Never Again

By Michael W. Raley

Never again will I underestimate my inner strength and abilities

To face the hard times, the trials, and the calamities.

For during the times of inner torment and violence,

I sought outside of me, only to hear thunderous silence.

The coming conflicts were charging at me, I could feel  it in the air,

Yet I was left alone, straddled with having to prepare

With no grand plan in place

The obstacles still needed to be faced.

There were times my resolve went into remission

As I sank further into an already deep depression.

Deep down I was determined to stand my ground,

Despite the onslaught of incoming rounds.

There were many times when my body and soul cried into the night,

Yet, I reached down and somehow fought the fight.

We never know what fate holds in its hand,

But I have overcome and for that, I’m a better man.

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Enduring Hardships with Strength

bruce lee 2

https://motivationgrid.com/11-powerful-bruce-lee-quotes-need-know/

A common literary device rooted in human existence is the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey has been part of mythology, fairy tales, epic poems, plays, legends, even to our modern day equivalent of novels and movies. All of these stories follow an similar three act structure. Act 1-Introduce the hero. Act 2- Put the hero in the most adverse/perilous situation. Act 3- the hero overcomes the situation, gets the girl, fulfills his destiny and lives happily ever after.

If our lives were only that simple.

If you have lived for any length of time, you know that “happily ever after” is often reserved for stories and not our lives. Life is a constant struggle, an ebb and flow, the highest of highs and the lowest of the heart-breaking lows.

Just when we think we have slayed the dragon, turned Darth Vader back to the light side of the Force, found our purpose, peace, or forgiveness from God, we find ourselves facing a new or recurring difficulty. After years of struggle and sacrifice to get a hold on the family finances, a lay off, a forced retirement, or sickness occurs. You believe that you have overcome depression and anxiety, only for circumstances to throw you back down to the pit. After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, you do the best you can to be compliant with your care plan, only to suffer a flare-up or relapse. It feels as if all progress is lost.

We say and think such things as It isn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t fair. I’ve already been through this. Why is God allowing this?

One of the things we must change when we go through difficulties is our perceptions, or judgments. We work under the assumption that life is fair. Do good, get rewarded. Do bad, get punished. We expect instant blessing for ourselves because we all perceive ourselves as good, while we expect the perceived evildoers to receive instant punishment.  Unfortunately, the innocent suffer and the wicked are rewarded. We live in an imperfect world that doesn’t always make sense.

Neither Jesus nor anyone else said it was going to be easy. Jesus told us that we have to “take up our cross.” That cross at times will get heavy as we walk through this life.

Numerous times throughout his epistles, the Apostle Paul compares being a follower of Christ to the life of a soldier. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul encourages him to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ.” (2 Timothy 2:3). A casual reading of the New Testament and its emphasis on suffering and persecution certainly deals a resounding defeat to the claims of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” where God grants all of our desires like a genie freed from a lamp, and life will be free from difficulty. Faith doesn’t free you from difficult times, it helps you get through them by creating within you a resilience, a persistence, the strength to fight no matter the circumstances.

Difficulties serve as a mirror as to our true reflection, our true strength, and whether we get tough when the tough gets going.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus parallels the Apostle Paul’s statement to Timothy, but uses the analogy of being a wrestler.

“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material. But this is going to take some sweat to accomplish. From my perspective, no one’s difficulties ever gave him a better test than yours, if you are prepared to make use of them the way a wrestler makes use of an opponent in peak condition.”1

In another discouse, Epictetus discusses an how to develop an acceptance of what God brings our way, a way to develop a sort of indifference to circumstances, or “going with the flow.”

“Lift up your head, like a person finally released from slavery. Dare to face God and say, ‘From now on, use me as you like. I am of one mind with you, I am your peer.’ Whatever you decide, I will not shrink from it. You may put me where you like, in any role regardless: officer or citizen, rich man or pauper, here or overseas. They are all just so many opportunities to justify your ways to man,by showing just how little circumstances amount to.”

Though it does seem counter-intuitive, the Apostle Paul, Epictetus, and Bruce Lee all concur- don’t  pray for difficult circumstances to flee, but ask God for the strength to get through the hard times. You will be a stronger and better person for it. God bless you all.

 

1Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, Translated and edited by Robert Dobbin. London: Penguin Books (2008):56.

2Ibid, 116.

 

The Pursuit of Progress

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” – Frederick Douglass

The ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes is credited with the statement, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” While Archimedes’ statement applies to the world of math, getting from point A to point B in life is rarely, if ever, a straight line.

One step forward, two steps back. Previous generations pave the way only for the next generation to fight their own battles. The rules change, but no one communicates that to you; well-deserved and earned freedoms and rights can be hindered on the whims of those in power. That is why you must keep going. Wake up every day and put on your battle armor because you will be in for a fight.

In our pursuit of personal progress, whatever that may be, we must manage our perceptions and our perspectives. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as the Bible tells us. Life is cyclical. The trials and tribulations we face have been faced by previous generations. When problems arise, remember that flowing through your veins is the blood and DNA of survivors. Your ancestors lived through threats to their survival, poverty, heartache, disaster, war, famine, and disease- they passed those survival genes onto you.

Though you may not be at the finish line, have you started running? What steps are you taking to make progress? Are you passively waiting for the right circumstances? Are you swimming against the tide of the conventional wisdom of the naysayers? As children, we do not allow dozens of falls deter us from learning how to walk, we go forward despite circumstances. So why as able-bodied and able-minded adults do we shirk back in defeat when we stumble?

If you are progressing closer to your goal, no matter how small, keep going. You must build energy and momentum to overtake your current circumstances and to prepare you for the next circumstances. There will be struggle, rejection, struggle, pain, it will seem as if the universe has conspired against you, but keep moving. If you have to conquer your mountain inch by inch, continue to do so. God bless you all.

The Hero

By Michael W. Raley

This is not how the story was supposed to go.

Happily ever after must be reserved for the fairy tales,

Because it doesn’t appear to be in sight.

Our hero endures great obstacles,

But does not have that defining, triumphant moment.

Instead, he simply endures until the next battle,

Which is coming from all directions.

It appears the hero has been cut off from all help

And he must use his own strength and his own reason

To break through the formidable walls of Jericho,

Which become more and more reinforced as the days pass.

The hero must find a way to go on,

Though the guiding voice is silent,

Though the reinforcements are not coming,

Though his body and spirit are scarred and broken,

The hero must fight, alone if he must.

 

 

The Stockdale Paradox

Admiral James Stockdale (1923-2006) was an American Navy fighter pilot, speaker, and a one-time Vice-Presidential candidate. On September 9, 1965, Stockdale was leading a bombing mission over North Vietnam when his plane was shot down. What happened next is an extraordinary tale of courage, imprisonment, suffering, and the strength of the human spirit.

In that harrowing situation of being shot down behind enemy lines, Stockdale’s presence of mind determined how he would deal with what he knew was coming.

“After ejection, I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.'”1

Thirty seconds. Thirty seconds while parachuting into hostile territory, bullets piercing the canvas of his parachute was all it took for Stockdale to assess the situation. In his mind, Stockdale accepted the fact that he was going to be imprisoned for at least five years!

This decision making process has become known as “The Stockdale Paradox.” This is when you accept the reality of the situation and that you are going to be in for a long fight. The doctor’s given you or a loved one the diagnosis or maybe the layoffs going around the office are coming your way. This is the punch you see coming. Brace yourself.

In his mind, Stockdale relied on the Stoic philosophy he learned three years before while a graduate student at Stanford. Although his impending circumstances were out of his control, Stockdale knew his response was well within his control. How are you going to respond?

After parachuting down and landing in a tree line, Stockdale disconnected his chute and was summarily beaten by a local gang, who broke his leg. After a crude prison surgery, Stockdale limped the rest of his life. However, Stockdale’s five-year thought was off by two-and-a-half years. Stockdale spent seven-and-a-half -years in what was called, “The Hanoi Hilton.” Seven-and-a-half -years of imprisonment, suffering, torture, and solitary confinement.

When we are facing a crisis, we must be realistic about our expectations and our situation. In another speech, Stockdale commented that the most optimistic soldiers were the ones who had the hardest time with imprisonment. These soldiers would think, “We’ll be home be Easter.” Easter comes and goes. “We’ll be home by Christmas.” Christmas comes and goes. And so on until their spirit became broken.

Admiral Stockdale was an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life. Stockdale and those other men endured hardships I would not want to imagine. This story also illustrates the importance of what we have stored away in our minds and spirits  will guide us through our crisis. Do you have a reserve of faith to draw on? Will the love of your family keep you going? Will it be philosophic teachings? Will the lessons of previous triumphs and/or perceived failures be your guide? While we have today, let us use the day to build up reserves for when the inevitable crisis comes. Do not live in fear of what may come, but accept the fact it may not leave willingly or any time soon.  God bless you all.

 

 

1James Stockdale, “Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior,” from the book Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. Hoover Institution Press (Stanford University): 189.

Name Your Price

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

-Henry David Thoreau

Unless you are independently wealthy, costs matter. In an age where numbers such as millions, billions, and even trillions are thrown around in political speech and casual conversations, many still have to account for every cent.

I believe Henry David Thoreau outlines the missing piece in the typical cost-benefit analysis: the amount of life and time we are going to exchange for our new home, the new job, or even an athletic goal. While it is a blessing and a noble effort to work hard and provide the best life you can, have you considered the long-term wear and tear on your body? If you are an athlete, will that small window of glory be worth it when the aches and pains remain after the cheering crowds have left? I believe in going after what you want in life, but we must factor in everything that comes along with it.

As Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher put it:

“If you wish to win at the Olympic Games, to prepare yourself properly you would have to follow a strict regimen that stretches you to the limits of your endurance. You would have to submit to demanding rules, follow a suitable diet, vigorously exercise at a regular time in both heat and cold, and give up drinking. You would have to follow the directions of your trainer as if he or she were your doctor.” 1

Epictetus also goes on to discuss the possibility of injury and losing the competition. Epictetus is encourage the reader to take a look at “the big picture” in order to test ourselves and our motives.

“By considering the big picture, you distinguish yourself from the mere dabbler, the person who plays at things as long as they feel comfortable or interesting. This is not noble. Think things through and fully commit!…Unless we fully give ourselves over to our endeavors, we are hollow, superficial people and we never develop our natural gifts…but consider first the real nature of your aspirations, and measure that against your capacities.”2

Jesus also encouraged us to consider the cost of discipleship in Luke 14:25-35. One example Jesus uses is someone who considers building a tower:

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.'” (Luke 14:28-30, NIV).

Before we embark on anything in life, let us ask ourselves if we are truly willing to pay the real price to undertake it. God bless you all.

1Epictetus, The Art of Living, as interpreted by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (2006): 38.

2 Ibid, 39.

Christ is for All

Could you imagine living a life without barriers? What would life be like without self-imposed and societal-placed barriers? I am not speaking of the abolishment of law and order or a misguided utopia, but what if we could remove the labels off of everyone? People, no matter where they come from, gender, skin color, body type, political or religious belief are simply people.

What if we could view our brother or sister as simply a fellow traveling companion who is on their own journey through life? What if we could stop expecting perfection from those around us? Where’s the grace for them? We certainly would want that grace in the event we make a mistake.

It seems today’s social dialogue is “I’m completely right, you’re completely wrong!” Friendly discussion has gone the way of the dinosaurs. I believe there comes a time when everyone must examine themselves and the direction of their life, so we may see the effect we have on others. For Christians, we have to do some deep soul searching. The questions becomes: “Is the world’s growing hostility toward the Church a direct result of the Church’s hostility toward the world? Are the barriers we put up towards others hindering the effective preaching of the Gospel? I believe so.

Jesus never turned away anyone who genuinely sought Him. Did people reject Jesus? Absolutely. Did the people who came to faith in Christ struggle with sin afterwards? I’m pretty sure they did. I believe that in order to experience growth as Christians and to show the love of God to others, we must accept people where they are at in life. We need to do away with this “us versus them” mentality, because Christ is for all.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is nether slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NKJV).

“For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free-and all have been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, NKJV).

“Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” (Colossians 3:9-11, NKJV).

As we live our lives and interact with the people God has placed in our path, remember we are to be salt and light, not judge, jury, and executioner. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict the world of sin, not ours. We must not look to governments and institutions to solve our problems, we must look inward and pray upward for the strength to change ourselves. God bless you all.