I’m a sucker for a good, emotional story. Stick me with lifetime or ABC family and I could be content for hours. I like stories that move me; stories about people rising from the ashes, especially about young people overcoming tremendous obstacles and changing the generations of struggle that have inflicted their heritage.
For many years I was inundated with stories like this, especially in college. Stories of real struggle and triumph. Of defeat and victory. We all need to believe things can change. We all want to believe there’s more healing and wholeness and victory in our lives and in this world. I want to believe it, but sometimes I feel like a fool for hoping for a miracle.
What’s the likelihood that the baby of the teen that I mentored for years, what’s the likelihood that he will grow up and break out of the cycle of life he’s been born into? What’s the likelihood that she will? I helped to deliver this child. He’s close to my heart. I prayed for him, saw him in utero, went to countless appointments with his mom and helped her adjust to becoming a mom. I invested money, time, and emotions in these two.
Some things don’t seem fair to me. It doesn’t seem fair to me that this baby was born into a generational struggle that he has no control or choice over. He didn’t deserve it. It doesn’t seem fair to me that a young teenager would be raped, become pregnant by it, and then struggle in this role as “mom” when she herself still craves the mom she’s only heard of.
Can you hope unlikely things?
I was asked many times in college and after to share my story. Often, it was prefaced with a specific part: “Can you make sure to include (fill in the blank)” or “I’d like you to touch on (blank)“. I’d almost always say yes. You see, I like to teach. It’s something I’m both gifted and good at. I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned and where I’ve been. Somewhere along the road, many of those types of questions made me weary of wanting to share my story, my life, formally.
Who we are cannot be separated by where we’re from. -Malcom Gladwell
I didn’t understand why I would nose dive into darkness after sharing my story, my testimony of being pulled out of my really hard life, of overcoming intense obstacles and situations. After I’d share, often people would thank me and tell me what a great story that is or “praise god” for a testimony like yours. They’d comment on how strong I was or that they were moved by my story. I’d plaster a courteous smile and go home and cry for days. The intensity of struggle has always been the highest after times like these. I feel a tension to be separate from where I’ve come from, but I can’t be.
Each of us has his or her own distinct personality. But overlaid on top of that are tendencies and assumptions and reflexes handed down to us by the history of the community we grew up in, and those differences are extraordinarily specific.
We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.
In those times, I didn’t feel like I overcame. I’d wonder what they were moved towards when they said “thanks for sharing. That moved me”. I’d question if what I shared was really even valuable in the way I shared it. I wondered if they really understood the darkness of my struggle, of hurt, of grief that comes with a ‘story’ like mine. I wondered if I was just another feel good story for a lifetime movie. Sure there’s victory in my story and overcoming of really big obstacles, but there’s a lot I have to live with. There’s a reality that things are not as they ought to be in my life. And I have to live in that tension every day. I don’t feel victorious most days. Most days, I mourn. The truth is, I have to life in a world, in a society that has unspoken rules about grief and hurt and pain, even though we’d like to believe that we don’t.
extraordinary achievement is less about talent than it is about opportunity
It doesn’t feel “profitable” to stay near someone who has been struggling in darkness and depression for years, who sees no way out. Or what if we see no way out for them?
Or the friend or father or child who keeps getting hospitalized because they are suicidal.
Or the teenage mom, who still goes out to parties and drinks alcohol and has sex.
They lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.
Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school
These aren’t overcomer stories. Sometimes we don’t want to hope unlikely things. Sometimes we can’t risk it. It’s too hard to stay near sometimes and hope for unlikely things. We’d prefer the overcomer story, the breaking of generational struggle story. We want the end, without the murky and painful middle. Hope is tricky. Hope is hard. But people need the opportunity of hope. We need people to come alongside us and hope unlikely things for the long haul. We need the opportunity of unlikely hope.
It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievements in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
While others went home to their lives and families encouraged by my story, I went home and would often spend the next week scraping my ways through the darkness of depression alone. I had just shared intimate areas of my heart and life with all kinds of strangers and I felt more alone than ever. There was no warmth of support when I went home. There was often just me.
Eventually I shied away from sharing, from speaking altogether publicly. At times, others even thought I didn’t like to speak publicly or that it made me nervous. Neither of which is true. I backed away because I’ve often felt that a feel good story isn’t what this world and the Church needs. We all want to see miracles, but hoping for unlikely miracles, ones that haven’t occurred yet and might not, aren’t the types of stories we hear about too often. Who stays around something or someone when there’s not the opportunity to see success?
Do you see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success? Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung…We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by “we” I mean society—in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.
We all need to believe things can change, but sometimes I feel like such a fool for hoping for a miracle, especially for myself. I need others to be near me and hope for unlikely things in my life. Unlikely hope is life giving. Unlikely hope might be the purest form of love we can muster.