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Finding Hope in Hard Times - Part II

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 16, 2009

"We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them." 
Simone Weil

Last week I included excerpts from Henri Nouwen's Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times. Part I of his book is titled "From Our Little Selves to a Larger World." Today we will think about his words in Part II and Part III. 

Nouwen begins Part II, "From Holding Tight to Letting Go," by describing his visit to the circus with his 89 year old father. Those five South African trapeze artists (three fliers and two catchers) mesmerized him. 

After speaking about "the courage of my circus friends," he wrote, "Before they can be caught they must let go. They must brave the emptiness of space. Living with this kind of willingness to let go is one of the greatest challenges we face." 

These insights contradict common sense. We want to hang on to what we have. How is it possible to gain anything by letting it go? Should I not grip my tired and sometimes bloodied fingers on anything that is mine? How can I ever let them go? Is that not one of life's desperate realities? 

Nouwen disagrees. "The great paradox," he says, "is that it is in letting go, we receive. We find safety in unexpected places of risk. And those who try to avoid all risk, those who would try to guarantee that their hearts will not be broken, end up in a self-created hell." 

What if I had not taken the risk to ask Evie to marry me? What if we had not left the church we pastored to attend graduate school? What if we had not left the security and familiarity of 21 years at North Central University to come here and thereby refuse to accept the risk of new roles and new challenges here at Valley Forge Christian College? 

Even in the hard times (especially in the hard times) we face choices to take risks, to open our hands and to let go. And only when we do are we able to fly like the trapeze artists. 

Part III of Nouwen's Book is moving "From Fatalism to Hope." The dictionary definition of fatalism is "the acceptance of every event as inevitable." Nouwen says, "A fatalistic person says, 'What's the use? We will lose in the end. We are victimized by fate.'This easily leads to resentment, bitterness, hopelessness, despair...and (eventually) depression and even suicide." 

Hard times can nurture fatalism in any of us. We can be made to feel like a bug on the windshield of life, a dandelion which blows anywhere and everywhere with just a puff of wind, a moth in a world of bright lights. 

Nouwen challenges us with these words, "To say of a situation, 'It is out of my hands,' can represent a fatalistic remark, or a mark of faith. Faith, after all, might seem to major in resignation; it too asks us to say, 'I give myself into hands beyond my own...' Rather than displaying passing resignation, faith leads to hopeful willingness. A person of faith is willing to let new things happen and shoulder responsibilities that arise from unheard of possibilities." 

Again and again Nouwen understands that we can have a hopeful perspective in the most difficult times. He looks beyond the darkness to the silver lining that is behind every cloud. He speaks of the value of faith even when the circumstances suggest fatalism. 

Now that I am older, I find these perspectives much easier to understand. Earlier in life I focused more on the weather than on the climate, the innings rather than the game, the view from the ground rather than from the air. But now it is easier to repeat the words of the old Hebrew prophet, Zephaniah who said, I am a "prisoner of hope." 

Think about it.


Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu