By Krista Bowman, Jesuit Volunteer
If there is anything that I have learned over this past year, it is that life does not always go according to plan. For all the efforts we put into preparation for next steps in school, work, and relationships, there are some things that are just outside of our control.
In reflecting on the ups, downs, twists, turns and uncertainties that define the peculiar transitional nature of being twenty-something, I have realized how much my efforts to maintain control—and thereby avoid the discomfort that accompanies all transitions—did not help to make this year any easier. Instead, the year has been full of unexpected challenges and lessons. I have had to shift my perspective to find, as my mom would say, the “back door lessons”, and let the fruit of experiences such as loneliness, frustration with systemic injustice, and tensions of cultural differences be opportunities to learn lessons I would not have chanced to encountered otherwise.
One of these lessons has come from wrestling through an important question. When a situation is uncomfortable, stressful, or even problematic, how do I know when to stay and when to go?
In other words, how do I make decisions about what path to take in life not just in reaction to a circumstance—out of fear, desperation, or frustration—but in consideration of what is truly wise?
St. Ignatius actually had quite a lot to teach about making decisions with wisdom, using the words “freedom” and “unfreedom”. To paraphrase what I’ve learned during this time in JVC, to be “free” in decision making means to be able to say “yes” to either choice, even if one or both are uncomfortable. To be “unfree” is to base the decision on our reaction to the circumstance. For example, being unfree is choosing
to leave a situation because it relieves the present experience of discomfort, but without openness to considering what is truly wise.
While running away to escape tension may help us to feel better for a while, it won’t necessarily allow us to escape the unexpected challenges. In fact, to run may be to jump from one frying pan and into another. And in the end, we can’t run away from ourselves.
If we are free it means that we are in touch with our inner selves, familiar with the inner tensions and struggles that motivate our actions. Once we recognize these, we can name them for what they are and bring them before God in trust of God’s provision to meet them. This allows God the space in our hearts and lives to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Here we find the courage to either stay or go. Being free is more about what God is able to do in us than about what we are able to do for God.
Indeed, the sufficiency and ability of God are the key insights that allow all of the tensions, trials, challenges, and decisions required on the unexpected journey to make sense: in any circumstance, easy or challenging, joyful or sorrowful, expected or unexpected, God is able to do what we are not able to do. When we lean into the pain, embrace the tension, allow ourselves to experience our neediness and cry out to God in hope that God will make a way, we discover that the dark and lonely path is actually an opportunity for new life to be birthed.
Leaning into the pain of the lonely path may mean saying “yes” to a journey that defies our expectations, hopes, and dreams for the future, that carves its way through valleys and canyons we might not willingly choose to walk on our own. It may be frustrating, it may be long, it may be more difficult than we imagined we would be able to face, but our hope is not found in expectation that the journey will end but rather in that Emmanuel will be with us as we walk it.
Like Mary said “yes” to the unexpected journey of being the mother of Jesus, we can also say “yes” to our own paths. As unexpected and challenging as the journey may be, it may also be demonstrating the brilliance and mastery of the creation of God, fulfilling and accomplishing God’s purposes in a way that no one could have ever imagined. The ultimate example is the life of Jesus, a life and a man that no one apart from God could have anticipated: His was the ultimate in suffering, but also the ultimate expression of death giving birth to new life.
In the same way, we do not know what God is birthing or unfolding in our own lives and stories. It may not make sense or align with what we hope or expect, but the way to walk the path is not necessarily to try to jump off of it, but may be to trust and to wait upon God to birth something new. Trusting and waiting upon is what living in dependence on God is all about. It is about leaning into our pain and neediness and asking God to be sufficient in it.
So navigating life involves so much more than telling ourselves that God has a plan and purpose for us in everything. It is about being in touch with our deepest sorrows, needs, and hopes and trusting that God will transform our hearts and circumstances to give birth to the new life that we need to walk our unique path. And isn’t that what God’s plan is about after all, that we would walk in closer relationship, trust, love, and dependence upon God and grow to be more like Jesus?