Besides our initial gifts we are born with, our life experience can be viewed as an accumulation of experiences and lessons learned. The smarter ones among us learn from our experiences and also from experiences of others – but many of us have something tremendously challenging and character forming in our paths. In fact, some of these awful experiences substantially affect who we are and who we become and, I believe, they can become the enabling things for us to do something amazing and unexpected!
The most important experiences among the defining ones are the ones we don’t often share with others. These are the experiences about which we sometimes still have dreams. They still may disturb our sleep decades after the events which shook us to the core. We are scared and we wonder whether we will ever be normal again, just like we perceive many others to be.
There is a wonderful analogy in the Bible about this type of experience and condition. Apostle Paul talks about his struggle in his life and he calls it “a thorn in my flesh”. This thorn has a very important purpose in Paul’s life: “to keep me from becoming conceited.” I am sure we all have had a thorn in our hands or feet perhaps after running through the woods or after gardening. They are annoying and hurtful in a very specific way: They don’t stop us from doing our work, but they slow us down and focus our attention elsewhere. The Apostle Paul recognized that this kind of obstacle can have a very important purpose for his life and his mission.
Such thorns come in different forms for us. It may have to do with a specific event or a condition; an illness, an untimely death, or a divorce which shook a family to its core. But, there is a second type of thorn that comes from rejection or apparent lack of love which has almost the same function in our lives.
I have met students who grew up in poverty. Sometimes, they grow up within the US and they have stories that scream injustice. I have talked to students who told me about their family situation: left by their father, rejected by their mother, struggling to make ends meet. Many young people take on responsibilities about which others can only dream. They turn into amazing entrepreneurs and innovators!
I have personally lived through rejection of family and friends. I now know that it’s easier to have a hand hacked off than to learn that you are not acceptable the way you are at your innermost self. To me, this rejection came from a fundamentalist religious community which was deeply entangled with my family. My foundation and entire self-confidence crumbled when I felt that it was not acceptable to be who I am. I had tried many years to change who I was, but I did not succeed – I learned the hard way that I can’t root out my humanity. But, it lead to a hugely disruptive change I don’t wish on anybody.
I have talked with friends who had to go through the same, or possibly worse, rejection because of their sexual orientation. In some cases, these friends were at the verge of giving up; they almost drowned in hopelessness, in insecurity and with the belief that love was made for others, not them. They also can’t root out their humanity, but they are pushed to do so. Some of the most creative and amazing people thought that their life is not worth it. They were so wrong!
However, there is a secret talked about by Apostle Paul and known by people who deal with such challenges: These challenges make us grow and improve who we become. In fact, in many cases, they are the very engine that drives us towards amazing things. It’s these experiences that relate to major decisions that define what a life is going to be.
Our thorn in our flesh can teach us perseverance and drive us to success. It may give us the energy to make the world a better place. We may learn tolerance from our experiences, or empathy with others.
I think of my friend Sean Forbes who is doing amazing things as a Deaf Musician. I think of Lance Armstrong who has turned one of his most challenging life-experiences into an engine to fight the very illness that almost ended his life. I am thinking of Sichan Siv, a former US Ambassador for the United Nations who escaped the terror of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as the only survivor of his family, who lived in a refugee camp in Vietnam, came to the US and started as a taxi driver in New York, only to end up becoming a UN Ambassador for peace and refugees everywhere.
However, the thorn will always be with us! I have talked to some of the most successful entrepreneurs who still wake up at night worried that it was all just a dream and they are back in the misery that helped define them. I occasionally still have sleepless nights worrying about some awful things that happened over twenty-five years ago. The thorn stays in our flesh! It is part of us. But, it can make us better and more driven people who reach heights that otherwise are unobtainable!