Monday, August 29, 2011

Hard Lessons

It seems funny sometimes, the things you remember, words or events that in themselves seem insignificant, and they happened so long ago. Why remember these? Of all the important things which happened to us, memories we wish we had, people and places that we wish we could recall more of, why do we remember some trivial events?

I think it is because that perhaps they were not so trivial.

I recall the only course I ever failed in my life, a course in Physics. That semester there had been a number of problems on the railroad where I worked, and I put in many long hours, extra shifts I enjoyed for the money they generated, but my sleep and schoolwork suffered. For that particular class, which I missed most often (the professor told us dates of all tests on the first day of class), the professor eventually sent me a note: “If you wish to drop this course, you must notify the registrar’s office.”

I hadn’t dropped the course; I just skipped most of the classes. Well, in truth, perhaps all of them. So it shouldn’t have been surprising when I failed the one question final exam: “Describe the forces impacting a penny rolling on a table.” I can even recall turning the exam paper over, looking for more on the other side: That’s it??

And I can also recall thinking: “Uh-oh.”

I think I described with equations and words the obvious forces affecting the penny, such as gravity, momentum, centrifugal force and even mentioned friction, but neglected the less obvious forces, like electromagnetic forces or the rotation of the earth or even the gravity of the moon. And I even neglected to mention the factors which would impact the degree of these forces, like the tilt or roughness of the table, whether it was a new or old penny, and whether it was made of copper or steel. I wrote the obvious answers, but not some of the key things I was to have learned in the class: many things in science --- and life --- are not obvious, many important things.

Acutely aware of my failure to attend class, I don’t think the professor was inclined to look with favor (or pity) on my simple answers, and he rightly failed me for the course. Oh, I made up the class at summer school, but I still vividly recall the failure. Of all the great classes, interesting classes which I took in college, why do I remember that one, the failure, so strongly?

But perhaps it is not really the failure that I recall. At some deeper level, perhaps what I recall is the lesson. With that failure I learned to focus on all of my subsequent classes and to look at the big picture --- each class was necessary for the degree. And with that failure came shame: I never told my father I had failed the class, so I resolved to never fail another. And perhaps in recalling the question on the final I am also recalling deeper lesson: the real heart of a situation, the important point --- especially when viewed by another --- is often not the obvious point. And, perhaps, sometimes the question or situation in life is not really important at all --- despite what I may think --- but rather what is important is how people perceive me in the situation, my intentions, my faith, my love. Thinking back on that professor, for instance, regardless of my answer to the test question, I don’t think he thought much of me as a student. That was the important point.

How many people do I impact with my life who don’t think much of me as a man, or as a spouse, or as a Christian? Do my actions or words matter to them as much as whom they perceive me to be? If they see me as greedy, as ego-driven, as self-important, as not caring about them or thinking them important, can they really care about what I say or do? Will they learn any lessons from me? Despite my sincere prayers to God, can I really be an instrument of His peace?

I remember lessons from my dad, given to me as I grew to maturity. It seems the ones I most readily recall are the ones which put some limits on me, at times when I felt it right for me to proceed without limits. “Don’t borrow money from your bowling league’s treasury, son. I’ll always give you money if you need it.” And “Don’t curse like that, son. You may be angry, but God will always be your true friend, if you treat Him with the respect of one.”

Dad’s advice that I recall was limiting to me, and in some way it hurt my ego or shamed me. Somehow I thought I remembered those times because of the pain I felt, but I think, looking back now, that I remember them because of the wisdom I gained. These were among the hard lessons I learned in life, often about him putting limits --- and teaching me to put limits --- on what I wanted to do, because limits are necessary in a life which is to be lived well. Looking back over the rest of my life, I wish dad would have taught me more of those hard lessons, put more limits on me, or taught me to put more limits on myself. It took me many, many years to learn some of the hard lessons he did not teach me. And learning them that way, they were harder still.

Like the physics question, often it is not the obvious things which are the most important. When my dad gave me advice, I don’t ever recall him telling me that he loved me. In fact, I don’t recall him telling me that much at all. He didn’t say it, but I knew it because he showed it in all his actions. That’s how real love works, it’s a subtle thing. Like the force of the earth’s rotation or even the distant moon impacting the little penny rolling on a table, love is a huge and seemingly distant force, and we often forget about it. But it is a key driving force in all actions we see or do: Do we do them with love? Do we do things giving something of ourselves, “putting ourselves into it,” as it were?

Whether we do act with love or not, it will be noticed. People will react to us based on how they perceive our actions, subtle things often become more important than words --- like weak test answers overridden by perceptions of a weak student.

There are many hard lessons in life. Some hard lessons are taught to us in simple, loving ways, but not all. There are many bad things which happen to us, sometimes seemingly in deliberate, evil ways. And we may think people doing some of those actions are evil themselves, having perceived who they are in many subtle ways, and perceiving that their actions are not done with love. But even those actions, those evil things which may befall us and we cannot forget, even those things have some good to them, some hard lesson to be learned. For WE are like that insignificant penny rolling on the table, and God is in the forces of the universe and all the heavens around us. He told us so: I will be with you, always.

Even in the worst, hardest lessons of our life, there is good, and there is love. For in all things, God is with us. We can ignore Him or forget Him, but still, He is there. Like the forces I forgot about on the test, He is there. He is constant. He always loves us.

That too is a hard lesson for us to learn. For many of us, it may take a lifetime, but like my earthly father, He is patient. Sometimes I think it hurt my earthly father to discipline me, to help me learn. How often did I think he acted in a hateful way, and at the moment not see the bigger forces at work in his action? How often did he --- and if not he, then my heavenly Father --- really act with love?

It is a hard lesson, sometimes, to learn of our Father’s love. But it is the most important lesson to learn.

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