Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. – Victor Frankl
Do you ever wish you were somewhere else? Of course you do! You wish you were on the other side of that right light which is holding you back from where you want to be. You wish you were at a job that pays more, or is energizing rather than mind numbing. You wish you were with a spouse that is harder working, or more romantic, or thinner, or richer, or funnier, than the one you married. You wish you were in California, or Africa. You wish you were retired. You wish you were in a more Libertarian, or more Socialist nation. About this time in the school calendar, lots of students wish they had different roomates, different majors, or were at a different university or college. You wish you were….somewhere else.
All of us wish we were somewhere else at times, which is another way of saying that we wish our context were different than it is. This kind of wishing and discontentment can be a good thing at times: it’s why we vote, or get a graduate degree, or join a gym, or have hard but necessary conversations with those we love. But it can, just as easily, be a bad thing: it’s why we get in automobile accidents, and have affairs, and spiral into a mindset of victimization and hopelessness because we feel so “stuck” in whatever context we find ourselves.
How do you navigate the waters between accepting a context you don’t like and working to change it? That kind of navigation is called ‘wisdom’ and there are certain principles that guide it.
Wherever you are, be all there. This little phrase captured my attention in a book I read during high school, and it’s always stayed near the forefront of my thinking. It reminds me of that word from the Psalms which says, “this is the day which the Lord has made – Let us rejoice and be glad in it”. The Buddhists have a word for this – it’s called “mindfulness” and it simply means that we’re at our healthiest when we’re not wasting precious energy wishing we were somewhere else. When I’m at the light and it’s read, I’m learning to inhale deeply, pray a bit, pay attention to the wind in the trees or the people at the cross walk, and calm down. When I’m sidelined from running because of a heel injury, it’s no good moaning about it and wishing I were out running; better to write, or read a good book, or do a little stretching. When I’m in a mind numbing meeting, or a frustrating or difficult conversation and I recognize that piece of my rising up to disengage from the moment, I inhale deeply again, and ask God for the grace to be fully present in this moment: this broken relationship; this hospital; this traffic jam; this grief.
2. We’re all prisoners in some way.The Apostle Paul calls himself a “prisoner of the Lord” several times in the letters he writes. The phrase is a reminder that, in this fallen world, we will surely find ourselves, in various times and ways, in places we’d never choose. You’re stuck in rainy Seattle. You’re stuck in a job you don’t like. You’re stuck with a body that’s not functioning. As we’ll see in a moment, “stuck” needn’t be paralyzing or disempowering because there are always steps to take. At the same time, it’s equally true that the steps you take in some certain situation may not result in things changing all that much.
I might expand the walls of some particular prison but I’ll not realize perfection of body, marriage, vocation, calling, friendships, bodily health, political nirvana, etc. in this life. “As far as possible” Paul says, “seek peace…”, with the implication being that in every situation there’s a limit to what can be done.
These limits though, needn’t paralyze us or plunge us into bitterness. To the contrary Paul writes from prison, reminding his readers that “my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel”. Sometimes it’s our prison that cause the light of Christ to be seen in us most clearly. I’d do well to remember that the next time I feel stuck somewhere.
3. Move towards Shalom, as much as possible. The truth is that right now, in your situation and mine, we can rise up and be a blessing. We can allow at a least of measure of the hope, joy, beauty, healing power, and light of Christ to shine through us. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all…” This is Paul’s way of saying that the possibility of imparting peace and being a blessing isn’t tied to any situation. No matter who wins the election, no matter whether my elbow’s ever strong enough to climb again, no matter the outcome of the doctor’s report – the possibility of being a blessing remains, which is cause of thanksgiving, rejoicing, and peace.
What’s your prison – and how are you finding peace in it? I welcome your thoughts.