Come with me for a moment and picture this—you’re sitting on the bow of a boat in rough water. The boat moves steadily toward an approaching wave. It’s big, and you know when you reach it the boat will tilt upward and slam down hard on the other side of the wave. It may hurt, it may jolt you from your seat, so your body tenses in anticipation. You grab onto your towel and the handle beside your seat. And sure enough, you feel some pain after that wave. You may come away with some bruises from knocking sideways into the hull. But here comes another wave, and another, and soon your jaw hurts from clenching your teeth so hard every time the boat crests the water. So you decide to let go, and when the next wave approaches and the boat rolls over it, you intentionally relax your muscles, loosen your grip, and allow the movement of the boat to pass through you. The downward dip doesn’t seem as steep, you haven’t lost your place and you find yourself leaning forward, ready for the next wave.
Trying to maintain control of forces and people out of your control is like the above scenario. Over the last ten years, I’ve been noticing and pondering the differences in people’s reactions when things don’t go their way. When someone realizes that they have no control there are a myriad of ways they can respond. Perhaps they’ll be angry and bitter, frightened and immobilized. They can become withdrawn and uncommunicative. Or they can step back and take stock of the situation, understand they have something to learn or some plans to adjust, and they can change course and sail on.
What makes the difference for people in how they respond to drastic change or loss of control? For so much of our lives we are taught to become independent, to set goals and make plans, but I think there’s a flip-side to setting goals that you can only learn through failure.
Teddy Roosevelt said, “there is no effort without error and shortcoming, so that doers shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat.” Teddy Roosevelt talks about action, about effort and perseverance. Truly, it’s a mark of maturity to work, to plan for our futures. To sit idly by expecting fortune to smile upon us is vain and irresponsible. There is definitely a time to plan, to rebound and be a “doer.”
But it’s also a mark of maturity for us to be at peace in the midst of adversity and unwanted change. There is an element of humility and trust that goes along with remaining flexible and teachable. The book of James speaks about contentment, perseverance, generally a humble and positive perspective toward life, but what I really like is this remark about making plans.
“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.” James 4: 13-17
Ouch, that stings a little, doesn’t it? How many of us have laid out blueprints for our lives only to see the colors smear and run when rain begins to fall? Yet, these are good precepts to keep in mind. As far as I know, there is only One who knows exactly how my life will turn out. And after moving 14 times in my 39 years of life, being a victim of abduction and sexual assault, suffering three miscarriages, watching friendships die, dealing with personal temptation and sin, I can say with certainty that my life has not gone the way I expected.
Yet, I have a wonderful life. I can only be grateful, and it’s because of my trials, defeats, failures, that I can recognize today’s blessings. It’s because I have tasted humility and sorrow and heartache that I can have compassion, acceptance, and empathy for others when they are tempted to withdraw or lash out because their lives take a dip. If I had never experienced these dips in life, I wouldn’t see when I’ve crested the waves. And because I have gratitude, I have perseverance, because I know there’s always hope. This gives me the courage to not remain defeated.
A recognition of my lack of complete control also prevents me from giving full reign to judgment. Because of my past struggles, I know that at any moment, everything that I hold dear could be taken from me or I could make a mistake that would cost me peace and stability. This last year I’ve seen good friends suddenly lose loved ones. I’ve talked to people whose lives have changed drastically in mere hours due to hurricanes, health diagnoses, marital bombshells, and more. And as I get older, these things seem to happen more frequently.
When days and weeks and months of comfort go by, I count my blessings. I know that they come as a gift from my good Father. But I must confess that I am tempted to soak in that comfort and look down my nose at others who are struggling and wonder what they could have done to earn these difficulties It’s tempting to judge people, to sit back and analyze and smugly prescribe a solution for someone’s problem. My compassion weakens. My humility suffers. And I don’t like myself that way because it means that I’m starting to worship my blessings more than the One who blessed me. I forget that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1: 17).
I have a trick for bringing myself back to earth when I tend to mentally boast in how “together” I am. To me, the ultimate test for how I’d handle utter lack of control, human dependence and find out for sure how much I depend upon the Lord would be if I suddenly lost my husband. There have been nights when he’s been late getting home from a business trip and I’ve wondered: is he okay? Is he alive? And then that gets me thinking, what if he doesn’t come home tonight? So, every once in a while, I’ll allow myself to ask the “what if” questions. What would I do, how would I respond if I no longer had Bryan? How would I live if my bread-winner was gone? Would I trust in the Lord for my daily bread? How would I sleep at night and feel comforted if my lover wasn’t in bed beside me, holding me? Would I cling to my Comforter and the Lover of my soul? Would I remember that no matter how quickly my life changes, my Father does not change?
It’s these “what-if” questions in life’s comfortable moments that turn into living, breathing “what now” questions in life’s terrible moments. Because the fact is, as much as we like to pretend that we do, we don’t have absolute control over our lives. And living under the pretense that we do makes us self-focused, fearful, judgmental people. We grip so tightly to whatever is in our reach, whether that’s diet control, health control, emotional control, child control, spouse control, calendar control, to the point that we bring ourselves more pain, more fear, more reluctance to let go and ride the wave.
Life is an unpredictable sea rich with depths and storms and doldrums and peaceful currents. At times we will cruise comfortably, but rough waters are always a possibility. Then we will get jostled. Things around us will roll and tumble and fall. We can fight the wave and come away bruised and weakened, dreading what comes next. Or, we can loosen our grip and trust the boat to carry us over the swells to smoother waters once again. Either way, we will reach them, but our approach to the next swells will largely depend upon our posture in the past, and who we trust more, ourselves or the boat.
I trust the boat every time because it has an Anchor, a Life Preserver, and a Captain. Only He is fully equipped to guide me safely across the sea.