfortunes
during her extraordinary lifetime. Pleurisy claimed her only
child at 36, her husband died from eating tainted cherries at
72, and her only grandchild perished in a car accident at 36.
After each crisis, though, she was able to regain her hope and
“turn the page.”
At 110 she gave
up independent living and moved to a nursing home, where she
continued to make new friends and adjust well to her new
lifestyle. She never lost her positive outlook, even in her
final years--or her sense of humor. On her 120th birthday a
reporter asked what sort of future she envisioned. “A very
brief one,” Calment replied.
lifestyle obviously played a role in Calment’s unusual
longevity. Yet her outlook on life was a critical factor as
During our own lifetime, we each experience a multitude of
disappointments and setbacks. They range from minor
aggravations (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--none of us escapes
it. Yet the way we respond to it varies greatly among us, and
radically affects our quality of life.
never fully recuperate from a major loss. They feel its
pain 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 strongly on this one area that life no longer
has meaning without it. Grief for them becomes chronic.
At the other
extreme are those with an uncanny ability to bounce back from
disappointment. They may feel the pain of a loss acutely at
first. But in time they always conclude that life still has
important new horizons for them. They aren’t afraid to
chance a new relationship or risk a new dream, and often
succeed in forming deeply meaningful new attachments to people
and goals. Over time their life even becomes richer because of
their loss, for it deepens them in important ways.
The example of
such people is so encouraging, for it helps us see that it’s
possible to start over when life has knocked us flat, and
inspires us to try. We should reflect on the experience of
these people often, for their optimism is contagious.
Extremes in Scripture
We can also
gain much by looking at individuals in the Bible,
responses to personal loss and tragedy. Scripture gives
enlightening examples at both extremes: we see those who
overcame the crush of a major loss successfully, and those who
Jacob was so
demolished by the loss of a son that he never regained his joy
in living. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite child, being his
beloved Rachel’s first-born son. Jacob flaunted his love for
Joseph so blatantly
that his brothers grew insanely jealous. One day when Joseph
was sixteen, his brothers overpowered him and sold him to
slave traders, who carried him off to Egypt. His brothers then
soaked Joseph’s coat in a dead animal’s blood and
presented it to Jacob, suggesting Joseph was killed by a wild
minces no words in describing Jacob’s grief as torrential.
He “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).
never relented, but became chronic. When he finally reunited
with Joseph in Egypt many years later, he declared to the
pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and
thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not
equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers” (Gen 47:9).
initial grief over losing Joseph is only too understandable.
Yet he fixated on his loss and never rebounded. Tragically,
Jacob had many other children, yet never formed the intimate
attachment with any that he enjoyed 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.
Samuel is someone who responded to loss in a more dynamic and
healthy manner. God called Samuel to establish Saul as
Israel’s first king, and Samuel took the responsibility
deeply personally. He ached to see Saul become a mature
spiritual leader, and Israel a nation that followed the Lord
wholeheartedly in all its ways.
miserably in this role, and God decided to remove him. 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” (I
Sam 15:11, 35 RSV).
Samuel to mourn Saul’s defeat for some time. But God finally
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’” (I
Sam 16:1 RSV).
endured an excruciating defeat in Saul’s downfall. Yet God
still had important work for him to do. He was to recruit
David and prepare him to become Israel’s king. Fortunately,
Samuel had the good sense to obey God and accept this new
mission, even though it must have been hard to let go of his
grief over Saul at first.
The fact that
Samuel was able to move beyond his remorse and turn his
attention to David brought benefit not only to himself and
David, but to an entire nation. From the evidence we have,
Samuel enjoyed working with David, friendship blossomed
between them, and Samuel’s interest in life and ministry
revived. Samuel is an inspiring example of someone in
Scripture who learned to turn the page.
Heart for Fresh Starts
Some people are
natural optimists. Their ability to see the bright side of a
dark situation and reset their sights after disappointment is
mystifying to the rest of us, who are 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
greatest when we experience a serious loss. It can cast a dark
shadow over our life from that point on, and forever color our
perception of God’s possibilities for us.
In reality, we
are much more capable of rebounding from major setbacks than
we normally imagine. And we have much greater control over the
healing process than we typically think. Here are four steps
that can help.
Take time to grieve your loss.
Minor setbacks and daily annoyances are best sloughed off. But
major misfortunes need to be grieved. Scripture could scarcely
be clearer on the point. Hebrew tradition required mourning
the death of a loved one for a substantial period--often
thirty days--and godly people throughout the Bible took the
Christians sometimes teach that if our faith is strong enough,
we’ll remain positive through any adversity. Scripture,
though, never bypasses the process through which we gain the outlook of faith. Grief is
sometimes an essential step.
If you have
suffered a difficult loss, allow yourself fair opportunity to
recover emotionally. If you can take time off from other
activities and focus exclusively on coming to terms with your
loss, do so. Otherwise, reduce your workload as much as
possible 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 and work through it.
the resilience God has put within you. At the same
time, remember how capable God has made you of bouncing back
from disappointment. He has built into each of us the ability
to let go of past hurts and to refocus our affection in new
The failure to
appreciate this fundamental fact of human nature can be
tragic. The most common cause of teenage suicide is their
in romance. The pain of losing at love is so overwhelming that
a young person can’t see beyond it, or imagine that romance
will ever be possible again. In reality, I don’t know any
happily married person who didn’t endure at least one
heartbreaking rejection when single, and most have suffered at
By the time most
of us get married, we discover that it’s possible not only
to love again, but to leave the hurts of past rejections
behind us as distant memories. We find that affection can be
redirected in the area we might least expect--romantic love.
works this way in every area of life. Disappointments in
friendship, career, church life, and reaching personal goals
never have to be terminal blows. We can find new opportunities
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.
Dwell on God’s healing nature. We
should also bring to mind constantly that it’s central to
God’s nature to bring healing to our deepest hurts. God’s
role as a healer is one of Scripture’s most pervasive
themes. During his earthly ministry, Jesus spent more time
healing physical and emotional problems than he did preaching
miracles show God’s healing through relief
He also heals through changing circumstances and bringing
fresh opportunities into our lives. This side of God’s
healing nature is displayed in countless examples in
Scripture, as well as in many promises that God will
compensate us for our hurts:
builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He
heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds” (Ps 147:2-3).
“A father to
the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy
dwelling. God sets the lonely in families” (Ps 68:5-6).
gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of
children” (Ps 113:9).
their shame my people will receive a double portion, and
instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance;
and so they will inherit a double portion in their land” (Is
your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I
will restore twice as much to you” (Zech 9:12).
LORD upholds all who are falling, and
raises up all who are bowed down” (Ps 145:14 RSV).
We should dwell
on passages like these whenever we feel that
life has dealt us a rotten hand. It’s too easy at
such times to imagine that God has abandoned us. We need every
reminder that he not only is hurting with us but, in time,
will bring renewal. We ought to hold tight to this hope, as an
article of faith, and take heart often that it’s God’s
nature to heal by providing us with new beginnings.
Take bold steps to break the
inertia. After spending some time lamenting a loss, we
need to take determined steps to break the spell of our grief.
The point when we should do so often comes well before we feel
ready. Yet the effect of even a small beginning can be
surprisingly therapeutic. A single date following a broken
romance may be enough to convince us that
our feelings can heal, and that there’s hope for our
future in relationships.
Consider the Israelites’
experience in Babylon (Jer 29:4-11). We would call them
clinically depressed today. They were mourning their homeland
continually, seeing no good whatever in their present circumstances. Finally God addresses them
through Jeremiah, telling them they’ve grieved their
deportation long enough. It’s time to make the best of their
new situation, as highly imperfect as it seems. They should
take bold initiative to build homes, to be economically
productive, to find spouses for themselves and raise families.
Even though they feel far from ready, God tells them to do
these things anyway, implying he’ll provide many successes
as they move ahead.
foundations of our life have been knocked out through a major
disappointment or broken dream, we should remember the
Israelites’ experience in Babylon, and how God counseled
them. Their example warns us that we can become so immersed in
grief, and fixated on our loss, that we miss the special
opportunities God gives us to rebuild our life. It can take
courageous initiative to break the grip of our grief and make a
fresh start. We should pray earnestly that God will
help us understand when it is time to step forward, and that
he’ll give us courage to go ahead.
We may benefit,
too, from the counsel of others, in deciding when and how to
forge new beginnings.
knowing God wants us
to make them is encouraging in itself. It can make the
difference in finding the heart to try.