The weirdest year of my life
The past twelve months of my life have been some of the wildest and most unpredictable of my life. After completing all of my fundraising in record time in order to move to Lebanon to work at an orphanage, and after packing or selling or donating all of my earthly possessions, I spent two months in totally unexpected limbo waiting for government papers that hadn’t been processed.
After seven weeks, it looked like they might never be approved at all. So the staff and I made a tough decision to cancel the application on the following Monday; but someone forgot to do that, and we got a call Tuesday morning that I had finally gotten the visa.
I haven’t told many people this part, but the night before that call, I became overwhelmed with one of the strangest and most intense feelings I’ve ever had in my life. Somehow, deep in the core of my being, from the bottom of my heart, I just knew a miracle was happening. It was almost a done deal in my mind: I already had the visa. But even if I didn’t, even if I was way off base, I knew that I was going to be okay. Crazy, right?
Two days later, me and my suitcases, which had moved around to a couple different houses and had never been fully unpacked, were at the airport getting ready for the 24 hours of travel it would take to get to Beirut. A week later, school started, and I had to start the hardest job of my life with not two months, but seven days of prep time.
Six weeks later, massive protests broke out as the people had finally had enough with their government and decided it was time for political revolution. A week of school canceled here, a couple days there, a day here, another week there - we often didn’t know if there would be classes the next day until the night before, because it all depended on which roads were blocked with protesters burning tires that day. After two months of insanity, Christmas break arrived. Things were getting back to normal. Protesters stayed home to keep out of the cold, and even though the country was in a bad place, there was at least a little bit of holiday spirit keeping everyone relatively docile.
Now it was January. Break time was over, and protests were scattered and relatively calm. Eight weeks of normal school - the longest we had experienced since the beginning of the year - and then, the universe decided it was time for a global pandemic. Coronavirus, enter stage right. Cue nationwide lockdowns, weeks of school cancellations, sending our boys back to be with their extended families during this time, and living alone in quarantine with only the other on-campus staff for company.
Eventually, things started to ease up, and I was able to come back to the US for what was supposed to be a six-week trip to see family and friends, since all of our summer programs had been canceled. Well, it’s been seven weeks now, with at least three more to go, since my return has been delayed by a month due to a surge in Coronavirus cases, a new wave of mass protests (much more violent this time around), and an explosion that wreaked havoc on nearly a quarter of the city just a few miles from where I live.
Mastering contentment? (Not really.)
It’s now been five months since I’ve seen my students or even our boys from the orphanage. And yet... I’ve been okay. Seriously. Genuinely. I recognize this might sound like a sob story, but let me make one thing perfectly clear: over the past year, against all possible odds, I have grown in the ability to find contentment in ways I never thought possible.
It’s tempting for me to say I feel like I’ve mastered contentment; but I also know that is a very dangerous thing to say, because that’s just about the best indicator that you’re ready for new growth which, in turn, requires new challenges. Besides, you can’t really “master” things like contentment and peace and balance - but you can certainly grow.
I don’t want to compare what I’ve been through to what Paul went through as he was battered, imprisoned, and verbally (and physically) abused during his ministry; but his words from this famously cliché passage now resonate with me in a way that they never did before.
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4)
Maybe I haven't mastered contentment, but I'm happy with my trajectory. Wherever the road leads, I’m grateful to say God has helped me build a firm foundation of contentment and peace to help me out. Still, I don't want to pretend to be an expert. Just last week I had a day where I was feeling pretty down in the dumps, and then I realized that it was the day I was originally supposed to fly back. It's like my body just knew something wasn't what was expected. So I'm not writing this article as a Zen master or an enlightened Buddha or a perfected saint; I just want to share some very practical things that have really helped me during this time.
Keys to contentment during times of delay and disruption
I'm thinking about doing a series on contentment, since there are many forms of it, but for this article, I want to focus on the kind of contentment needed during times where we just aren't getting what we want. Basically, the kind I've had to cultivate in response to all of the craziness in my story above and, I think, the kind that we all need to learn in response to the global pandemic.
Seeing opportunity - It’s easy to get so discouraged that what we want is delayed, disrupted, or flat out destroyed that we fail to see what we have right in front of us. “Be present” is one of my mottos (and/or broken-record phrases), because it’s so essential to cultivating contentment. Keep your eyes open for opportunities that you might have missed or would be unable to do if things were different. Don’t let the disappointment of the delay rob you of the delights of the present moment.
Taking advantage of the time - Admittedly, this is just a spin-off of the last point, but it has a more active quality to it. During my seasons of waiting, I took stock (am taking stock) of all the things that are important to me, things I really enjoy doing or have always wanted to do if I only had the time. I’ve done an enormous amount of writing and blogging; I launched a podcast, which has been going strong for eight months; I wrote, recorded, and mixed three or four songs (that's a lot - we’re talking dozens of hours of work on each one); I’ve intensely focused on both my Arabic and French studies; and I’ve managed to read some really great books and watch some really great TV, too. Bottom line is that I haven’t felt bored once, because I knew that if I was going to thrive (or even survive) during this season, I needed to find things to do.
Trusting it will work out for the best - Okay, this one is more of an ideal than a tip. “Just trust God” is a tired cliche that, despite noble intentions, tends to create more problems (and shame) than solutions. Of course we should trust God; it’s just not always that simple. As far as I know, there is no “trust switch” that I can just flip on in my brain. Sometimes it’s just straight up hard to trust. Trust is built from experience - it doesn't magically appear. I am so grateful that over the last decade, I’ve seen God do so many wild things and come through in so many unexpected ways in the most challenging of circumstances. My trust muscle has gotten a lot of exercise, and despite all my seasons of deep doubt, God has always come through (often at the last minute, like with that visa). So when you’re in a season of delay and disruption, rather than telling yourself you just need to “trust God”, it might be better to be honest with God and say, “I need you to come through. Please help me learn how to trust you better.”
Acknowledging it doesn’t seem to be working out for the best - This is paired with, and intentionally contrasted to, the last point. “Just trust God” often comes along with the unspoken implication that we need to stuff our frustration, anger, confusion, disappointment, and even depression in order to show that trust. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way. It’s not the way healthy humans work, and it’s not the way the Bible works (check out the Psalms or Lamentations sometime). It’s okay to be very honest with yourself, with others, and with God about your disappointment. Even though this is coming later in the list, it might be one of the most important things on it for some people.
Allowing yourself to feel - This also pairs with the last one. Don’t stuff those emotions. Just don’t. The more you allow yourself to feel, the more you open up doors for growth, healing, and yes, trust.
Not allowing those feelings to drive you - Big surprise: this pairs with the last one, too. Even though we need to take inventory of our feelings and let them air out a bit, we can’t get too caught up in the frustration and disappointment. That’s exactly where discontent comes from, so even though we need to face them in our pursuit of contentment, it’s counterproductive if we let them win the day. Rather than being driven by the pain, we acknowledge it, and then we circle back around to the first two tips and start seeing opportunity and taking advantage of the time given to us.
I’ve quoted Tolkien a number of times on this blog, but this seems a perfect place to include one of my favorite quotes of all time. Deep in the darkness of the mines of Moria, Frodo looked at Gandalf, full of discontent and disappointment, and said, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened.” And Gandalf, in one of the most obviously simple yet profoundly wise quotes of all time, said, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”