When my mother died some years ago, I telephoned a very distant cousin (my mother’s niece) to pass along the news. Our conversation lasted far longer than I’d anticipated, because she began to tell me stories about my mother’s family that I had never heard.
My mother was the last of eight children born into a Swedish immigrant family. Now, with her death, all eight were gone. “Your mother’s family was a bunch of quitters,” my cousin said bluntly.
“When life toughened, the brothers drank and the sisters complained. Then they simply gave up and died . . . one by one.”
The remark haunted me long after the phone call ended.
“Quitters!” she’d said. Not a particularly ennobling thing to say about a family line. Because I could not dismiss my cousin’s judgment, I began to reassemble the pieces of my mother’s life as best as I could recall them.
She had tried hard to be a good mother to my brother and me. But time and again, my mother had tasted disappointment. Lots of things simply didn’t work out for her. She would get a job but give it up in a short period of time. She would start projects around our home but rarely finish them. She would announce that we were going to do family life in a new way, but the resolve to change would not last.
Mother seemed to be a busy person, but very little ever got done. She knew a lot of people, but I’m not sure there were many intimate friends. Only one comes to mind. She had talents (playing the piano was one of them), but I don’t think any of them were ever developed.
There is in our home a small painting that my mother started in her older years. I prize it as one of the few keepsakes she left behind at her death. But the painting was actually finished by another person.
I loved my mother, and I am grateful to her for being faithful to her two sons. But I am also aware that orderly, disciplined, durable living for her was a continuous struggle. And while I know that her death was the result of a massive stroke, I fear that she died of a broken, unfulfilled heart.
Before the conversation with my cousin, I had never connected the dots of my mother’s life in such a way that I could see these underlying patterns. A single pejorative word—like quitter—can sometimes make that happen. Now, spurred on by that word, a lot of things became clear to me—about my mother and about myself. Finishing things was a challenge for both of us. It marked our character.
The best way I could put it was this: I had a quitter’s gene in me. Forgive if this is not a clinical statement that a psychologist might recognize. But it explains things to me, even if it is a harsh self-assessment . . . of my mother, of myself.
Marvin Goldberg may have been the first, I think, to sense the hint of a quitter’s gene in me when I was a high-school boy. During the summer before my last year of prep school, I decided that I wanted to quit his cross-country team. I was tired, I had concluded, of grueling workouts. I wanted some free time so that I could (how do you say this in a serious way?) do more dating and anything else that comes under the rubric of freelance fun. Athletic life was not compatible with such desires.
Come spring, I told myself, I’d get serious again and run on Goldberg’s track team, but I wanted out of the fall schedule of longdistance competition, where our team frequently contended in 10k races against college freshmen teams.
Since vacation times were spent at home—two thousand miles away from the school’s campus—I chose to say all of this in a letter. Frankly, I would never have had the audacity to say these things to the coach in a face-to-face conversation. He would have cut through my defenses in minutes. So a letter was the better way, I determined.
And when I wrote, I tried to make my decision sound like serious reasoning, as if the determination to “party” rather than run was God’s will or something.
Within a week there was a return letter. MWG had wasted no time with his reply. As I recall, his typed letter was several single-spaced pages long. I wish I still had it. Because even I, a young, immature teenage kid, could see that the man was thinking about a lot of things greater and longer lasting than just whether or not I continued as a runner that fall.
I remember that my father asked to see what Goldberg had written. When he finished reading it, he said, “This may be the most important letter you will ever receive.” Perhaps his was a bit of an overstatement, but he certainly gained my attention.
In short Goldberg had said this: “By not running with the crosscountry team this fall, you will have made the following choices: You will have disappointed your teammates, who depend upon you to help them win races. You will have turned your back on the team’s supporters, who have shown up at every race in the past to cheer on athletes like yourself. But most of all”—and here he went straight at the jugular vein—“you will have inadvertently reinforced a dangerous character trait: specifically that whenever you are faced with a challenge you don’t like, or that seems too difficult, or that asks from you too great a sacrifice, you will find it easier and easier to walk away from it” . . . in other words, to quit.
Goldberg knew nothing of what I was to learn about my mother many years later. But I think he detected the quitter’s gene. His letter and my father’s endorsement of it overcame my quitter’s instinct, and I changed my mind, returned to the cross-country team, and helped lead it to a league championship that year. I cannot claim that I enjoyed myself in that effort, but at a deeper level I learned the satisfaction of accomplishing something that ended well.
Perhaps satisfaction is more important than enjoyment in the long view of life.
Goldberg’s letter had put a warning shot over the bow of my life. He was right. The temptation to give up in the face of difficult challenges has never been too far from my thinking over these many years. Over and over again—to this day—when I am tempted to procrastinate, to abandon a commitment, to desert an effort, I remind myself of the day I returned to the cross-country course as a teenager and did something I didn’t want to do. And in a heart-level dialogue with the part of me that lacks finishing-power, I say, “I finished then; I’m going to finish now. I did it well then; I’m going to do it well now.”
These two stories—of my mother’s life and a teenage decision—are among a number I could recite that speak to the issue of resilience in my own life. It’s something I’ve had to work at, and every ounce of effort has paid off.
Wherever I have gone and talked about the resilient life, I have insisted that one must anticipate that the greatest contributions God has for us to make will happen in the second half of life. You should see the reaction if I add, “And you folks under forty? In actuality, most of what you’re doing now is simply running the first laps of the race.”
Caleb of the Old Testament is, of course, the great champion of the second half. “Give me the hill country,” he begged Joshua. “I am eighty-five, and I’m as strong as I was at forty-five.” (See Joshua 14.) I get the feeling that he said this in front of a score of young men who were maneuvering for easy assignments when it came to occupying the promised land. The hill country was full of walled cities and men who were rumored to be giants.Who’d want to tackle that? The old guy did.
On occasions when I have talked about Caleb and his resilience, I have invited response from the audience. I ask, “What is the most provocative word or idea that you’ve heard in the last little while, the one issue you might even take home with you and choose to think about?”
Invariably, someone responds, “The thought that I could keep on growing and that I could be like Caleb and make my most valuable contributions in the second half of life.” It’s not unusual, after the meeting ends, for some to linger and to say, “Thanks for giving me hope that my best years are ahead.” I have seen tears in the eyes of people who say this. Somehow they feel that the first forty years have been more or less a failure. They didn’t do a great job raising their kids. They squandered a marriage. They followed second-class priorities. And now, at midlife, they contemplate forty years of regretting wasted opportunities.
This doesn’t have to be. The Christian worships a God who can (and does) take the life of any person, turn it inside out, and use it to build a piece of his kingdom.
The story of Eli, the Old Testament priest, grabs me. Here is an old guy who miserably failed both as a father and as a spiritual leader to Israel. He should have been fired with cause. But something happened in his life that the Bible does not fully describe. All we know is that God used him to coach a young boy, Samuel. It was as if Eli said to himself one day, “I’ve blown everything else in my life; I’m not going to blow this opportunity.”
Under Eli’s mentoring, Samuel grew up to be one of the greatest prophets in all of Israel’s history. You can read his story in 1 Samuel. For Eli it was a significant achievement in his second half of life. To be sure, he had to live and die with some of the consequences of his earlier failures, but he did give Israel a fiery young leader. There’s at least some resilience here.
Among my favorite Bible stories is the one told of Paul and his apostolic teammate, Silas, who were beaten and thrown into a Roman prison because they were disrupting the peace by preaching the Christian gospel in the streets of Philippi. “About midnight,” the writer says, “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25, emphasis mine).
I smell resilience. Here are men who have been manhandled by a mob—illegally, it turns out—beaten to a pulp, imprisoned under unspeakable conditions, and they are singing. And their songs are not only strength-giving to themselves, but other prisoners are apparently enriched by their behavior. One could say that a jail was transformed into a sanctuary by two resilient men.
A few weeks before my very-ill mother died, she and I had a long conversation about a broken relationship in her life. She wept freely as she recounted the many ways she felt she had contributed to the demise of the relationship. It was clear to me as she talked that her sense of failure in this matter was overwhelming, that, in some ways, it typified her own view of her whole life.
As best I can recall the conversation, a part of it went like this: “Mother, why do you let your thoughts drag you down? Why don’t you acknowledge your sense of responsibility and ask for forgiveness?”
“I’m not sure that [she named the other person] would ever talk to me again.”
“You can write a letter, and perhaps that will get things started.”
“I don’t have the strength.”
“Mother, tell me what you’d like to say. I’ll write the letter, and then you can judge whether or not I’ve expressed your heart.”
My mother listed all the issues for which she felt responsibility in the broken relationship, and after she had exhausted herself in the recounting, I retreated to the other side of the room and wrote the letter while she napped.
When I was finished and she had awakened, I said, “I’ve written what I heard you saying. Let me read it to you so that you can tell me where I need to make changes.” I began to read. Again, there were many tears as she heard words that expressed her thoughts.
“Underline that phrase,” she might say as she listened. “No, I’d rather you said it this way.” Little by little the letter grew in the strength of its repentant character. Finally, we were finished with the editing.
“I’ve wanted to say all that for ten years,” she said. And I thought to myself,My mother has carried an intolerable load of regret and sorrow all of these years. Why did she allow the burden to get so heavy?
The letter was delivered the next day. Not long after, a response came from the one to whom she had written. It was an assurance of forgiveness. And it was instantly evident that my mother felt immensely lighter.
My mother had finished something important. A few weeks later she finished her race and went to be with Jesus.