Years ago, I told pieces of my life story to a friend, recounted my stops and starts, my wrong turns and pretzel-twisted journe. He sat quiet, wide-eyed. He finally broke the silence. “How did you ever end up where you are, like you are.” Without thinking, I heard myself saying, I think I encountered a fair bit of pain.
The fact is I’ve lived a very good life, and my pain is miniscule compared to so many others. Still, in that moment, this was my revelation: the joys of my life, many of the things I now see as strengths, are very much tied to the sorrows I’ve encountered. Only, I couldn’t possibly have known this was how the story would go. We rarely see future light when we’re under the weight of sadness, disappointment and seeming ruin.
All of us are in a season where we’re eager—perhaps more than ever in our collective experience—for a fresh start, for a generous opening to new possibilities. When we turned the calendar to 2021, we pined for more than just another round of resolutions and Auld Lang Syne. The pandemic year has shaken everything and everyone. And we all have our individual threads of longing, our own ways of stretching for the new. Some of us are eager to find fulfilling work. Some of us hope for a marriage or friendship to be renewed. Some of us have an idea that we’re throttling to get off the ground. And I hope all this for you. I hope work is abundant, relationships flourish, and ideas take fire. I hope that the months to come are a smashing success.
But whatever good future comes, we must tend to the pain we’ve already encountered and to the pain we’re sure to find along the way. We don’t need to wallow or make more of our pain than we should—but we absolutely must learn from those craggy stretches where we feared we’d lost our way. We must allow our hardships to point us in directions we would never have considered otherwise. We must allow our wounds—the ones that make us wince even now—to open fresh ground in our heart.
When invited to speak to his son’s graduating middle school class, Chief Justice John Roberts’ commencement speech offered unorthodox wisdom to this room of ninth graders. Commencement speakers will typically…wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you, Roberts said. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why… And from there, Roberts offered his son—and his classmates—a litany of jarring lines:
From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. Roberts continued to wish them enough bad luck to rescue them from believing that their success (or failure) depends only on their individual efforts. And he expressed his hopes that they would at times be ignored—so they would know how essential it is to truly listen to others.
Then Roberts delivered the exclamation point: I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
Pain will happen. As imperfect humans in a very imperfect world, we are sure to have our share of misfortunes. The question is whether we will receive the message. Will we allow our pain to carry us through to the new? Will we let the pain open up a good, good future before us?