Monday, December 1, 2008

Perseverance and Pain

(heads up since this light post has religious references)

I was not home when my best friend, Peter, had a bonding moment with my father during winter vacation our sophomore year in college. Peter’s parents lived in South Korea and he was a welcome guest in our home at every break. Peter attended Northwestern University, which was on a quarter system, and I went to Wisconsin, so I returned to school two weeks before his classes started and he stayed on with my folks. One evening, as Peter watched TV, my father came and sat next to him.

“Peter, give me your hand,” his deep voice commanded.

“Uh… Why, Mr. Moon?” Peter’s hesitant voice hinted at fear and flashbacks of prior experiences.

My dad sternly repeated, “Peter, give. Me. Your. Hand.”

“Ok, Mr. Moon…”

Taking Peter’s outstretched hand my father slowed placed acupuncture burn pads across his palm and every finger. These were metal discs, less than a centimeter wide, with a piece of incense on top of each.

My father lit the discs one at a time and Peter began to feel the burn. If you ever held your hand a few inches above a cigarette lighter, imagine that intense heat multiplied by eight. Dad had a firm grip on Peter’s wrist to arrest any sudden movements or second thoughts about going through this exercise that supposedly improves the blood circulation and something else I can’t remember.

“Mr. Moon, my hand is getting hotter… It’s really hot!”

Some charring might have occurred at this stage. Silence from my dad. Just a firm grip on Peter’s wrist to stifle any movement.


“It’s okay, Peter, this is good for you.”

Soon the incense burnt out and the pain went away. I know Peter wasn’t sure if the result was beneficial for him, but I think he took some pride in knowing he persevered. Maybe, in that way at least, my father’s little endurance test was good for Peter. As for improved blood circulation, I remain agnostic.

Overcoming pain is oddly satisfying. But does an exercise like this really build character? Is pain, in and of itself, good for us? Imagine, for example, that Peter was of a mind to believe it was God’s divine intervention that led my father to burn his hand in order to strengthen his character. Foolish if you ask me.

Silly analogy, but not all situations of pain and suffering are invested with inherent purpose. Not every twist and turn in life has some divine meaning. I believe God is able to make something useful out of any circumstance, but that doesn’t mean “everything happens for a reason” and it doesn’t mean God sets out to cause people pain “for their own good.” I believe God is foreknowing but not fore-causing. God grants us free will and does not limit us to a hapless deterministic world. This free will allows for variety and makes life interesting. God is not like a micro-managing CEO or the sadistic controller who made you ride coach on a third-tier airline from San Francisco to Johannesburg.

I’m hearing the word perseverance a lot lately, as apprehension about this horrible economic downturn — possibly a seven year recession — grows. People are bracing themselves for the worst. Common counsel will advise us to persevere during difficult times, but this isn’t a pleasant thought because the word and feeling that always precedes perseverance is pain. Pain sucks. Just ask my old friend Peter.

Remember running those endless sprints in youth soccer? Two-a-days in the summer heat if you played football (I never played football). Basic training if you were in the military? Enduring your first heartbreak? Twenty years of marital strife? Climbing out of a financial black hole? Working with the worst boss for several years?

“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” — Romans 5:3-4

Life throws so many curves at people. So many headaches. So many trials. It turns out life is a marathon, which calls for discernment about which races are worth running or battles worth fighting. It turns out, contrary to popular opinion, not every situation is a blessing (or a curse) from above. So you can choose to persevere or walk away; you don’t always have to push through…sometimes you can go around.

When these situations arise, I’m asking for wisdom and guidance. I’m praying and thinking about the choices, especially the difficult ones. I’m learning to welcome the uncertainty and the pain, but still asking for mercy.

Perseverance does build character and hope, and I’m convinced it’s worth it to seek out opportunities to stretch your limits and grow. Maybe be brave and ask God to challenge you. To strengthen your weaknesses. But remember this doesn’t mean looking for opportunities to be a martyr. If you want to be a martyr, I can introduce you to my dad.

Originally posted at InsideWork.

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