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Life is a series of lessons, some of them obvious, some of them not. We learn as we go that dreams end, that plans get changed, that promises get broken, that our idols can disappoint us. We learn that there is such a thing as human support and that there is also such a thing as paralyzing isolation. We learn that life is a balancing act lived between the poles of unreasonable hope on one hand and disheartening disquiet on the other. We learn these things but we do not always understand them.
One thing time has taught me that can be learned no other way. One thing I know out of my own experience, despite years of wanting to deny it: However hard I strive to prove it otherwise, I know that there is no such thing as life without struggle. I have met it, indeed, from one end of life to the other. Over and over again, the foundations of life have shifted and slid away from me, sometimes changing the mental landscape only a little, other times shattering every given I've ever assumed into a kaleidoscope of pain. I have come through the death of loved ones, debilitating illness, life-shaping disappointment, and rejection by the very institutions and people that have meant the most to me. I lost a parent at an early age, lived in the tension of a "mixed marriage" at a time when the Catholic Church condemned such partnerships, grappled with the effects of teenage polio, dealt with the loss of my life's great ambition, and faced the possibility that I might be condemned publicly for questioning both the military policies of my country and the eucharistic theology of my church.
But those things are not the point of this book. The deeper truth with which this book attempts to deal is that my life is not an unusual one. There is no one, not anyone, who escapes the soul-wrenching experiences that stretch the mind but threaten to calcify the spirit.
There is no one who does not go down into the darkness where the waters do not flow and we starve for want of hope. Then life goes out of life and there is nothing left to do but simply follow routine, hoping down deep that we will not really have to go on much longer. It is a sad and barren time.
There is no one who does not have to choose sometime, someway, between giving up and growing stronger as they go along. And yet if we give up in the midst of struggle, we never find out what the struggle would have given us in the end. If we decide to endure it to the end, we come out of it changed by the doing of it. It is a risk of mammoth proportions. We dare the development of the self.
Life forges us in struggle. From one end of life to another we duel and joust, contest and dispute, rebel and revolt - against forces outside ourselves, yes, but against tensions within us as well. We struggle from infancy in an attempt to exert our own will on the world around us only to discover that we are pinioned in our efforts by the equally strong wills of those around us. We find ourselves pitted against forces of our own making and against forces beyond the edges of our understanding, greater than the limits of our strength to repel.
There is no one who has not known what it is to lose in the game of life, to feel defeat, to know humiliation, to be left standing naked and alone before the cold and staring eyes of a world that does not grieve for your grief. Everyone I know has driven back great waves of pain, weathered deep ruptures of life's innocent designs. I have a friend who is a Holocaust survivor, who as a Jewish boy was saved by Catholic nuns in the basement of their monastery. I know a woman who lived with incest all her young life, battered in body of course, but, worse, shattered in her own sense of self because of it. I know young children who were intimidated, beaten, and then thrown out of their homes in their grade school years, physically, brutally, by one after another of their mother's new boyfriends. I know a woman abandoned overnight by the perfect husband in the perfect marriage and left to struggle for her sanity. I have a friend whose beloved wife dropped dead, leaving him with five children under the age of twelve and taking half his very soul with her.
Indeed, I have seen person after person broken by the breaking open of life's great fissures. And I have also seen them survive. I have learned through them that all struggle is not destructive. I have come to understand from them that it is not struggle that defeats us, it is our failure to struggle that depletes the human spirit.
Something else I have come to know in them as well as in myself: All struggle is not loss. All those who struggle do not give way to depression, to death of the spirit, to dearth of heart. We not only can survive struggle but, it seems, we are meant to survive in new ways, with new insights, with new heart.
Struggle is part of life. In fact, struggle is an unavoidable part of life. It comes with birth and it takes its toll at every stage of development. In each of them we strive for something new at the price of something gained. We tussle between the dark and the daylight moments of the soul. If we stop struggling, we may die. But if we struggle and lose, we stand to die as well. So how are we to think of struggle? Is it loss or is it gain?
Life itself is the answer. If no one can escape struggle, then it must serve some purpose in life. It is a function of the spirit. It is an organic part of the adventure of development that comes only through the soul-stretching process of struggle. No other dimension of life can possibly offer it because no other process in life requires so much so deeply of us. Struggle bores down into the deepest part of the human soul like cirrus tendrils, bringing new life, contravening old truisms. The problem is that struggle requires the most of us just when we expect it least.
I remember one great life-changing moment of my own life very well. In fact, I live with it still. I was about twenty-eight years old when it happened, just young enough to think that anything was possible, just old enough to begin to realize that time was at a premium. From the age of fourteen, I had known myself to be a writer. It was an unshaped, inchoate, amateurish knowing - but a knowing nevertheless. Since second grade I had been making up plays for the rest of the neighborhood to present. I would probably have wound up playing a church organ someplace or honky-tonk piano in a music store if it had not been for the certain instincts of my first high school English teacher. It was my first week in secondary school and a particularly important day. That night I would be trying out for the basketball team. I'd been a short center on a losing grade school team, but there's a time in life when facts don't count much in either decisions or dreams. The dream of a high school career in basketball loomed large. In the course of that morning, however, I got called out of a freshman algebra class. The English teacher standing in the hall outside the classroom was holding a paper in her hand. She looked down at me with the piercing look nuns had when they were about to question your answers. No, I answered her, I had not copied my first essay assignment from anywhere; no, my parents had not written it for me; and yes, the idea for it was my own. "In that case," she said, the issue decided, "report to the journalism room immediately after school tonight." After that first night in the journalism room, I never thought of algebra or basketball ever again. I buried myself in the school newspaper. It became the whole reason for my existence, it seemed. Not basketball, not dances, not math or science. Unlike my friends, whose lives were filled with Friday night football games and summer days on the beach and weekends on the town, I stayed alone in the back of the old basement classroom and wrote.
I lived to write. I wrote all the time. I wrote in small notebooks and tiny date books and on sheets and sheets of blank white typing paper. I wrote half-sentences and long paragraphs, news stories and feature stories, editorials and humor columns. Then I waited for the newspaper to come out, to smell the ink, to touch the paper, to see the byline, to read and reread my own stories over and over again. But, secretly, I also wrote short story after short story after short story. These stories I never intended to show to anyone. They were my life within a life. I created characters and situations and places that said something tome about what I saw around me, about human struggle, about dark, driving motives and hidden pain. I never expected that anyone would ever read them. I simply wrote for the sheer joy of writing, the way some kids throw baseballs or practice the drums or swim laps in a pool.
Every day the situation became more and more clear: writing was all I wanted to do in life. At the same time, I had no idea how to go about doing it. Complicating the choice was the fact that I had wanted to be a nun even longer than I had wanted to be a writer. Conflict was built right into the situation. I had learned at a very early age that nuns were not writers. Nor, for that matter, were many other women. Once, alone in my high school library, I had scoured the shelves in search of books written by women. I found three: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; and, miracle of miracles, a volume of poetry by "A Nun from Stanbrook." A nun. There was hope.
So I entered the monastery, still hugging the memory of those three orphaned volumes to my breast, still writing at every possible moment, a poem here, a journal entry there. All secretly. But the years went by with no writing to show for them except an essay for an educational journal here, a high school musical revue there. All of them routine parts of a teacher's tasks. Nothing of content. Nothing substantial. Nothing real. Instead, I was sent to teach double grades in a rural grade school and, eventually, history in secondary school. It was good work, teaching, but it was not the work that I knew to be me.
At the same time, religious life of that era was built almost entirely around the functional rather than the creative. We were educated to do what needed to be done. It was a no-frills approach to life. To ease the gap, perhaps, and, at the same time, to enable me to fit into a system that depended on a corps of interchangeable parts, I was allowed to major in English. The community needed English teachers and I liked working with words. It was second best but it was better than nothing. It was the closest I could get to literature, to real writing. It would equip me to teach English, of course, a function compatible with the then concentration of religious in the Catholic school system, but my secret hope was that I would also learn to write by reading great writers.
I got a good, sound undergraduate program but it was still a cavernous distance from the world of creative writing that I felt drawing the flesh from my bones, sucking me in like a giant mystical vacuum buried beneath my ribs.
Then, suddenly, out of a black hole of nothingness it seemed to me, the word came from the prioress of my community, a woman given to strong and uncommon ideas, that now that the undergraduate degree was completed, I was to apply for admission to one of the greatest writing programs in one of the largest universities in the United States. I would begin study immediately for a master of fine arts degree in creative writing at Iowa State University. I remember that my hands shook as I signed the final registration papers, enclosed the writing sample, and sealed the large manila envelope. All this time, it finally seemed, the superiors of the community had known what I really wanted, where I really belonged, and it was going to happen. It was going to happen. Here. Monastery or no monastery. To me.
It was January when I received the letter of admission. I would begin the two-year program in June.
I don't remember much else about the rest of that year except that every day was suddenly easier than it had ever been before, every moment was light. It would all soon be over. I could afford to treat the dailyness of grades and papers and class periods lovingly. I could certainly give it my all for just a little while longer. As wrong as it had felt for years, there was suddenly no burden to it at all. Just finality. Just conclusion. Just gratitude. I had learned a great deal by teaching. I had figured out how to go on doing what I did not really want to do with some degree of grace. And I now knew gratitude for being able to move on, to become what I already knew myself to be. The future felt like gold and silver, looked like bright fuchsia and yellow sunflowers, smelled soft as lavender and warm as rye. I had never been happier in my life.
The school year went by in a blur. Mid-May came before I even realized that it was spring. And then, out of nowhere, I got another phone call. No explanation for it was ever given. To this day, I have no idea what lay behind the decision, what initiated the move, what caused the problem, what wrong I'd done. All I know is that the purpose of this call, from the very superior who had told me to make the application, was to tell me that I was to withdraw it, that it "would be better for my humility to go to our summer camp as third cook than to go to school." I was not, she said, "ready for a Master's degree."
And so began one of the greatest struggles of my life. Sometimes I wonder whether it's completely over yet. Most of all, I now wonder how I could ever have come to be the person I was meant to be if I had ever become the writer I thought Iowa State would make me.
That situation, my situation, would probably be meaningless to most people, trivial even - silly, perhaps - to many. There are few people who really care that much about writing. There may be even fewer now who give that much weight to being certified in one particular field. You can write, of course, without having an advanced degree in creative writing. There are many, I'm sure, who would actually find it good to be sent to a children's camp for the summer. In fact, for many people all those things - cooking at a children's camp without ever having to write a thing - would be a relief. But personal preferences are not the point. The point is that the situation was life-altering to me. It was cataclysm in the midst of calm. It was the end of the dream, the loss of the hope. It was forced change at the center of my personal universe. It was impossible. "Change that is real is change that is not willed," the holy one says. For me, this was real.
Indeed, that particular situation was particular only tome and important to few, I'm sure. But disappointment is universal. Life wrenching disappointment, soul-searing loss, everybody understands. Everybody sometimes in life is changed by something they did not want to have change. It is real change, the change that comes upon us unbidden and unwanted, change that breaks our hearts and smothers our souls and haunts us all. The divorce we do not want, the family scars we cannot face, the personal humiliations we cannot endure, the community catastrophes we could not avert and cannot undo leave us hollow to the core.
How do we explain such things? How do we bear them? How do we survive them? And most of all, what happens to us - spiritually - as a result?
Excerpted from Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope by Joan D. Chittister Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
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