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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Initiation Ceremonies

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.--Helen Keller

I was watching this Travel Channel show about the Polynesian Islands, you know Tahiti, Ranguan, etc., and they were showing a girl, about 17 or 18 yrs old, getting tattooed.

The tattoo artist, or maybe he was a shaman, I forget, anyway, he took this piece of wood and tapped it on another one that looked sort of like a comb with some kind of needles for teeth. He stretches the woman's skin with one hand and taps on the comb with his other. (Guess the hand that stretches the skin is holding the comb?) The woman's laying with her head in the lap of another woman and holding her hands. Why? Cuz it hurts like a mofo!

So, this man's rattatatatting on her leg and she's squeezing the life outta the woman holding onto her and trying her hardest not to cry. Only, she can't help crying, right? because it hurts so gosh darned bad. The artist says it'll be really painful for the first one to two hours, but after that your body gets used to the pain and it doesn't hurt so badly anymore.

So, the interviewer asked the girl, why's she doing this to herself? Why would she put herself through this kind of pain. Problem is that she can't exactly answer him because her teeth are gritted together so tightly. So, the tattoo artist replies that it's a sort of initiation ceremony that shows she's ready to take her place in the village and be given her particular job to do or her duties in the family. It's also a way of keeping track of their family's history, because historically it was written in picture language through the tattoo. Interesting, eh?

That got me to thinking, as just about anything does that has to do with the subject of pain, about whether the kinds of pain we deal with in our lives has as much significance as getting that tattoo did for that young woman? A part of me would like to think it does, but then again, I tend to be hopefully romantic that way sometimes. Ha! Ok, so yeah, you're right, that's like really rare for me to have those moments, let alone admit them and this may even be a first for me. However, I don't really believe that.

The difference is that that girl had a choice of putting herself through that pain and how much pain she was willing to withstand for a relatively short amount of time. We don't get that choice which leads me back to the conclusion I've maintained from the beginning, there is no special meaning attached to the pain we have no choice but to deal with on a regular basis.

Some may think my attitude is fatalistic. Maybe it is. I find it comforting, though, to know that I'm not in pain because of a past sin, some mystical future assignment or as a prerequisite for nomination to sainthood. (Ok, if anyone tries to cannonize me after my death, I'm tellin' ya now, I'll roll over in my grave!)

As a spirit-filled, reborn Christian I was raised to believe that we share in Christ's sufferings when we're afflicted physically. This belief has been based on a couple of scriptures, most notably the one by St. Paul where he says, (paraphrasing from memory), "Brethren, Think it not strange when these fiery trials come upon you." and another passage where he talks about "partaking in the sufferings of Christ". He's talking about this in a letter he's written to encourage a church group who're under serious religious persecution on the level of what the Jews went through during the Holocaust. Now, there are two things that leap out at me in these two passages. One, is that we have to take into consideration WHO he's talking to and why he's written that way. Two, is the letter itself. Now, when I write a chatty letter I talk about all kinds of stuff and they're not necessarily related to each other. So, just because he goes from talking about a physical affliction he has to deal with chronically to talking about partaking Christ's afflictions, doesn't necessarily mean that he's talking about the physical. He's following a line of thought, something that he learned from his affliction about enduring trials with patience, humility and compassion.

And yes, I know, there are going to be people, like Someone I know, who will say, "But, he could've meant the physical, too." And, sure, he could've, but that's why you can't build an entire belief around a couple of verses. You've got to have confirmation, have those verses from the New Testament backed up by a couple verses from the Old Testament to prove the theory.

Which is why I'm so glad my pastor in TX preached a series on this once, because he gave me a whole new perspective on physical trials and that started my inquiry into what it really means, if anything, when we suffer physically. Of course, at the time I didn't know that I would need that information for as long as I have, but grateful for it all the same. If you read through the bible wherever it talks about what God wants for his children, it's always positive, always good. He doesn't want us to suffer or be in pain. As a matter of fact, he states very clearly through the prophet Jeremiah, what his desire is, (again, paraphrasing from memory) "I know the plans I have for you, plans for good, not for evil, to give you a secure future."

In my humble opinion, this suggests to me that just like I want my daughter to have the best life she possibly can have and to be the best American citizen, a productive member of society, that she can be, He, God, wants me to have the best life has to offer, too. But, life happens and things don't always work out like you want them to. But, it's not because it's making us any more perfect or anymore equipped to be God's children. We don't have to do anything for that status, but join the family and once you're in you're in. You can't lose your salvation.

What I think these scriptures refer to is how we suffer persecution for Christ's sake and in that way are we partakers with him in his suffering. He died on the cross to take away our sins, endured whipping in order for us to be healed. Why then would he want us to partake of physical illness and afflictions to be like him? It doesn't make sense to me. It makes more sense that he would encourage us that if the Son of God had to endure persecution, then who are we to think that, as imperfect as we are, we can escape the same? That's how we are like Christ. Not because we have to deal with illness and disease. That's something else altogether.

So, if God wants the best for me, why am I in pain? I can't answer that. All I know is that He's not a Genie. He doesn't rescue me out of situations that I'm in. What I do find is that I can count on him to go through the crap with me. Just as if I was in battle. He's in the foxhole, right there by my side, and if you hear soldiers talk about their wartime experiences, knowing that they're surrounded by their brothers while they're in the thick of an onslaught, is the greatest comfort they can have. It's enought to give you a sense of security, knowing that those other soldiers, well-trained and prepared like you are, are right there at their stations, ready to give their lives for you if they have to in order to see you through. So, that's how I feel about God these days. It may be simplistic, but that's the beauty of it. God's got my six and that's enough for me. And that's not to say that I don't get frustrated or pissed off at God. I do. I rant and rave at him sometimes. But, you know what? He's a big Guy and He can take it. And, better yet, He understands and is compassionate.

So, I guess my point is that the reason that bumper sticker is so popular is because it's a truism. Shit happens. Sometimes you just end up on the short end of the stick and you deal with the cards that are dealt to you. God didn't do it to you. You didn't make it happen to you. I didn't cause my own illness (hate it when people say stuff like that). It's not because you're paying for some sin you did in a past life. It's not because you're working out your salvation or are becoming saintly or more christlike. It's just that enough random circumstances collided at just the right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it) moment to create a unique situation that you now have to deal with.

What matters is, how's my attitude? What's my character like? Am I responding to this trial by becoming bitter and taking on an attitude of entitlement? Or am I allowing my character to be built up, solidified, secured and reinforced, because of what I'm going through? There are a couple of ways that we can deal with the sucky experiences of life and this goes for any sort of shortcoming, not just the ones we can't control like chronic pain or illness, but also our failures and mistakes. One way is by passing the buck, handing off the responsibility, going into a state of denial or by resenting the situation to the extent that I refuse to deal with it in any way. The other is to accept the reality of the situation, analyze what I can and cannot salvage from it, what I can or can't change about it, make restitution wherever possible whenever necessary, reprioritize and finally learn what I can from it.

As an initiation into developing true character, I'd have to recommend adversity, because I just can' t see much use for it otherwise, can you? Either way, I'm still trying to figure out what my new job is, what my new duties will be with this new life and I guess that part will take some more time.

And if I'm supposed to learn the history of my ancestors from going through this kind of initiation, well, I guess I can say that I've learned what it's like to face adversity and continue on in spite of the obstacles. What's that called? Tenacity? Persistence? Stubborness? Foolishness? I think I had those qualities already, though. But, one thing I've really learned is that nothing beats dealing with reality, honesty, because the converse is to live in fantasy land and denial and is a waste of life and time, stunting one's growth and limiting one's abilities. When you don't face the obstacles, the adversaries, then you'll never know your limits or what you're truly capable of. Knowing your real talents, abilities, and limits is the biggest step toward actualizing self-confidence. And there's nothing more attractive in another human being, save humor, than self-confidence, don't you think?

"The true character of a nation, organization, or an individual is revealed when it is faced with life or death choices."

(If you know who I'm quoting, please leave a message in comments so I can give them the credit. Just can't remember who said it. Thoreau? Emerson? Lincoln? MLK, Jr.? Dang! Hate it when that happens and couldn't find it online, either. Help?)

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