• Josh Robertson

In Pain in the Membrane

We don’t like struggling.

Now, other folks’ struggles? We don’t mind those so much.[1] And our past struggles? Those aren’t so bad either. We can deal with our past struggles. Sort of.

But our current struggles and our future struggles?[2]

Ugh. Very upsetting.

And look, I get it. Our distaste for struggling is really quite understandable. When we’re struggling, we’re contending with strong opposition. We’re swimming upstream. We’re striving to solve a tough problem or complete a challenging task.

Struggling is, by definition, difficult.

Let’s consider just some of the many ways that, like an evil comic book villain or a stinky pair of shoes, struggle is extremely icky.

Struggle is a thief

Our hardships take from us. At best, any particular struggle consumes our time and our attention and depletes our energy; at worst, struggle may involve the loss of much of what we treasure most. Struggle drains us.

Struggle is costly

Similarly, our hardships are taxing. Pastor Timothy Keller talks about how, any time something is broken, a debt is incurred[3]. Since struggle is brokenness-made-real, someone’s gotta pay. Struggle exacts a heavy toll on us.

Struggle is crafty

Hardship takes advantage of our vulnerabilities. Hardship bides its time, and when a weakness in our armor emerges, hardship lets fly its black arrow, often when we least expect an incoming missile. Struggle exploits us.

Struggle is humiliating

Hardship reveals our vulnerabilities. We’re feeble creatures, and our weaknesses are most on display - to us, to others, and to the world - in our areas of struggle.[4] Struggle humiliates us.

Struggle is dangerous

Our hardships are accompanied by, or result in, increased risk. One trial hurts us, robs us, and leaves us for dead. Another trial comes along and strikes while our wounds are still tender from the first. Struggle renders us vulnerable.

Struggle is painful

Our hardships sting. When we struggle, we experience physical pain, emotional pain, relational pain, spiritual pain, or some combination of any of the above. Sometimes pain itself is our struggle. Struggle hurts us.

Struggle is frustrating

Hardship restrains us when we want to move and moves us when we want to stay. “It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.”[5] We want what we want, and we want it now. But our struggles discourage us.

Struggle is an interruption

Our hardships are impositions. Our struggles burst through the wall of our lives - "Oh yeah!” - uninvited and undesired. They require we pause, pick up the broken pieces, wait, or find a work-around. Struggle foists itself upon us.

Struggle is unfair

Hardship seems to find those least deserving of hardship. Thousands of years ago, the psalmist wrote of his envy of the wicked, because the wicked appear to prosper while the righteous languish.[6] Struggle is cruel toward us.

Struggle is in control

Each of our hardships chooses us, not the other way around, and try as we might to shake it, the trial won’t depart until it’s good and ready. We’re the passive victim; struggle is the active perpetrator. Struggle persecutes us.

Struggle is hopeless

Hardship makes us feel insecure. We become pessimistic about whether things will get better or work out in our favor. We doubt that there is any meaning in our difficulties, and worse, we doubt that we are loved. Struggle leaves us feeling desperate.

Struggle is scary

Our hardships induce anxiety. The mere prospect of difficulty is enough to quicken the heartbeat and moisten the palms, and when a trial finally strikes, the fear, especially the fear of the unknown, is debilitating. Struggle terrifies us.

You probably resonate with some or all of these perceptions of struggle. After all, struggle is a menace. The question is, which ‘you’ is resonating?

Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman[7] thinks each of us has two selves: “There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present, is capable of re-living the past, but basically it has only the present. It's the experiencing self that the doctor approaches -- you know, when the doctor asks, 'Does it hurt now when I touch you here?' And then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score, and maintains the story of our life, and it's the one that the doctor approaches in asking the question, 'How have you been feeling lately?' or 'How was your trip to Albania?' or something like that."[8]

Hardship is so unpleasant in the moment that it’s often your experiencing self, not your remembering self, who shapes your overall perception of struggling.

For example, as we discussed earlier, when you’re struggling, it feels like it’s your hardship that’s in control. The hardship is exercising agency; you don’t have a say in the matter.

The hardship has chosen you.

Tractor beam, sucked you right in.

But what if this is just your experiencing self doing the talking? If you mic’d up your remembering self, would you hear a different story? Or even better, what if, from the outset, your remembering self had a more prominent seat at the table and could shape your overall perception of your current and future struggles?

In the next post we’ll hear what your remembering self has to say about struggle and choice. Along the way, we’ll learn more about the many forms struggle itself takes.

An important note

Many readers of this blog[9] will have gone through difficulties few of us can imagine. By emphasizing the life-giving benefits of hardship, and doing so in a light-hearted, self-help-y way, I risk seeming tone-deaf, at best. In no way do I mean to minimize or gloss over the difficulty of your circumstances. The world can be a horrible place. Rather, my goal is to show that any particular struggle can be both unwelcome (because of its pain) and, in a way, welcome (because of its potential rewards).

[1]: There’s a reason Fail Compilations have so many views on Youtube.

[2]: Those we can anticipate, at least

[3]: Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Viking, 2008.

[4]: Especially those areas we thought were strengths

[5]: Isn’t it ironic?

[6]: Psalm 73: “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.” (English Standard Version)

[7]: …or, as I like to call him, Daniel ‘Conomist

[8]: https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory

[9]: To be clear: There are not many readers of this blog.

Copyright 2020 Josh Robertson. All rights reserved.