Welcoming Hard Things

Isabel Wilkerson’s bestseller, Caste, opens as follows: “There is a famous black-and-white photograph from the era of the Third Reich…taken…in 1936, of shipyard workers, a hundred or more, facing the same direction…. They are heiling in unison, their right arms rising in outstretched allegiance to the Fuhrer.” But there is a single anomaly in the frame who “keeps his arms folded to his chest…. He alone is refusing to salute. He is the one man standing against the tide.” She asks, “What would it take to be him in any era? What would it take to be him now?”

The conventional wisdom holds that August Landmesser’s bravery stemmed from his love for a Jewish woman. But perhaps this was a man who had done other hard things—and welcomed them.

A young colleague who faced exceptionally difficult times recently told me not to worry, “It’s all right. I like hard things.” I don’t like hard things. Though I consider myself one of the most fortunate people on the planet (true by almost any measure), I too have faced some exceptionally difficult times. My go-to during these periods are these words from the book of James, “Consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds….” James asks us to emulate my young colleague – to welcome hard things.

What would it take to be him in any era? What would it take to be him now?”

Hard things come big and small. It is hard to stick to a diet. It is a lot harder to sensitively raise a transgender child, as friends of mine have. The late Congressman John Lewis did a very hard thing when he risked his life to fight segregation. The Maryland Episcopal diocese did a hard thing when it voted to devote more than a fifth of its budget toward reparations for slavery and racial injustice. “It’s going to hurt us, and it should,” Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton said yesterday.

On September 3rd, New York Times columnist David Brooks warned of a “nightmare scenario” in the very near future. “It’s time to start thinking about what you would do,” he wrote. Yesterday, his fellow columnist Charles Blow admonished readers to “stop thinking the horrors of the world will simply work themselves out.” “When good people don’t act, evil reigns,” he warned.

In the face of these horrors, will you, or will I, be among the multitude heiling in unison, or will we stand alone against the tide? James wrote that by welcoming hard things, we can develop that muscle of perseverance that helps us stand fast when it counts. “Consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”