What's Tony Thinking

What Do You Need?


Our daughter, Laura, is in the midst of a sermon series built around four important questions. Last week’s question was, “What do you need?”

Coming off the pandemic (we hope we’re “coming off”), our answers might include comfort, space and time for grieving, healing and renewal of hope. We speak often today of communities and individuals that need “healing,” whether because of an experience of violence or past trauma that has been buried or denied.

When we are the midst of hard times in our personal lives or family, or at work (or in the absence of meaningful work), we might need “compassion,” or “better self-care,” or a listening ear, whether from a therapist, a wise friend, or understanding confidant. We are encouraged to “be gentle with yourself.” As a pastor, I often felt that people were being too hard on themselves, and needed to extend grace to themselves or receive the grace offered by God in Jesus Christ.

But as I pondered Laura’s question of the week, my own thoughts moved in a different direction. Into the “chat box” I wrote, “I find that what I often need is a challenge.”

As important as healing, grieving, self-care are, there is a risk of leaning so far in that direction, that we miss another real human need — i.e., a good or worthy challenge. Something that calls forth the best within us. Something that asks us to stretch ourselves.

Later that same day, Sunday, I happened upon an article titled, “What Emerson Can Teach Us About Resilience.” One of Emerson’s most famous essays is “Self-Reliance.”

Here’s a bit from that article by Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia.

“Life compelled Emerson to become something of an expert on resilience. As a young man he lost the love of his life, his wife Ellen, to tuberculosis when she was just 19. His oldest son, Waldo — a joyful child who seemed to concentrate in himself what was most uninhibitedly life-loving in his father — died of scarlet fever when he was 5 years old.

“Emerson’s remedy for sorrow, grief and depression was not to stay still. Don’t hold on to your pain and wait for it to work itself through — instead, get up and do something. Write your speech, compose your music, start your business or expand it; go at it, whatever it might be.”

Some, perhaps many, will write-off Emerson’s counsel as typically and unhelpfully masculine or American in nature. “Get busy,” “Do something,” can sound like strategies of denial and avoidance. And they may be. But perhaps not always.

More from Edmundson,

“Emerson wouldn’t necessarily disparage this [more therapeutic] approach; he understood that we all must seek what is best for ourselves in our own way. But at a moment when loss, deprivation and suffering are fresh in our hearts and minds, he steps forward with a different response.

“Don’t make yourself a patient, don’t plumb the pillows or pickle yourself in Cabernet. Instead, make life more demanding than it has been. Be tougher on yourself; fill your mind with tasks and go after them, hard. When we’re down, we need to get up and fight as best we can — not tomorrow, but now.”

As I noted above this counsel flies in the face of contemporary, more therapeutic advice. It is against the grain of our own times and sensibilities. But just for that reason it may be important to hear.

At least sometimes what we most need is a worthy challenge.


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