One 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.
Jeanne Calment 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.
Genetics and lifestyle obviously played a role in Calment’s unusual longevity. Yet her outlook on life was a critical factor as well.
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.
Some people 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, and their 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 never recovered.
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 beast.
Scripture 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).
Jacob’s anguish 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).
Jacob’s 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.
The prophet 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.
Saul failed 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).
God allowed 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).
Samuel had 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.
Fresh 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 principle seriously.
Well-meaning 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.
Appreciate 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 directions.
The failure to appreciate this fundamental fact of human nature can be tragic. The most common cause of teenage suicide is their first rejection 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 least several.
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.
Resilience 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 doctrinal truth.
Jesus’ miracles show God’s healing through relief of symptoms. 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:
“The LORD 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).
“He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children” (Ps 113:9).
“Instead of 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 61:7).
“Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you” (Zech 9:12).
“The 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.
When the 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.
Yet simply knowing God
wants us to make them is encouraging in itself. It can make the
difference in finding the heart to try.
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|Copyright 2003 M. Blaine Smith.
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