4 years. 300 job applications and counting. People often ask me how I keep going despite the fruitless effort, the silence, the rejections, and the pain. Especially the pain. The only way I know how to answer that question is to tell a story from my days in college student development.
My boss decided that our training week would be a 5-day backpacking trip deep into the Pennsylvania woods. Though I’m not a fan of camping in general or peeing in the woods in particular, I’m usually open-minded about new experiences. I was dreading this trip because I’d had terrible back pain for three months. I hadn’t been able to get an appointment with my GP or a specialist yet but if I had I would have known that I had a bulging, herniated disc and the last thing I should do is go backpacking. In my ignorance and my special (read, toxic) brand of grin-and-bear-it-to-avoid-inconveniencing-others, I set off on the trip with ten colleagues, a herniated disc and a sixty-pound pack.
The first morning of our trip was relatively easy. We spent several hours hiking down a steep trail. I knew that hours going down meant we would have to go back up. During our lunch break I surveyed the trail ahead. It wasn’t a steep ascent and that’s precisely what worried me. When we walk uphill we naturally shift our body weight forward, putting more pressure on the hips and lower back. Those were the epicenter of my pain. I knew it was going to be a painful afternoon and I knew that no one was going to carry me up that hill. The rope in our packs was too short to create the elaborate pulley system I invented in my head. No helicopter and repelling rescuers would be called in to lift me out of the woods. I had to climb out using my broken body.
As we began the hike we naturally broke into three groups. The front group had one guide and our three fittest and most gung-ho staff. I and my friend Spencer were the middle group. Lagging far behind was the second guide and all the stragglers. Realistically, the ascent was nothing like climbing K-2 or Everest – officially, I don’t think Pennsylvania even has mountains – but to me, climbing that hill felt like a Nepalese summit. Think Lord of the Rings trilogy epic. The temperature hovered in the mid-nineties and the woods trapped the swampy air close to my skin. I was dusty, sweat-soaked and wilting like a plucked dandelion but none of that compared to the constant, sizzling pain shooting from my lower back through my hips down to my right calf.
We hiked up for several hours stopping only to hydrate. I could have hydrated myself on tears alone. I moved slowly but steadily up, one foot pushing in front of the other. The pain burned and intensified until the entire trunk of my body was electrified. Being swaddled by the tentacles of a Portuguese man-of-war could be no worse. Tears slid down my cheeks as quickly as the sweat. With every step I fought to push through the pain, I fought to breathe, I fought collapse.
You can do it.
One more step.
Just keep going.
You’re getting closer.
This was the soundtrack looping in my head. I whimpered and gasped and cried my way up that hill.
By that point in my life, I’d traveled widely and seen diverse land and seascapes. I’d viewed such beautiful terrain that it took my breath away. Woodlands are by far my favorite landscapes on earth but the pain of this ascent made me blind to every beauty. I stared down at the dirt trail three feet ahead of my shoes. I looked up once. It was a mistake. I saw nothing but the trail continuing up and up and up into the trees ahead. There was no end, no leveling, no horizon, only more dirt and trees. Looking for the end of the trail threatened to overcome my already frayed endurance, so I refocused on the ground just a few steps in front of me. I realized that every three feet was a victory I couldn’t afford not to celebrate.
During hydration stops I kept my pack on, avoided eye-contact and said nothing. I tuned out my colleagues with their happy chatter and looked down the trail we had climbed. From this vantage point, the long-stretching descent was dizzying. Though I had a sense of accomplishment in how far I’d climbed, I knew there was much more of this beast to overcome.
We’d started climbing again and split into our three groups, Spencer staying with me in the middle of the pack. I don’t think I would have survived that climb without a major breakdown if it weren’t for Spencer. He was the steadfast Samwise Gamgee to my burdened and broken Frodo Baggins. He didn’t carry my pack, pat me on the back, offer me tissues or yell overly enthusiastic cheers. He offered a few soft encouragements and a quiet, constant presence.
I survived that terrible climb. As the late afternoon sun made the tree branches glow, the incline leveled off and we soon reached camp. Spencer helped me remove my pack and I made a pretense of heading off to relieve myself. What I really did was drape my body over the branches of a sapling and weep in exhausted relief.
The long ascent in the Pennsylvania woods has become a powerful metaphor for me and a tool in my present struggle. I have no idea when my employment quest will end but I keep searching, applying and hoping. I’ve learned that perseverance is not easy. In fact, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Every day for the past four years has been like climbing a really long hill with a sixty-pound pack, a herniated disc and no break on the horizon. How do I keep going? I keep my eyes trained on the ground just beyond my feet. I set and then focus on reaching tangible goals, knowing that they are markers stacking up to my destination. Occasionally I look back and notice how far I’ve climbed with God’s help. I celebrate every victory along the way, no matter how small, even if it is just three steps. I pause to rest and set down my burden so I can breathe deeply. Through prayer, lament, fellowship and play, I hydrate my soul as well as I would my body.
To a friend, I recently described these years as my long obedience. Many have suggested that I choose another career. I imagine that behind my back some question my choices and discernment because nothing has come of all my seeking. Those people forget that I am following the call of God in ministry, a call affirmed by so many people – wise and respected, rational people, even some who don’t share my faith. We often forget that obedience can be painful, just as perseverance is. Being obedient means each day I choose to journey through the pain.
Some days my attitude is positive and hopeful; other days it is abysmal, a real storm-cloud of pessimism, fear and desperation. Picture Thor as a toddler, mid-tantrum, waving around his magic hammer. That’s a dangerous scenario. Immaturity combined with negative emotions can obliterate any path of perseverance. If I don’t learn how to manage the raw power of my emotions I will hurt myself and others. That is why it is so important to rest, to regroup, and to celebrate where I can along the way. And this, I think, is one of the secret keys to persevering – find a way to convert negative emotions into fuel that will keep you moving forward.
Some of my college students collected dirty fast-food cooking oil and used it to fuel their cars. I don’t understand the science of how they did it, but the principle is genius. Take what you would normally discard and use it for your benefit. As I persevere, when I’m angry or frustrated, I use it to energize my next footstep. I stomp my feet down on the ground again and again until I’ve conquered another fifty feet. I have to find ways to dig in or I’ll disintegrate.
Sanity depends on identifying your Samwise Gamgee and keeping him or her close. Unfortunately, in our times of greatest pain the people who love us most may not love us best. When we are in pain, our loved ones will be desperate to help us and make sense of this mess with us. Sometimes their expressions of love and concern will be insensitive, overbearing, patronizing and unhelpful. I can either respond negatively (push them away, rant at them, punish them for trying to show their love) or learn how to glide over their insensitivity like I would ride a roughly cresting wave. If someone consistently annoys or hurts me, I prayerfully and courageously find a way to tell them how best to support me in this time.
I didn’t give Spencer too much credit when I said I wouldn’t have survived the climb without him. His quiet presence eased my obsessive need to see the horizon. Knowing we are not alone in our pain has a profound impact. We can endure when there is a we. When you discover along the way someone who you can tolerate, who can tolerate you on good days and foul-weather days, keep them close.
One of my favorite scenes in film is from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. In one of the final scenes Frodo wakes up after his journey to Mt. Doom, now safe and healing at Rivendell. One by one his compatriots enter the room and he joyfully celebrates with each their survival and their victory. But when Sam walks through the door, the look in Frodo’s eyes changes. Here is the one who walked into danger to support his friend. Here is the one who risked his life when he didn’t have to. Here is the one who loved Frodo when Frodo was snarly, despondent and almost possessed. Sam was the one who carried Frodo up the lava-spewing mountain when the burden of the ring was too great. When he sees Sam, Frodo’s joy is hued with a profound, soul-soaking gratitude that defies every description I attempt to give it. Watch to the end of this clip to see what I mean.
I’ve felt that these past years, an abiding thankfulness for the gentle and steadfast presence of so many friends. Like I said, we can endure when there is a we. That’s how I keep going.