with each step: pressing on in seasons of suffering
When we believe the lie that our seasons of struggle and brokenness will paint us as weak or lesser if known, we are held captive under the weight of shame and live in the continual fear of being exposed. On the contrary, when we are able to view these seasons through the lens of what God did through them, those same stories become stories of power, and we can live in the freedom to tell them boldly knowing that they point not to our shame, but to His glory.
I was in one of these seasons a while back. Over the course of the past few years, God allowed a few certain hurts to happen in my life, and let me just say, they hurt. I was broken down, and I went through a long, drawn-out process including confusion, hurt, feeling lost, frustration, and then slowly, understanding, insight, healing, and gratitude. The truth is, as hard as some of the circumstances were, God was working behind the scenes the whole time, using them to surface deeper things, to bring me further back into my own story so that I could come to a fuller understanding of myself and of His love. He allowed me to be broken down so that with His own hand He could build me back up in Him, resulting in a healthier and more whole version of myself. Now, it’s a story I love to tell because I can see that it’s a powerful testimony of what God’s done in my life, and if you’ve ever had even one semi-deep conversation with me, you’ve probably heard at least a small part of it. Different aspects of this story will emerge as I continue to write, but for now I want to focus on just one part.
Before I began my time “studying” abroad in London (really, you just get to explore a new place every weekend and sleeplessly squeeze in the occasional 8 page paper), I had the opportunity to go backpacking through Italy and Greece for two weeks. (Um, hello?! Never thought I’d get to say that!) A few days into the trip, my friends and I got to spend the day hiking through the Cinque Terre, a gorgeous place composed of five villages along the rugged coast of the Italian Riviera. (Note: gorgeous doesn’t actually do it justice, but I couldn’t think of a word that does). Numerous recommendations from friends and some google-image-stalking preparation had easily made this the one destination I was most looking forward to. I’ll never forget the moment our train rolled in through the green, tree-covered mountains and under a brief tunnel, only to peel back suddenly and reveal our very first glimpse of the Mediterranean: rich blue in color, sparkling brilliantly, and extending for miles in all of its glory. I literally had to catch my breath. I’ll never forget the striped umbrellas spotting the sandy beaches, the colorful houses nestled in the green hills, the little jellyfish swimming in the clear blue waters below, the lush vineyards, or “The Chant”—the cheerful product of my group’s excitement at the beauty before us: “Cinque, cinque, cinque terre, throw your hands up in the air, then eat gelato everywhere, cinque, cinque, cinque terre!” Yeah, we’re a little weird. I’ll never forget my running jump into the Mediterranean, a refreshing, much-needed break we took mid-hike as the heat, lack of water, and sleep deprivation were starting to kick in. I can picture it all now.
I’ll also never forget what happened next, but for a much different reason. Before resuming our hike we decided to grab some food, and I made the very poor decision of getting a thick, bready piece of pizza. It wasn’t fresh either, and in hindsight it had probably been sitting in that window taunting passers-by for quite some time. Needless to say, this was a bad idea. I started to feel sick pretty quickly into the hike, (which we began immediately after scarfing down our food) and it hit me hard. I told the others to go ahead while I took a little rest before fumbling my way through the rest of the trail, which is almost entirely uphill. My legs became jello as I climbed countless flights of rocky steps, my 30 lb. pack clinging tightly to my sweat-soaked back. I felt miserable. Each time I reached the top of a new flight of stairs, another appeared, mocking me. “The Chant” had changed its tune in my mind and it now rang, “Cinque, cinque, cinque terre. I can’t. Climb. Another. Stair.” I legitimately doubted I could keep going much farther, and everything inside of me wanted to give up. I finally got the attention of a fellow hiker who spoke English, and asked him how much further until the end. I held my breath as I waited for his answer. If he told me an hour, I had already resolved to park myself on that very step and sit there well...forever. (Mom, Dad, I really don’t understand why you say that I'm stubborn). Thankfully, this was not the answer he gave me and so some random step on the Cinque Terre is not my place of rest.
Ten minutes, you’re almost there.
Okay, ten more minutes. I can do this. Something about my closeness to the end, that flicker of hope, gave me motivation to push past the pain, frustration, and defeat to keep on going—step by step.
It didn’t take me long to see the parallel here. Everyone goes through seasons of life that feel like this. Our circumstances or our pain can seem so unbearable that each “step” takes an exhausting amount of energy. We wonder how much longer we must endure this period of waiting or fighting or suffering or yearning—how long we’ll be forced to persevere. I think not only of my story but the stories of those around me—friends, family members, even those I don’t know well. The things that people experience in this fallen world are unimaginable. Hurt can be heard in the undertones of anyone’s story if even just a little bit of time is taken to listen, and sometimes the sheer vastness of it all can be overwhelming. The hope that’s necessary to keep us pressing on—you’re almost there—can be found only through the assurance we have in Jesus that things will not always be this way. And what a beautiful truth that is to hold on to.
When I think about the beauty I experienced that day at Cinque Terre, this reminder will always be a part of it. No matter how strongly you feel that you aren’t making any progress or that nothing is changing, keep climbing, taking it one step at a time. (Resist the urge to break out into a cheesy Miley Cyrus song, even though we’re all thinkin’ it).
Though it’s rare to see while we are in the midst of a struggle, I’ve found that if you climb enough steps, you eventually reach a viewpoint that’s far enough removed to enable you to look back at the path you’ve just taken and to understand it.
A Cinque Terre must? Fresh fruit while watching the Italian cliff-jumpers do their thing to the backdrop of the sun setting on the Mediterranean. And in case it wasn't assumed, Cinque Terre itself is a must if you're planning a trip to Italy.