A Character Who Wants Something and Overcomes Conflict
I didn’t expect to find a treatise on finding the meaning of pain and hardship in a book by Donald Miller, but Miller gives great food for thought on this topic throughout this book and specifically in this section.
In this section, Miller discusses two major events that added meaning to his life. The first was receiving seed money to begin The Mentoring Project which seeks to provide resources to churches to help mentor kids growing up without a father. (Miller gives statistics that there are 27 million kids growing up without dads and there are 360,000 churches in the U.S. Miller was one of those kids and wrote about it in a previous book, To Own a Dragon).
The reward you get for a story is always less than you thought it would be and the process is always harder than you imagined. But the point is never the ending; it is about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle.
His second event was a cross country bike ride. It becomes a metaphor for the journey of our lives. We start off wanting to change the world but we get into the middle and discover it was harder than you thought. Through the process, he discovers that joy is what you feel when conflict is over. But it is conflict that changes a person. When you share that conflict (as he did on his bike ride), the pain binds you together. For so many of us, our lives are spent avoiding conflict; maybe this is stealing our great stories. No one wants to purposefully engage in a story that will cause conflict and pain, but in our avoidance, we may be missing out on the greatest chapters of our lives.
He recounts the work and writings of Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. Frankl spent his time in concentration camp trying to help fellow prisoners avoid suicide by trying to convince them of the meaning of their lives. In a way, he finds that misery, though seemingly ridiculous, indicates that life itself has the potential of meaning, therefore pain must have meaning. Pain might be a path to experiencing a meaning beyond the false gratification of personal comfort.
Miller came up with a good metaphor for the Grand Narrative of all of us. While in the middle of a personal crisis that brings intense emotional pain to his life, he cries out to God for release. In the process of his suffering, he imagines God saying that Don (as are all of us) is “A tree in the story of a forest and the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree.” If we could just see that it isn’t all about us and that maybe our pain is making us better people and God is creating a great story that we are a part of, perhaps we can find meaning despite our feelings of meaninglessness.
We like “made up” stories because they deliver wish fulfillment. More often than not, they wrap things up in the end. We, however, go on longing for a resolution that will not come in our lifetimes. Miller imagines the apostles trying to market the Christian walk in our consumer driven culture: since Paul has tried Jesus he’s been imprisoned, beaten, and bitten by snakes. But the true gospel offers hope that one day we will be made complete. And Paul viewed that as a source of contentment.