Embracing the Ordeals of Life
“I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing.” — John Berryman
When I was young, I thought adults were liars, or exaggerators. In elementary school, I heard my parents say, “You know, money doesn’t grow on trees. You’ll understand what that means, one day.”
I didn’t believe them. If you have a checkbook, you must have money. Right?
When I moved into my teen years, teachers told me, “Living on your own and being independent is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
I remember thinking that’s absurd; being independent will be fantastic. No one will tell me what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. I call the shots! I found out otherwise.
When I was first married, glowing with love and dazzle, a woman 20 years older than me said, “You wait! Marriage won’t be like that for long. It includes a lot of sacrifice and difficulties.”
I remember frowning at her, sure my marriage would never be difficult; I was wrong.
As I entered my 30s, some elderly women would lament, “Oh, if I could only be your age again, then I wouldn’t have to deal with the aches and pains of getting old.”
I was sure “being old,” was light years away. I was wrong.
As you know, these things are all true and even though adults warned me, I was shocked when they appeared in my life. Somehow, I thought I was exempted from facing the ordeals of life. At 54, I know better.
The History of the Word, Ordeal
Oxford American College Dictionary reveals that, originally, an ordeal was a “test” given so the gods would help determine someone’s authenticity.
Sometimes this test involved blindfolding a person who the authorities believed to be guilty of a crime.
They would then force this person to walk between closely placed red-hot plowshares.
If he or she could do this without being burned, their innocence was determined.
As I read about these “ordeals,” and what they involved, it reminded me of methods used to detect guilt during the Salem witch trials.
In time, our use of the word, ordeal, refers to the difficulties we face in life.
You are not exempt from the ordeals of life
You realize, sooner or later, that the ordeals or trials of life happen to everyone and you are not exempted from them.
Eventually, you will experience breath-taking events that will change your life forever. It may be an accident involving you or a loved one that will turn an ordinary day into a life-changing event.
Betrayal, health issues, job losses, and death are all realities of life and when you first experience these, it’s natural to think, why me?
The ordeals of life come to everyone. As I have matured, my thinking has changed.
For example, the other day, I was in a store and I witnessed an unconscious elderly woman being treated by EMTs and her eventual placement in an ambulance.
One woman at the checkout counter thought the woman had had a stroke. As I gazed at the woman whose middle-aged daughter nervously stood by, I thought, this is a situation I may find myself, one day.
When I was younger, this would not occur to me but I know better now. The ordeals of life do not discriminate.
Strategies for dealing with the ordeals of life
- First, we need to recognize that eventually we will face the difficulties of life.
There is nothing we can do to prevent them; it’s a harsh reality, so stop fighting against them. This will only wear you out.
2. Because the difficulties of life are inevitable, it would be prudent to have some plans in place.
If you need medical treatment, do those close to you know where your insurance card is?
Do you have a list of medications you take? Do you take normal precautions to maintain things that need fixing, such as the lamp cord your dog chewed?
These examples will not keep all ordeals at bay but they may thwart some.
3. The ordeals of life can strengthen us.
When I look back to some specific life-changing difficulties I have experienced, in the moment, I thought I would lose my mind or my heart would break beyond repair.
This is the reality of these sort of events. I also would say, having lived through these difficulties, I am a better person.
You do not have to have faith in God to agree with James, who wrote a book in the New Testament.
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James 1:204 (NIV)
Enduring the difficulties of life strengthens you. Just like an athlete in training, there is no other way to strengthen a specific area of our bodies, the ordeals we face in life are also building a strength of character we could get no other way.
4. The ordeals of life teach us about priorities.
I will never forget the day I found out my sister was having double-vision and it was revealed she had MS. The doctors told her she had better experience all she wanted in life now because her window of opportunity would close quickly.
As I walked around in my backyard, processing this news, I remember thinking, I was worried about something as trivial as what I would do about getting my car fixed. That’s so unimportant, now.
It was after finding out this information that I understood that difficulties of life can help reveal what priorities I should have.
5. Having endured a specific difficulty means we can help others.
I will never say the words, “I understand how you feel,” when I see people experiencing the ordeals of life because I don’t know their specific circumstances.
Yet, there is a level in which I can understand because I have walked through what I call, “the valley of the shadow” myself.
Having endured difficulty another is experiencing can give us compassion and the ability to comfort and encourage them.
I know I cannot make the circumstances “better” but I will know some specific things I can do to help (or not do to avoid making things worse for the person).
I know the heartache of losing a beloved pet. Just the sight of the cat’s food and water dishes triggered my grief.
During the difficult days afterward, I had a friend who knew me well enough to know these little reminders were agonizing. She could sense this because she recognized it in her own life when she lost a pet.
While visiting me the day after my cat died, she quietly picked up the food and water dishes, washed them and put them in a cabinet.
I remember drawing comfort from this because I knew she understood. We can use our difficult experiences to help others.
Life has taught me there will be ordeals that come my way. I cannot prevent them but I can have some plans in place for dealing with many of them.
I can also expect that they can strengthen and teach me what should be a priority and I can use my experiences to encourage others in their difficulties.
The ordeals of life are inevitable but they don’t have to destroy the rest of your life.