The important lessons of life are rarely learned in formal classrooms where there are textbooks to read, teachers to lecture and guide us, fellow students to encourage us and laboratories to run experiments. A lot of what I have learned in order to succeed I have learned from the classrooms of life.
• The Classroom of Medical Problems, which includes illnesses, operations, chronic pain and suffering: Here is a class thrust upon us, ready or not. Most of us would not choose to take a formal class dealing with medical problems. Only as we encounter the problem do we feel the need to learn more about the subject.
In this classroom, we learn a great deal about ourselves. I learned early on that I am a coward when it comes to pain; therefore I am grateful for medically prescribed painkillers and the over-the-counter ones like aspirin.
By experiencing unbearable pain during and after surgery, I found I could appreciate all the agonizing pain and suffering that Christ went through on the cross. I learned how comforting it is to have a loved one or a friend present after surgery, and that it is all right to be a pastor and have members of the congregation meet the pastor’s needs.
The presence, power and peace of God became more than pious platitudes. God became my very present help in time of trouble. I learned that I could depend upon God to do what he promised he would do. I learned that God works through physicians, nurses, LPNs and even the housekeepers who cleaned my room.
• The Classroom of Losses, which include deaths of friends and family, moving from the familiar to a new home or job, accidents that cause limitations, the ability to see and go and do: In the school of hard knocks, this has been most devastating for me – as I write this column I am almost blind in my right eye.
Here we learn that life is sometimes not fair. Just at the time when we have the time and resources to travel and to see beautiful and interesting things, eat in gourmet restaurants and stay in lovely places, our spouse or we have serious health issues or die. It seems first like a cruel joke. What was to be now will never be.
It is normal to grow angry and sad. It is so easy to become disillusioned, cynical and bitter. Sometimes all it takes to change our perspective is to have a friend reach out and become the all-important link between our shattered world and what can still be an enjoyable life. As we turn loose of our broken dreams and begin to focus on what is still viable and alive, we begin to catch a glimpse of God’s grace still at work. We dare to believe that there is life after our loss and that God can indeed work through all things that happen to us.
• The Classroom of Failures: When I was in high school, I tried to make the basketball team. I was not tall, but I was quick and fast on my feet. I tried hard to overcome my tendency to ponder my moves, dribbles and ball passing on the court. After a workout one day, my coach reached out, touched my shoulder and said, “Norris, have you ever thought of going out for track?” At that moment, I felt like a complete failure. However, I did join the track and field team and became a successful dash and broad jump team member. I failed in basketball, but not in all sports.
Building on that classroom of life experience, I was able to succeed in other sports that did not require quick reactions, such as singles tennis and golf.
Once when I was feeling like a failure in being a minister of a congregation, I visited a member of my church and shared confidentially my feelings of failure. What she said that day has been an important key to open the door to becoming a successful person in lots of areas of life. She said, “Gene, the only sense of failure you need to feel is failing to realize sooner that you need to be using your God-given gifts and talents in another facet of ministry.”
I eventually did become a successful hospital chaplain, a chaplain in the National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve, chaplain in a retirement community and a marriage and family therapist.
There is no medical problem, loss, or failure that cannot be overcome with God’s help, the help of the fellowship of our local congregation and when necessary, a professional therapist.
The Rev. Gene Norris is a Presbyterian pastor in Augusta.