Struggle!

Flashlight

When I was thirteen years old, my cousin tutored me in math, teaching me Geometry. We would go over to my grandpa’s house, gather a couple of chairs around a table in the rumpus room, and get to work. On one such occasion, working through problems in the book, we came across a difficult puzzle. I don’t remember the exact problem, only that it had something to do with shooting a hockey puck so that it gets past the goalie and into the net- and that it was really hard. I couldn’t figure it out. She couldn’t figure it out. It was apparent that she was a bit frustrated (as was I) with my questions and requests for clarification of the concepts we were studying in the problem, because it wasn’t making any sense. My cousin, having no other recourse, started talking through a couple of lines of reasoning she could maybe use to solve it. Math scribbles covered the paper. Lines of thought were followed, then abandoned when it was apparent they were incorrect. Lots and lots of writing. No solution. Frustration.

I asked her in my frustration, at one point, how all of the “impressive-looking math” helps us when it wasn’t getting us closer to the problem’s solution. My cousin ran a hand through her hair and I’ll never forget what she told me. It was something along the lines of, “I don’t know how to do this. But I’m trying. And sometimes, you have to do a lot of ‘impressive-looking math’ to try and figure out something that works.”

Lo and behold, however many more minutes passed without fruit, eventually, she came up with the right answer, and understanding followed like a wave. A wise man once said that despair is the refusal to struggle. I refused on that day. My cousin did not. She figured out the problem.

I share this story, because I have heard a lot of talks and read a lot of articles recently (really in the past several years) that seem to have a common theme: ‘There isn’t always a solution.’ ‘Stop trying to fix it.’ ‘Don’t say that to him/her/etc.’ ‘That’s just how things are.’ Something has sort of been bubbling up inside of me with the addition of more and more such expositions, and I wanted to share my thoughts with you.

Let me not be misunderstood. Empathy is a good thing. It’s been said that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. This is absolutely the case. Love must come first, and it must be sincere. If someone comes to me with a problem, the first thing I’m going to do is not sit them down and tell them all of the things they did wrong. Of course they need a shoulder to cry on. Of course I will (hopefully) provide that to them. That said, this is often viewed as the proper end of things, and I don’t think that it is. I see a lot of back-patting, and not a lot of change. I think sincere love for each other has to go further than this.

I don’t know when we all tacitly agreed that fixing things is bad form, but I disagree wholeheartedly. Frankly, I have problems, and I want them to get better. I very often am in uncertainty about some of them. I can’t always see the solution, but I think it’s better to struggle than to despair. When I have an issue and I take it to someone, open arms are great, and I need that, and everyone needs that. But if there’s a solution, I want to hear it. I want to be reminded of truth, I want to be reminded of what I know but my circumstances have obscured. Perhaps it is the impertinence of my youth, but I want answers.

We’re often told that there aren’t any. I don’t believe that. I think that there is not a problem in this world that does not have a solution. It very often might not look the way I think it ought to, but there is always a solution. There is always an answer, even if I don’t know it.

I was told recently that recipes are great in the kitchen, but if the lights go out, they’re worthless. I agree and I disagree. If I’ve memorized the recipe, it still does me a great deal of good. If someone in the next room has it in front of them and they’ve got a lamp on, it’s still helpful.

I’m not talking about cheap solutions and heartless “shut up and get better”isms. What I am talking about is the courage to seek healing where it looks like there can’t be any, to keep looking for a solution when it seems like you’ve exhausted every avenue, to keep fighting when it looks like you’re beat. Sometimes I don’t have the answer- but there is one. Sometimes I can’t do it myself- but someone can.

In short, I am not satisfied with mere empathy. I want answers. I want truth.

Struggle.

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Still Here

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“I’m not a miss. I’m not a shot of potential and a glass of failure. I’m still here, ain’t I?”

Marquez tilted his head and shaved a bit of hair off of Jamie’s chine. The machete was sharp.

“I don’t think that’s the best idea to push on us, vato. You got some people angry. We invested in you.”

Jamie pulled at the zip ties that held him fast to the concrete pillar. Abandoned parking garages were the worst place for this sort of thing. You could practically feel all of the bodies stashed around.

“Then it’d be a big waste to off your investment, don’t you think, Marky? Come on, let me talk to Jefe.”

Marquez leaned back and scratched his chest with the butt of his blade. Flies buzzed around, even in the shade. They were attracted to the sweat.

“I don’t know, guero. He’s pretty busy.”

“He’ll want to talk to me.”

Oye! Ya estan terminado con el hoyo?” Marquez had turned and was yelling to his partners. They raised their shovels and shouted back from the sun-baked earth outside of the protective shade of the dusty parking structure.

Casi ya!

They were just about finished with the grave. Great.

Marquez turned back to Jamie.

“Yeah, I think he won’t want to talk to you, seeing as how you’re a dead man. Dead men is scary, vato. He don’t want to talk to you.”

“Look… I may know something about the diamonds.”

That got his attention. One eyebrow rose.

Esta lista!

Marquez looked over his shoulder and shouted back to his associates.

Espera un momento!

He looked back to Jamie.

“Then why didn’t you turn them in, estupido? At the end of the job like you said?”

Jamie avoided his gaze. His reply was cut off as Marquez continued speaking, jabbing his machete toward his chest.

“You said that the protection showed up and you couldn’t get the diamonds out of the compound. You said you dropped them.”

“I may have dropped them off instead of just dropping them. They’re in a safe place.”

“Where?”

“Not far.”

Marquez looked left, then right. He folded his arms, the machete sticking menacingly out of one side. He stared at Jamie; Jamie stared at him.

“Just take me to Jefe- I can straighten this all out.”

“That was a lot of diamonds, my friend, but Jefe is no puppy mutt criminal, vato. He has experience. He’d rather have fear and trustworthy men than a big score. I take you to him, he slit your throat himself.”

Great. The “stash the stolen goods” part had gone beautifully. The “get away from the cartel that wants to kill you” part, not so much.

“Where are they?” Marquez asked, letting his head roll around like he wasn’t interested, but his eyes betrayed him.

“Close. I told you already.”

“Tell me where they are.”

“So I can make you happy before I die? No thanks.”

Marquez glanced over his shoulder again. His assistants were starting to wonder what the holdup was. Marquez took a step closer to Jamie, his blade raised.

“That’s a shame, vato. I really like to be happy.”

Jamie watched as the blade fell. And his arms were suddenly free. Marquez stooped down and cut away the zip ties from his feet as well.

“I also like to be rich,” he said under his breath. He glanced up at Jamie with an understanding in his eye. There was a tacit accord between them.

Amigos! Yo voy al otro lugar para matarle. Aqui alguien quizas oyera sus gritos. Regresare.

Marquez took Jamie roughly by the crook of his arm, keeping the machete at his throat.

“We’re going to get into the truck, and you will tell me where we go. If you do something stupid, I kill you. Ok?”

“Whatever you say, Marky.”

“Good.”

The walk to the beat up truck was a tense one. Jamie marveled at their vehicle when they finally reached it. For as much money as these guys had, he would have thought they might drive nicer cars. Not on the job, he thought, realizing why. Nice cars were conspicuous. When you drive into the desert to kill somebody, you take the beater.

“Get in.”

Jamie did as he was told. The car door slammed, and the dirt and sand flew up into the air, making Jamie cough. The driver’s side door opened, and Marquez slid in, sheathing his machete.

“Let me see your hands.”

“Why would you want to-”

Tus manos, tonto! Give me your hands!”

Jamie did as he was told. A pair of handcuffs clicked into place around both hands, snaked through a handle on the dash.

“Thanks. These feel great.”

“Just be happy you can feel at all, guero. Your life is in a delicate place, I think. Everyone wants you to die.”

“But not you.”

Marquez hit the gas and the truck tore out onto the dusty, abandoned road, putting new tracks in the sand. He smiled.

“I want you to give me the diamonds. After that, no me importa.”

“Your compassion is touching.” Jamie fidgeted with his cuffs. They were fixed tightly, and the handle they went around was surprisingly strong. Jimmying free did not seem to be an option. “Turn left here.”

It was a quiet ride, just dust, occasional directions, and the beating, blistering heat. As they neared a cave, Jamie sat up suddenly.

“Stop here.”

Marquez gave him a glance, then braked. He shut off the truck.

“The diamonds are here?”

“In that cave there. You walk in about thirty feet, then look around for a stack of three rocks. It’ll be on your left. The diamonds are buried underneath that, only about six inches down.”

Marquez repeated the instructions to himself, then nodded. He opened his door and started to get out.

“Hey!” Jamie said, holding up his cuffed wrists as best as he could. “Aren’t you going to uncuff me?”

Marquez smirked.

“What for? I know where they are now, yes? What do I need you for?”

Marquez slid his machete out of its sheath as he cautiously approached the cave’s entrance. Jamie shouted after him.

“You took me out here to kill me, then? Right after you nabbed the goods?”

Marquez disappeared into the blackness, but his voice carried out.

Si, vato! Que otro? Estupido…”

Then, there was a gunshot, and the sound of a body hitting the ground. Jamie leaned back in his chair. A second later, a dark-skinned, slick-haired hombre in a bulletproof vest and shades stepped out of the cave, heading toward the truck. The vest had the letters “FBI” printed across the front.

“Hey, thanks, Carlos,” Jamie said, sitting up again.

“Don’t mention it. That clown pulled a freakin’ machete on me.”

Carlos took Jamie’s hands and rotated them, trying to see what kind of cuffs held him. He kept talking.

“We thought you were a miss. A shot of potential with your first assignment, and then a big ol’ tumbler full of failure.”

Jamie smirked.

“I’m still here, ain’t I?”

Felicity

misty

To be loved and yet not known is shallow

To be known and not loved is what we fear

Hanging in balance, we straddle the row

Hoping to be held without holding dear

 

“Give your heart in pieces,” the prudent say

Like carrots meted out before a mule

If he eats a few, then snubs one- it may

Be easier for the heart to o’errule

 

Some truth is there spoken, but more suppressed

If love’s without fear, then fearless is best

A life with hands open is ever blest

How much more to live with an open chest!

 

I am known by God, and loved- let it be

If another loves me, felicity.

Steadfast

(For this week’s exposition, I wanted to post this piece that I wrote about three years ago. Enjoy.)

“Indeed we count them blessed who endure.  You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord- that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful”

–          James 5:11 NKJV

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Perseverance is a deeper subject than it seems.  It is more than simply “toughing it out.” Sometimes, even oftentimes, gritting one’s proverbial teeth is not enough.  Perseverance may seem to be an inert, even passive concept, but it is rather the opposite.  Continuing in one direction is not to set a course and then do nothing; perseverance is more like a battle than a plotted course.  In life there is hardship.  Plans fail.  People fail.  Ideas fail.  Setbacks are too numerous to list.  Perseverance is holding on tightly to what you learned in the light, even when it is dark all around.  It is buffeting the advancing swarms of despair and self-pity.  It is fencing with rationalizations to depart from what one knows to be good.  It is wrestling with the desire to give up and go somewhere else.

It is a hard thing, for surely everyone has heard of the concept of “attrition”, which is the steady wearing down of an opponent using third-degree methods.  A steady trickle of water will eventually wear through a concrete barrier, a steady flow of wind will eventually carve out a mountainside, and, when he has no source of replenishing, a steady flow of setbacks will defeat a man.

A few weeks ago at jiu-jitsu, I found myself engaged in multiple bouts with a three-striped purple belt (a rank higher than my own).  I was defeated many times by this ‘foe’, and yet he wanted to continue fighting me.  My opponent had much more experience than I had, and was several years older as well.  He was quick, he was strong, and he knew his technique.  After losing to him several times, and being challenged by him yet again, I accepted.  As we proceeded to engage, I lunged at my opponent and he deflected my attacks, and soon I found myself first inside the confines of his guard, next, on the inside of a very tight choke called an arm triangle.  In a moment of defiance, I slowly twisted my head enough so I could look my attacker in the eyes, and through a tightly compressed throat said to him “I can breathe longer than you can choke me.”

He then proceeded to tighten his already vise-like grip on my throat, as he flexed all of the muscles in his arms and chest, directing their strength toward my throat.  My carotid arteries were mostly closed off by the pressure of his hold, and my throat was only occasionally open enough to give me any sort of air.  I held my composure and put my chin square with my chest, attempting to keep some small passage of air open.  His grip increased in intensity; I only focused on staying conscious.  He choked me for a good minute and a half, employing all of his strength.  Just as I felt the edges of awareness starting to fade around me, his grip loosened, then broke.  My opponent had spent all of his strength on his attack and had nothing left in reserve.  No longer able to resist me, I rolled from under his grip, mounted, and proceeded to submit him in a conventional triangle choke.

Was what I did necessary?  Probably not.  It was just training, and I could have tapped out when his arms closed around my throat.  However, it seemed very symbolic to me to defeat an opponent more skilled than myself through patient endurance.  I have heard it said that one cannot win a war of attrition because it slowly wears one down over time.  Certainly it is true that when confronted with steady, constant opposition, the thing to do is to deliver a decisive blow to the source, and thus be saved from wearing down.  However, in life, one cannot always get to the source of opposition, and hardship.  So what then, is my conclusion?  In the strength of God, with perseverance I shall defeat attrition.

Be encouraged, friends.

I’m From the Future

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Chris clenched his eyes shut and held his fist against his lips, trying to keep the laughter from busting out of him. His body shook with the effort.

“Shh! Come on, shut up. He’s coming.”

Brady socked Chris in the arm, distracting himself from his own urge to laugh. It was a good plan. This was going to be classic.

Chris fell backwards onto his back, still chuckling. His face was red as Brady prepped the living room. He set the pillows straight, smoothed out his shirt, and sat down uprightly as the footsteps approaching the door grew louder.

“Ah, B, I don’t think I can do this,” Chris managed to utter between spasms of stifled laughs. He was shaking his head as he started to rise. Brady could hear Jimmy’s feet on the front doorstep now. There was no time to waste.

Brady glanced around the darkened room quickly, ensuring that nothing was amiss. He smiled roguishly.

Chris grew suddenly alarmed as he heard the jingling of keys at the door, and Brady mouthed urgent orders for him to get up on the couch and pull himself together. The lock clicked open. The door started to creak inward, spilling luminescence in from the porch light beyond. Chris and Brady silently argued with each other, hurrying to get into place, then suddenly they both froze into their positions on the sofa, looking towards the door.

A thin framed, wire-rimmed glasses-wearing teenager shuffled into the entryway balancing several brown paper bags filled with groceries. He turned back towards the door, not seeing Brady and Chris- who had finally succeeded in pulling it together. This was going to be too good.

As the newcomer turned the lock and shut the door, he turned back toward Brady and Chris, still not seeing them in the darkness. The tension was almost too much for the two of them to bear; only the promise of a good joke kept them in a serious disposition.

The lights flipped on. A startled yelp filled the house. The groceries fell to the floor.

“Hello, Jimmy,” Brady said in a grave, almost exasperated voice.

“Hey, Jimmy,” Chris added with a nod.

The thin teenager had backed into the wall with his arms out, but now, seeing who the intruders were, he clenched his eyes shut and softly banged his head against the wall.

“For crying out loud, guys… What in the world are you doing in my house?”

Brady saw that old, ‘I’m going to make a joke about your mom’ look in Chris’ eye, so he gave him a sharp yet invisible elbow, and Chris remembered the character he had to play.

“A necessity, I’m afraid. It’s been so long,” Brady said, sincerity in his eyes. Chris leaned forward and pensively rubbed his hands together. He was in character now.

“What the heck are you talking about, Brady? I saw you in chemistry fourth period today. And again, why did you break into my house?”

Jimmy bent over and started picking up the groceries. No eggs, from the looks of it, so Brady didn’t feel bad. Not that he would have anyway. This was going to be too good.

“Forget the nourishments, Jimmy, and have a seat. You’re… well, you’re going to want to sit down to hear this, I’m afraid.”

“Come into my house,” Jimmy started muttering, “tell me what to do with groceries I bought for my-”

“PUT THE FREAKIN’ BAGS DOWN, JIMMY!” Chris shouted, rising to his feet. Jimmy stopped dead in his tracks and slowly turned to look at his classmates. All the grumbling had gone out of him, it seemed. Brady beamed inwardly. Chris was a convincing actor when he wanted to be. He really looked like he was in a state of urgency.

“Just have a seat, Jimmy. It’s important.”

Cautiously, Jimmy stepped to an over-sized easy chair and sank into it. He held one eyebrow raised as he regarded the intruders. Chris shook his head, covering his forehead with his hand as he took a seat once again.

“You don’t have to yell…” Jimmy began.

“I know,” Chris said quieter, deliberately avoiding eye contact. “I’m sorry, it’s just- there’s just no time for screwing around. This is more important than you could ever imagine.”

“What is this all about?” Jimmy asked, craning his neck backwards, as if repulsed by the strangeness before him. Brady sighed and clasped his hands together.

“We’re from the future, Jimmy.”

Jimmy’s raised eyebrow drew up even higher. Chris nodded in agreement.

“Are you high?” Jimmy asked.

Chris scoffed and shifted in his seat.

“I wish I was. Then I could forget about all this crap. Freakin’ giant robots with their laser eyes destroying everything that was once good and beautiful. People who run around-”

“Christopher!” Brady cut him off. “We have to give him some context. It has to be shocking for him.”

“If this is you guys’ idea of a joke, I’d appreciate-”

“We’re from thirty years in the future, Jimmy, and you’re going to shut up and listen to us.” Brady stood up suddenly and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m tired, and I’ve travelled a long way and a long time to get here. We knew going in that it was a long shot and that you probably wouldn’t believe us, but we had to try. We have to try. For humanity’s sake. We remembered all of those books and comics on time travel you used to read, so we thought maybe you’d realize that this is for real.”

Jimmy had sunk lower into the large chair now, his legs extended too far in front of him and a disgusted, confused look on his face.

“It’s just for fun.”

“Time travel is not fun,” Chris said gravely, looking straight at Jimmy with wide eyes.

“It isn’t,” Brady agreed, “but you have to believe us, because the future of mankind depends on you.”

It was quiet, then. Brady and Chris looked to Jimmy with imploring eyes. Only the tic-tic-tic of the mantle clock made any sound.

Jimmy appeared to debate with himself.

“Why should I believe you?” he finally said softly.

“Jimmy, in twenty-five years you are going to have a breakthrough. See, you work for the company that Christopher and I own, and your research into biomechanical artificial intelligence fields got just a little too good. We saw a business opportunity and started building robots to help people-”

“Model C-7 fifteens,” Chris added.

“Yeah, C-7 fifteens,” Brady agreed. “Everybody bought one. It was like having your own little personal assistant who didn’t get tired, didn’t need to eat. It was great. But then,” Brady’s eyes narrowed and he gesticulated wildly with his hands, “they started getting self-aware. We built them too dang smart…”

“Ok, stop, guys,” Jimmy said, shaking his head. His head was nearly level with his torso now, the way he was slouching. “That’s the plot to Terminator. Or I Robot or something.”

Chris’ jaw steeled and he frowned.

“That’s what we call one ironic piece of-”

“Oh, very clever!” Brady declared loudly, throwing his hands in the air. He looked angry. “You think you’re the first one to notice that very embarrassing fact? That our own storytellers had warned us about this since the twentieth century, but we didn’t listen? No, it’s real- and all life on the planet is almost wiped out now.”

“Almost wiped out?” Jimmy asked, sitting up a bit.

“There’s a small remnant left,” Chris answered. “But not much. You died already.”

Jimmy swallowed hard, unable to hide his reaction.

“It’s too late in the future, Jimmy, the machines are too strong. But here!” Brady clenched his fist and stepped toward the gangly teen. “Here, there is still something the three of us can do to make sure that when this war comes, the humans come out on top.”

“Are… are you guys going to hurt me?”

Chris looked away sharply. That one almost made him break character. As it was, a snort still escaped from him, but Brady kept it together.

“No, we’re not going to kill you so that you never make the invention. I see where your head is at. Somebody else was bound to if not you, and there’s no telling what kind of chaos we’d create by killing somebody in the past. It has been discussed, but no.”

Chris looked back now, rising to his feet and stepping nearer to Jimmy, who was turning his head as he scooted back in the chair, trying to sit up. Skepticism started to wash away.

“We only have one real shot at this, Jimmy,” Brady began. Chris fell to his knees in front of Jimmy, and Brady joined him. “There’s only one way for humanity to survive.” Brady held his trembling, folded hands before him. “Will you help us? Will you save humanity?”

Jimmy looked uncomfortable, but grave. He was shaking. He looked from Chris to Brady as they kneeled like supplicants before him. It was still for several tense moments, and then, his puberty-ridden voice squeaked out a response.

“What do I have to do?”

“PPPBBTTH!!!”

“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

The dam had burst, the mission had succeeded. Chris and Brady howled with laughter, rolling on the floor and slapping the ground in delight.

“I told you,” Brady shouted between breaths and guffaws. “I told you he’d believe us.”

“I’m from the future!” Chris declared in a mocking voice.

“Oh, man… oh, this is the best. This is the best freakin’-”

The boys were cut off by the sound of the doorbell. Still laughing, they glanced to the door, and the handle started to turn. The door gently eased open and a man stepped inside, a stern look on his face. He was tall and well-built, and he looked a little bit like Jimmy.

Brady hit Chris in the stomach.

“You said Jimmy lives with his mom!”

“That isn’t my dad…” Jimmy interrupted.

Terror instantly replaced the mirth in the boys as they realized a strange man had just entered the house, and they were alone.

The tall, good-looking intruder glanced down at the fallen groceries and shook his head. He glanced about briefly like he was taking it all in deeply. Then, looking toward the group of boys as if he had momentarily forgotten about them, he descended the small step that led into the sitting area.

“So many memories…” he said wistfully. He shook his head as all of the boys watched, frozen. He cleared his throat, then spoke again. “James,” he said, nodding respectfully at Jimmy. “Just a quick message for you. You grow up to be wealthier than these losers ever dream of. You have a smoking hot wife and a mansion in the Hamptons. This one weighs four hundred pounds, last I checked,” he said, pointing down at the currently very athletic Chris, “and this one can’t seem to hold a job longer than a few weeks, and he’s got some sort of bowel condition too.” The middle-aged man smiled, then, a winning, charming smile. “You boys were right about one thing, though. I do end up inventing something pretty important. It just isn’t robots.”

Hardly believing their eyes, Chris and Brady glanced at one another, scared out of their wits.

“You boys may want to run,” the man said, glancing at his watch. “Chris, your mother is about to come home early and see that you aren’t babysitting like you promised, and Brady- well, I’m not even going to tell you what’s waiting for you at home, but it isn’t pretty, and you better get there before things get worse.”

Nobody moved. Brady’s knees were visibly shaking.

“Did you hear me?” the man demanded. “Go!”

Bumping into each other and staying as far from the well-dressed epiphany as possible, Brady and Chris tore out of Jimmy’s house like a pair of rockets. The man watched them go, shaking his head. Jimmy remained seated in his chair.

“They sure can run, I’ll give that to them though,” the man said.

Jimmy slowly rose from his chair. He inched toward the messenger. Then, glancing upward, he nodded.

“So you heard them talking at school?” the man asked. Jimmy nodded again. The man glanced out the door again, straining to see if he could still catch a sight of them. “I tell you what, if you’re going to bother planning something, you should keep your big mouth shut when somebody might hear you.” Jimmy nodded again.

“Thanks, Uncle Stephen.”

Uncle Stephen reached down and tussled Jimmy’s hair. He’d get his growth spurt soon, he was sure.

“You’re welcome, sport.”

They looked at each other approvingly for a moment.

And then they laughed. They laughed good, hard, and long.

“Who falls for that?” Jimmy asked amidst rolling fits of laughter. He wiped away the mirth from his eyes and held his hands out in pantomime. “I’m from the future!”