It’s a weird thing to say, I know. But it’s true — not because I’ve delved into the depths of philosophy or poured over pages spiritual self-help books. Not because I’m a stoic who just thinks we’ll be better off when we toughen up. And certainly not because this is some twisted way of “living your best life now.” Nope. I know it’s true because I watched my father die from cancer, because I struggle everyday with an anxiety disorder, and because I’m constantly assaulted by self-doubt. That logic might sound odd (perhaps even absent), but I’ve learned through these experiences that hard things shape us in ways easy things can’t.
Watching Your Father Die
My father died in a living room. As the tumor put pressure on his brain stem, his respiratory system moaned to a humming halt. The hospice nurse was kind enough to tell us when he had three breaths left.
One. What’s happening? Is this real?
Two. Hold on — where do they go? Where is he going?!
I was 18, still under the illusion that I would be the one person who’d actually live forever. That’s what being young is all about. Now I’m 35, the same age my father was when he first learned he had a brain tumor.
In the 17 years since his passing, one thing has crystallized for me, a vapor that pulled itself together into a cup of clear, cold water. You have to give.
God, you see, is a giver. And he’s made every one of us in his image. You can fight it all you want, but it doesn’t matter in the end. You have to give. But that’s not a bad thing; it’s a beautiful thing. In fact, the older you get, the more you’ll realize that it’s the most beautiful thing. We give our time, our attention, our bodies, our words, our thoughts. And then, when it comes to it, we give our lives.
This giving lives in the great shadow of God. God gave himself in creation. The air and the water, the greens and the gold, the paws and the petals—it’s all a self-portrait of him. Little reflections of his character. In making the world we live in, he gave himself away.
But the glory of that giving . . . it’s not the highest. Not the greatest. The greatest giving happens when it’s undeserved. And in ways we’ll never understand, God gave himself again when we were at war with him. As we raged in self-affirmation, in hatred of our limitation and lack of control, God stepped into history, looked us square in our warring eyes, and said, “Here. Take me.” He gave himself to us, arms open, pinned up like a picture between two criminals. He gave himself away.
You and I, we’re born to be givers because that’s who God is, and God is our Father. The sooner we come to realize that, the more human we’ll become, the more satisfied, the more grateful.
Watching my father die of cancer in our living room was one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. But it shaped me. It shaped me in ways easy things never could. And it turned me into a giver.
Fighting an Anxiety Disorder
That whole watching your father die thing, that probably led to PTSD, which then blossomed into a full-blown anxiety disorder. Grieving was hard, but not as hard as fighting, moment by moment, to stop thinking about your breathing, to stop feeling disembodied and hyper-vigilant all the time, to stop wondering how and when you’ll pass out and die in front of a bunch of strangers.
My anxiety disorder struck (and strikes) me down (I’ve written about that in Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety). It’s the 4X4 that clubs my ankles and knocks me to the dirt. It reminds me that I’m small. I’m always small.
But it also reminds me why I’m here. I’m here to give. When the heart palpitations and heat flashes and pinhole throat come creeping up, I’m called to stop perseverating on myself and to look at someone else. To give my mind and body to another by speaking and asking how I can serve, how I can pray, how I can give.
Anxiety, too, made me a giver. It reminded me that life is ceramic. We’re here to be shaped, and hard things are shaping things.
Amidst the grieving and anxiety, how about a little dash of self-doubt, a constant, sickening whisper that you can’t, that you’re not good enough, that someone else is better? Sure. Why not?
I’ve carried that whisper with me ever since I was six years old and watched a soccer field teeming with kids in the summer sun. My parents told me I had to try. I didn’t want to try. “I can’t do . . . that.”
That sentence stuck itself in my pocket and peeked out whenever I tried something new. But most often, it’s been peeking out in my writing life. Writing is my favorite thing, but it’s also where I get the most challenges from self-doubt.
You really think you have something to say?
What would YOU write that somebody else couldn’t write BETTER?
You’re no where near as gifted as you hope you are? Just give it up.
Self-doubt succeeds when we do nothing. To do something, anything, is a victory against self-doubt.
So, I keep writing, in gratitude to God my giver. I give myself away through words in the midst of my self-doubt. When the sickening whisper tells me to pull my fingers into a fist, I turn my palms out and offer what I have to the world. It’s not much. It never is. But God is a master at feeding thousands with bread crumbs and a few fish.
Self-doubt is a hard thing. But like grief and anxiety, it has the power in God’s hands to turn you into a giver, to force your palms open.
Hoping for Shaping
I don’t hope hard things happen because I love to suffer. I’m not a stoic. But I do love being shaped by God, despite the pain and discomfort. And so, in that sense, I do hope hard things happen because that’s where the shaping takes place. And when I’m not shaped, when things stay the same, let’s just say I don’t remember those moments so well. It’s the torrents we remember, not the soft breezes.
I don’t want to stay the same. Even though part of me wants to just find a resting point and park there, I know I’d regret that. I’d be depressed with the stagnation, the lack of character, the lack of sympathy for others in the world around me. But more than this, buried deep in the hollows of my heart is a longing to be like the God who gives. That longing is fulfilled when hard things shape me. Every. Single. Time.
I’ve heard 2020 been called “the year from hell.” Maybe, in a twisted and mysterious sense, it’s the year from heaven. A shaping year. A torrent year. A year when we remember why we have air in our lungs.
Pierce Taylor Hibbs is a wordsmith, theologian, teacher, and long-time sufferer of anxiety. He is the author of several books, most recently Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety and Still, Silent, and Strong: Meditations for the Anxious Heart. His latest book is titled Finding Hope in Hard Things: A Positive Take on Suffering. To learn more about the author, receive free downloads, and to be notified of new publications, go to http://piercetaylorhibbs.com/.