Do you remember TV from the 80s and earlier? Do you recall how each episode or made-for-tv-movie had a beginning, a middle, and an end? Whatever conundrum our protagonist faced was neatly wrapped up by the end of the show. Things eventually worked themselves out. Things fell into place. And in the most wholesome iterations, there was a little monologue moral set to gentle background music. It let you know the show was about to wrap up, lessons were learned, and the good guy wins in the end.
The grownup version of this is the quintessential Hallmark movie. Things may be messy and awkward, but around the 1.5 hour mark you know that things will fall into place, good will triumph, and everyone will smile along with the perfect montage.
I wonder if being raised on a steady and vapid diet of this has contributed to a generation or two that are just waiting for the day that things fall into place. As soon as xyz happens then everything will begin to get easier. As soon as I accomplish this one thing, my life will make sense. My life will really begin as soon as I do this certain thing or as soon as this other thing happens to me. It’s bound to, right? It’s in all the entertainment and content we consume. Shit works itself out.
Except it doesn’t.
Maybe the generations before us who were raised on the OG fairytales (where things most certainly did not wrap up nicely very often) and classic literature (where it was just as likely that the protagonist would be dead at the end right along with the antagonist) had a better understanding of the way life works.
Life is toil. Life is daily. And the day doesn’t come when it isn’t anymore. Life doesn’t tidily wrap up ever. Life is inherently untidy.
It’s like this: everyone I know who really excels at their craft (singing, playing a musical instrument, painting, etc.) never just coast. They never say, “Well, now I learned it, so now it’s easy.” In fact, the people I know who excel the most work as hard at their craft now as they did when they first started learning it. They are up at the crack of dawn practicing the piano, they are dedicating hours to vocal training, they are perfecting their technique in piles of sketch books. They are still taking classes and practicing. They never wrap things up with a bow and say, “And now I know how to do it.”
And that’s life. Every damn day. Does life feel difficult? It’s not getting any easier. The day won’t come when there are no more trials, challenges, or crosses to bear. That doesn’t mean that life isn’t also full of mystery, beauty, romance, and delight. The two truths coexist. Life is hard and life is beautiful. The cross is heavy and the crown is glorious. We carry on. We do the hard things and we find the treasure hidden amidst the chaos. And we stop waiting for the day when it gets easier. Because the more we try to avoid the tough stuff of life and the more we just try to grit our teeth and wait it out, the heavier the tough stuff becomes.
Merton said it this way, “Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture.” He goes on to say however, “Souls are like athletes, that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers, and rewarded according to their capacity.”
“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross…”Hebrews 12
Perhaps one of the great secrets of life is that it is not tidy; it won’t ever be. We must embrace the truth that challenges are not going anywhere and the greater our souls the more worthy opponents (suffering) we must face. We can (and must if we are ever to be saints) choose to see the goodness hidden in the chaos and call it forth the best we can. This isn’t to deny that things are messy, heavy, difficult, or confusing. It is to admit all that and to still show up to perfect our faith—to learn, to love, to transform, to persevere.
There is no one to cue the montage and sappy music letting everyone know you have learned the lesson and are ready to wrap things up. There is only a new day and fresh grace to find the beauty in the mess.