Commitment to what makes life worthwhile
Everyone is defeated some time. Many then simply quit the fray. But the really strong, the really committed, do not. They decide whether or not the mountain is worth the climb. And if it is, no amount of wind can force them from the face of it. They live to finish what they began.
Endurance is not about being too stubborn to give up on the impossible. Endurance is about having heart enough to keep on trying to do the possible, even if it is unattainable. We nurse the dying through years of disability. We begin projects for the poor even when they don’t begin to make a dent in the problem of poverty. We hold on against opposition for the sake of the principle of a thing. Those endure who seek to do what is deeply important to them, no matter how difficult it may be.
The problem is that it is often hard to tell the difference between endurance and denial. It is a distinction that is necessary to the authenticity of the exercise. We are in denial when we fail to accept the fact that what we want to have happen depends on more than what we have to offer. If we do not have the basic musical abilities it takes to play the piano, no amount of music lessons will make up for a lack of natural rhythm or the size of our hands. Then, to set our sights on concertizing is denial. When we do not have the agreement of others that are needed to see a thing through, but cling to the idea anyway, that is denial. I cannot save a marriage, for instance, once the other person has already left it. Endurance, then, does not mean “success.” It means being willing to cope with what is until something else begins. It means being open to the possibility that things will stay the way they are, perhaps indefinitely. It means that I must be open to becoming something new. Then endurance demands that I bear what I must and be what I can.
The notion of endurance takes on negative overtones when I fail to realize that it is meant to bring out the best in me, not the worst. Endurance is not misery, not martyrdom, not spiritual masochism. Endurance means that I intend to survive the worst, singing as I go.
The person who endures does not have life taken away by forces devoted to their destruction. They devote their lives in tribute only to those things that make a life worth living. When my young widowed mother refused to allow other members of the family to raise her child so that “she could begin again,” she was not martyring herself. She was simply intent on enduring the struggle it would take to keep alive and vital the part of her life that meant something to her: raising me. Endurance is not negation of life; it is commitment to whatever makes life worthwhile.
We do what we do, not because we are sure to succeed at it, but because it brings out something good in us that nothing else can touch. We can endure anything for the sake of things we love. We can endure years at a bedside, years of study, a lifetime of practice, a career of service, the loss of good things we consider less worthy than the things we really care about. Endurance is the sacrament of commitment.
The gift of endurance is not to be wasted on trivia, on denial, on stubbornness, on posturing. We are given the gift of endurance for the sake of the great things of life. Endurance has as much to do with the kind of person we are as it has to do with the kind of situation we’re in. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
—from Scarred By Struggle, Transformed by Hope, by Joan Chittister (Eerdmans)