Hard Lessons

The cigarette lighter on the dashboard popped up with a metallic click, and my brother flashed me a grin. We were little kids that had been left alone in the car for just long enough to make mischief. He grabbed the black plastic top of it with his fingers and pulled it out sharply. He flipped it around to look at the business end briefly before showing it to me. I leaned in close, hypnotized by the orange glow of the tightly-wrapped coils.

As if reading my mind he said, “Go ahead. Touch it.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

I hesitated. “It’ll hurt.”

“No it won’t,” he scoffed, as if I’d just said the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. “It tickles.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Try it.”

I looked at him, trying to read his inscrutable expression. Then something—naivety, trust, hope, curiosity—got the better of me. I reached out my finger.

I can still hear the hiss. And my bet is that my brother might have suffered some hearing loss from my howls. He tried everything he could to quiet me, to say he was sorry, to keep us both out of trouble, but I fully intended to cry until the pain stopped or the tears stopped. That took quite awhile.

Trust your gut. That’s what I learned. But it was a hard lesson, as so many of the most important ones are. Many of them have burned a lot deeper and longer than the tip of my finger did that day.

I wish we could learn everything wrapped up in the warmth of safety and comfort. I wish we could learn all our lessons from laughter and light-hearted living. There’s little doubt that I have gleaned a thing or two from moments like these, but the majority of my most soul-shaping lessons have come as dispatches from despair. Maybe that’s a result of being hard-headed or hard-hearted; more likely, it’s simply the result of being human.

Frankly, to live means that good lessons get learned in awful places. When we fall we learn to hope. When we’re scared we learn to have courage. When we’re hurt we learn to be resilient. And when we mourn we learn to live.

And that may be the worst one of all. How cruel that death should teach us how to live.

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Ecclesiastes 7:2

The living will lay it to heart. The living would very much like to tuck those moments and those lessons behind the woolen socks and shut them up in a dark drawer forever. The living would like to say, “I’m fine” and mean it. The living would like for the boat to stop it’s infernal rocking.

Last weekend I went to the house of mourning when I attended the memorial for my grandmother, a woman who lived a good life for 101 years. Dear friends were just at a very hard funeral, one where a well-lived life wasn’t lived long enough. And today after work, as I crossed the church parking lot toward my car, I got caught in the flow of mourners streaming out from a late-afternoon funeral, and I politely pretended not to notice the deep sighs and sniffling.

These kinds of moments stir up the chattering of big question and… something else, something a little louder. C.S. Lewis describes it this way:

God whispers to us in our joy and shouts to us in our pain.

Joy and celebration warm the heart, but hardship gets our attention. Hardship makes the heart steadfast, tested, proven, fired, and refined. I’m not looking for some silver lining, but I am trying not to refuse the lessons, the tiny graces that salve these wounds.