I pulled into a local Starbucks, bought a latte and joined my friend Jessica at an outdoor table. After I sat she casually asked, “So how are you?” Her tone did not carry any sympathy — she clearly didn’t know that I got laid off earlier in the week, so I filled her in. Jessica knows my story; she’s witnessed my struggle to find full-time ministry employment over the last three years. She is also a member of the church where I serve as a part-time pastor. She listened attentively to this latest development. Her face showed clear understanding and compassion. When I stopped speaking she said, “So, we have this betta fish named Rosie…”
I’m not kidding. That was her response to my news. I blinked a couple of times and waited, wondering how a fish was somehow relevant to my current setback. She went on without preamble.
“We all love Rosie. I know it sounds silly; she’s just a fish, but she feels like part of our family.” (Jessica is married to Dan and they have two adorable little girls.) “Last week I was cleaning out Rosie’s bowl and when I went to put her back in, I accidentally dropped Rosie on the kitchen counter. There she was flopping around on our counter and I was doing my best to get her in my hand but she was too slippery. So I picked up the bowl, put its lid along the top of the counter and tried to push Rosie in, but then she fell all the way to the ground! She flopped around weakly and I thought she only had moments to live. By then I’m yelling for Dan to come help me and my girls are standing close by yelling, “Save Rosie!” “Oh, no!” “Don’t let her die!” I’m so distressed that I’m making all kinds of strange noises and Dan comes running into the room to help rescue Rosie. He calmly gets her back into the bowl and she starts to swim around but I can tell she’s just not right.
I try to prepare the girls — I want to be realistic; she’s just a fish — so I tell them that even though Rosie is fine right now, she could be dead by morning. So we get up the next morning and Rosie is still alive. I caution the girls that she could still die. Every day this week I have come home expecting to find Rosie floating at the top of her bowl, but she’s still swimming.”
And then Jessica’s strange and humorous story became a parable that tolled something in my spirit. She suddenly said, “Corrie you are like Rosie; you’re resilient.”
Jessica spoke with assurance and a smile. I was not so confident. Am I resilient? The fact is that I have gained and lost several jobs and many more opportunities over the last three years. Extended periods of unemployment combined with the regular rejection that comes with pursuing a significant dream have been like an erosion of my soul, motivation and self-confidence. I feel like these storms have stripped me of my heartiness and joviality and I’ve been left dizzy and breathless from the whirlwind of my life.
And then there is the physical buffeting! I’ve gained and lost the same 20 pounds three times. I’ve struggled with anxiety and sleepless nights. I have a new crop of silver hairs haphazardly spiking out of my dark brown waves. When I look in the mirror I see the effects that the disappointments, rejections and set backs have had on me — the story is in the slump of my posture, the slight sagging around my eyes, the delay in my smile. I’m battle worn in ways I never anticipated I would be at this age.
No, I think when I see myself in the mirror, I’m not particularly resilient.
For me the word conjures up images of Arthur and Excalibur, of the Great Wall of China, even the Brooklyn Bridge. I think in comparison that I’m not so strong, so enduring. But Rosie’s story and Jessica’s smile stuck with me. A few days later I looked it up in the dictionary.
: able to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens
: able to return to an original shape after being pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.
Two weeks have passed since I had coffee with Jessica. Three weeks since I lost my job and Rosie flopped around on the kitchen floor. These three weeks have been something of an awakening. Friends have called wanting to check in on me and offer support, knowing from past experience that I might need some extra shoring up. I don’t know who has been more surprised, them or me, to find me coping so well.
With lots of time for introspection, I’ve realized that though buffeted and tossed around, I haven’t been broken beyond repair. As the emotional effects of this recent loss lessen, under my weariness and discouragement I sense a stronger core. I’ve been through great storms of rejection, loss and despair and survived every one. (There’s got to be something of the miraculous in that.) I’m not the same as I once was. I’ve lost my idealism and naiveté about the course of my life, which I understand as a good and necessary thing, but I’m still a positive person. I’ve walked (and sometimes crawled) across the desert of spiritual crisis that comes with the difficulty of following any big dream. Along the way I’ve thought about giving up (many times), I’ve doubted myself and I’ve had some major pity parties. From that self-perpetuating mess I’ve learned to seek the things that lead to life instead of death.
Even the unintelligent betta fish knows to flop about when it finds itself out-of-water. All that flopping is an instinctual effort to somehow find water. Whether it is a puddle, a bowl or a lake — for the fish, where there is water there is life. Picturing Rosie’s struggle on the cold, dry tiles of the kitchen floor, I realize that I’ve taken on her instinct for life. After three years of flopping about, I now spend less time doubting and pitying and more time focusing on positive, true and enduring things. I’m not denying my struggle, but I’m also not giving it more than its due time and attention. I’m trying my best to seek my water source.
Two months ago I attended a large women’s conference. Kanyere Eaton, the pastor leading one of the workshops, had us read a page of self-affirmation. I recently pulled it out again. Here are some of the gems:
I am the beloved of the Lord…Before I cried for the first time, he was intimately acquainted with the sound of my voice…God specifically picked out the spiritual gifts that he invested in me and he wants me to use them for his glory. God has plans for me. The vineyard of my life is his planting. The fruit he calls me to produce has a unique capacity to nourish and enrich the lives of those who partake of it. The vineyard God has given me is mine to tend. It will grow and develop sweet fruit when I make time to nourish it. I confess that I have not always considered my vineyard significant…I am very important to God…My spiritual, emotional and physical needs are important and they deserve to be tenderly addressed. My Holy Spirit-inspired dreams are precious and they deserve serious investment. The Holy Spirit calls me, even in this season of my life, to carefully, consciously tend the vineyard of my own life. By God’s grace, I begin today.
I confess that I have not always considered my vineyard very significant, but I now I can honestly mark my report card “shows improvement.” Like Rosie, I’m making every effort to flop toward water.
Years ago I regularly practiced examen, a spiritual discipline of daily identifying my most life-giving and life-taking moments. Over the course of time you can line up your records and begin to see patterns, to see clearly the things that lead to life or death. Two weeks ago I bought a new journal just to record my examen findings, an effort to stay near my water source.
Last week I flew to Denver to spend time with my brother and nephews. My 10-year-old nephew told me that his dream is to get a college scholarship for soccer, then to be a scientist and a professional lacrosse player. His silly aunt tried to gently convince him that he probably wouldn’t be able to make a living as a professional lacrosse player; he was adamant that he would. The important thing about that conversation was the beauty on Mason’s face when he shared his dreams with me. He had such hope for the future. Staring at that beauty, I suddenly realized how long it has been since I dreamed new dreams for myself.
The next day I walked into an artisan gift shop and found these round tins with beautifully engraved wood tops. The instructions say to write down my fondest dream, greatest desire, or strongest wish on a small piece of paper, put the paper in the ‘Dreambox’ and place it beside my bed. I’m supposed to hold the box every night and every morning and think on my dream, “believing with all my heart that it is so.” I’m not superstitious and I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in hope and I know I could use some more hope in my life. I bought a Dreambox with the lid design that looks like a rose window. I’m choosing to believe what Pastor Eaton taught me, that my Holy Spirit-inspired dreams are precious and they deserve serious investment, even in this season of my life.
In hindsight I can see my resilience, my strengthened core. Able to is the key phrase in the definition of resilience; that’s why Jessica was right in comparing me to her betta fish. Really, I’m just a person with a penchant to throw more tantrums than I do celebrations. God, as my water source, enables me to be strong, healthy or successful again after something bad happens. God is the author of resilience, the one who makes all things new. This reminds me of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan women:
Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”
“But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”
Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”
“Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.” (John 4:10-15, NLT)
I’ve learned that much of coping and dealing with life is a choice. I’m in control of very little in my life and circumstances. I certainly didn’t want to be unemployed again, but here I am. I’m faced with choices. Do I let myself sink back into the bad habits of wallowing and tantrums or do I reach out weak hands toward my water source?
Resilience is to be like the Samaritan woman, acknowledging my need for water I cannot supply for myself. It is turning again and again to Jesus when I face hardship and asking, “Please sir, give me this water!”
Resilience is to mimic the floppings of a betta fish, whose only instinct is to seek water, the source of its very breath.
“…For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.” (Psalm 107:9)
Amen and Amen.