Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Life Is Not Fair, Part III

I dare say that all of us could make an impressive list of people we know who have not only survived unspeakable unfair experiences, but have prevailed and gained dominion over them. Let me list just two I know to get you started on your list.

One of my dear clergy friends is the Rev. O.C. Brown, who when he was thirty-six years old, was stricken with an acoustic neuroma. The surgical tools and procedures were far less advance than they are today. The surgery took ten hours, and O.C. was left partially paralyzed, with the loss of speech, impaired hearing and vision, and several other impediments. He languished for more than a year in a nursing home. We never thought he would come out alive, nor did he. While he was there his wife divorced him and married his best friend. Later one of his sons was stricken with cancer. I do not know what was the tipping point nor when it came, but one day he decided to live. He struggled to leave the hospital bed and begin taking steps. He learned to drive a golf cart, and finally an automobile. He has lived an incredibly normal life with more impediments than I can name. By force of will and determination he has lived to be just as old, cranky, and obstreperous as those of us who were planning his funeral forty-three years ago. While I am sure O.C. must have asked, "Why me?", he has never let adversity define his life.

One of my few living heroes is Col. Edward Hubbard, whose friendship has enriched and inspired my life. This smart aleck kid from Kansas had his airplane shot out from under him on July 20, 1966 while on mission over North Vietnam. He was captured and spent 2420 days in the "Hanoi Hilton" where he suffered exquisite cruelty at the hands of his captors. He could have become just another broken, bitter and tragic victim of man's inhumanity to man, but he never gave in and never gave up. By some strange alchemy that defies explanation, the scar tissue of adversity was transformed into the muscle of character, and Ed Hubbard gained dominion over what happened to him and became a victor instead of a victim. Ed Hubbard holds a PhD from the University of Adversity. He has never let what happened to him in that POW camp define his life.

If there is any one characteristic that seems to stand out in the lives of people who have been able to keep themselves manageable and creative in the face of adversity, it is the ability to see the unfair parts of life in the light of the whole. We lose perspective when we get fixated on an unfair experience instead of being able to hold it at arms length and see how it relates to the rest of life. To know that there is more to life than the pain of the moment and to understand a hurt in the light of years rather than days or months is saving. If the only history we can see is the history through which we have lived, we could hardly stand to go on. Gaining this kind of perspective requires patience that is born of intentional effort.

Just as history allows us to see the past in perspective, hope helps us to allow for those unseen possibilities which may reveal the painful mysteries of the present in some more enlightened future. There are some things that seem unfair now, which we may later come to see as a blessing in disguise.

In her book, "My Grandfather's Blessings", Dr. Rachel Remen writes, "Sometimes a wound is the place where we encounter life for the first time, where we come to know its power and its ways. Wounded, we may find a wisdom that will enable us to live better than any knowledge, and to glimpse a view of ourselves and of life that is both true and unexpected." (Pg. 25) It takes time for an adversity to become a learning experience. An unfair cut initially generates a plethora of negative feelings that blind us to any lesson that can be learned. Very few gifts of wisdom from adversity are gift-wrapped and labeled. It may take years for the wisdom of a wound to become evident and acceptable for what it is. Never place a final evaluation on any experience on the day upon which it happens, let the mystery of "why" linger. Dr. Remen suggests that while this may be stressful or even frightening, "If we are not willing to wonder, we may have to hang up the phone on life." We have a tendency to run from painful realities or try to change them as soon as possible, but learning to lean into the mystery of a wound rather than running from it can be rewarding. We have been raised to demand answers. There are religious groups that will give us "canned" answers, but they miss where we are. It is more satisfying to live with the mystery of "why" than to accept answers that take away the mystery but still leave us in the dark.

So we anticipate that dimension of life which lies beyond these short years of mortal existence, and hope that we shall finally see and understand things as they were and are. It may be "later" before we understand why life was not fair. Until then, we must honestly grieve our losses and hurts, try to survive our successes, and trust God to sustain us through those parts of life that are beyond our present understanding. The point of it all is to understand that when all is said and done in our little corner of reality, it is not all that there is. It is my prayer that when you have to taste life's bitter edge, you will find the strength of faith to live through it.

There is a magnetized sticker on the filing cabinet next to my work place that has a quote from Winston Churchill. It reads, "If you're going through hell, keep going". When we get the unfair parts of life in perspective, we not only will have saved ourselves, but we will be empowered to help others who are encompassed with complex problems for which no solution comes without pain, and no alternative without risk. When our own wounds are healed, we are called to help the wounded.

If that is not what we are here for, then I have an 82-year misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of life.