We all have them. I call them “gray cave” times. A time of loneliness, closed in by hard walls, damp air, and dim light. The gray cave of our painful seasons in life that come from having a human experience in a broken world. Sometimes they are self-inflicted, but often they are thrust upon us without our permission. Either way, we suffer.
These seasons of life, or these events, or these situation upheavals, can come at us in all guises—addictions (yours or a loved ones), physical or mental illness, victims of crime, accidents, divorce, estrangement, disabilities (yours or loved ones), bad choices, job loss, underemployment, victim of abuse and prejudice, suicide, long-term illness (yours or loved ones), wars, displacements, natural disasters and on and on.
While they are occurring, I can’t seem to find any reason or purpose for them. The event seems so useless, so unjust, and so very unwanted.
There is an ancient Tao story about a farmer and his son.
One day, the farmer’s only horse ran away. His neighbors came by and said, “That is very bad.” The farmer replied “Good, bad, who can say?”
Later, the horse returns with another. His neighbors come by to celebrate this good fortune, but the farmer responds “Good, bad, who can say?”
The farmer gives the second horse to his son, who while riding is thrown off and badly breaks his leg. His caring neighbors come by and say “That is very bad.” Again the farmer replies “Good, bad, who can say?”
A week later, the Emperor’s men come and conscript every able-bodied young man to fight in a vicious war. The farmer’s son is spared. Good fortune? Who knows…
The Farmer’s story is a reminder not to get attached to the constantly changing life events around me—even those that I create myself, good or bad. From where I stand today, I cannot tell the end of the story I am living, nor can I see what value lies underneath all the ups and downs and meandering of my days.
Steve Jobs once said “You can’t connect the dot’s looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
This statement reminds me of one of the greatest comeback stories in human history—The story of Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, patriarch of the nation of Israel.
Joseph was Jacob’s favorite, which filled his older brothers with jealousy. One day, they planned to kill him in the wilderness and tell their father a wild beast had done it.
Judah, the eldest brother, intervenes, and they instead sell him as a slave to the Midianites, saving his life. The Midianites, in turn, sell Jacob to Potiphar, second in command over all of Egypt. Only the Pharaoh is higher ranked.
Potiphar promotes Joseph quickly over everything in his home. Later, Joseph is falsely accused of making sexual advances to Potiphar’s wife and is thrown into Potiphar’s jail. But once again Joseph is promoted-as warden of the jail.
While in jail, Joseph correctly interprets the cupbearer and bakers dreams—and implores them both to speak to Pharaoh on his behalf when they are released. They forget Joseph.
Two years later Pharaoh is troubled by nightmares. The cupbearer remembers Joseph’s remarkable ability to interpret dreams. Pharaoh calls Joseph up, who interprets his dreams and gives Pharaoh wise advice. At once, Pharaoh makes the thirty-year-old Joseph the second most powerful man in all of Egypt.
It is because of his position that Joseph can save his family from starvation, establish them in Egypt, and ultimately preserve the nation of Israel from extinction.
When Joseph addressed his brothers and his father, who had thought Joseph long ago dead, they were frightened that he would make them pay for their treachery. But, with loving kindness, and wise perspective, he said to them “What you meant for my harm, God meant for my good.”
Where did this constancy of faith and optimism come from in Joseph? Who among us would not have despaired at the very first?
I wonder if I could ask Joseph today which “gray cave” would he remove from his life, which it would be? Then, I wonder how it would affect the rest of his story?
By looking back with this perspective, we can see our lives as much more than a random cycle of ups and downs. We can become what Henri Nouwen calls “The Wounded Healer”—a fellow member of the human race who has experienced the same pain, suffering, loneliness, alienation, and despair, but has found a way to trust and keep on trusting in the goodness of a loving God, and in the certainty of his compassion and mercy, and is willing and privileged to share their own story.
It is where we have been wounded by life that we are precisely able to be a source of grace and help to others. What irony that I am most able to help others by my experience going in and coming out of the same pain.
Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the greatest social movements of the 20-21st centuries, is built firmly on this same principle; that help comes in the form of one person sharing with another their personal experience of their troubles and how they overcame them.
“Showing others who suffer how we were given help is the very thing which makes life seem so worthwhile to us now. Cling to the thought that, in God’s hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have—the key to life and happiness for others. With it, you can avert death and misery for them.” Bill Wilson
The various low points of my journey and all its related misfortunes caused enormous pain to myself and most anyone I was close to. I despaired for a very long time of ever making things right with them, not to mention ever having a good and meaningful life.
But today I regularly get the privilege of sitting across my kitchen table, or on my patio, or in a coffee shop with a man who is or recently was sitting alone in that same dark cave, unable to see a way out— Unable to envision a life of meaning, and of hope, and of helpfulness.
I share with him my personal story of falling down repeatedly and the sense of hopelessness I felt.
I share how I found help at just the right time. Not always, but often enough, I watch the eyes of my friend start to come alive as fresh hope enters in.
If someone had told me when I was twenty years old that my greatest possession would be the long train of failures, mistakes, and losses coming my way—I would have punched his nose!
Here is one of my favorite episodes in the life of Christ.
A young man raced out to him, raving mad, screaming at Jesus. This young man was uncontrollable, and often would slice his body with sharp stones. Jesus cast out the demons tormenting him, and the villagers were amazed when they witnessed this young man sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet.
When Jesus was about to depart, the young man pleaded with Jesus to take him along. But Jesus said something remarkable: “Go home to your own people, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”
The young man did as Jesus said and proclaimed what had happened, “and everyone was amazed.”
Those of us who can look back upon our journey’s with a new set of eyes and recognize in all the ups, downs, ins and outs—in all the periods of life where we sat alone in our “gray caves”, have both a responsibility and a privilege to recognize when others are sitting alone in their cave. When we do, the task is simple; grab hold of their hand, and with the power contained in the telling of your story, lead them out of that cave into the light.
Here are a few questions to ponder;
- Where are those “gray caves” in your past? Those times you felt most alone, without help, and without hope, without peace?
- Where did help come from?
- In looking back with fresh eyes, can you recognize the mercy, grace, and love of God, in whatever various forms it may come?
- Who do you know today that needs the gift and grace of your story?
Try this out: Go to your home,(the people in your life), and tell someone who is going through a similar hardship your remarkable story.
And let me know how it goes!