Monday, October 31, 2005

What If Your Family Was Discouraging?

Among the many jobs I've had in my lifetime is that of factory worker. At one plant, the now-defunct Lennox Industries facility in Columbus, I worked on a line that produced a huge air conditioning and heating unit--the DMS 325--used on office buildings.

Every day, during morning and afternoon breaks and at lunch time, my co-workers and I sat on the rollers with which the enormous units that we produced were sent from work station to work station along our line. Those rollers were our preferred cafeteria, where we ate and talked.

One of the guys on my line was a squat man with slicked-back black hair. He sported a pencil-thin moustache and a lousy attitude. No matter what the conversation, he would ultimately offer the same "wisdom" between drags on his cigarettes. "Born in hope; die in despair," he intoned. It was his mantra, his motto: "Born in hope; die in despair."

You should know that I actually liked the guy. He was uncommonly intelligent and well-informed, although he didn't spout off like, say, the average blogging pastor. (I can say that, given that I am one of those average blogging pastors.) He had a quick wit. Because of these winsome attributes, I often wondered what series of disappointments had come into his life that caused him to express such incessant discouragement.

I wondered, too, what he was like at home. What effect, for example, did his philosophy of hopelessness have on his wife and children? I cringed to think of how his mantra might be taken up by his kids as a way of thinking, as a way of living.

In comments he left regarding the last post in this series on discouragement, writer and blogger Richard Lawrence Cohen suggested that there was at least one source of discouragement in people's lives I had failed to consider thus far. That was the family that, instead of nurturing children with a sense of life's possibilities, convinces them that things always turn out worse than you hope. The atmosphere in these households is established by parents who, in effect, tell their children to keep their expectations low so that they'll never be disappointed. They're the families where one or both parents, by word and deed, pound home the message, "Born in hope; die in despair."

In my work as a pastor, I meet people who struggle with the aftereffects of being raised in such homes. They have an impoverished capacity for belief, for hopefulness. By this, I don't only mean to refer to the limited capacity they sometimes display for belief in God, although that often is the most significant casualty in the lives of people raised in discouraging environments.

But this limited capactity for hopefulness permeates their entire lives. They settle for less--for less warm and convivial family relationships, for less stimulating and challenging work than they might be capable of handling, for less of the enjoyment that comes from risking failure by striving to do and be our best.

I'm not advocating that people adopt a false or pollyannish optimism. I've recounted here the interesting conversation between author Jim Collins and Admiral John Stockdale, the highest-ranking American POW during the Vietnam War. Collins was stunned to hear Stockdale say that, while he never doubted that he would one day be free, he nonetheless said that the POWs most likely to crumple under the agonies of their brutal confinements were "the optimists." Collins paraphrased Stockdale's explanation of who the optimists were:

The optimists. These were the people who were part of the "fake it till you make it crowd," who would try to delude themselves and others to ignore the facts and simply because of a (probably internally-manufactured) feeling, named a date definite when they would be out. But when those deadlines passed, discouragement would overtake them, leaving them vulnerable.
To have the capacity for hope doesn't mean that you overlook the obstacles, pain, or difficulties--unforeseen and otherwise--that come in a life. It means that you have the ability to cope with the realities in life even as you strive to do and be more...even as you endeavor to meet the implicit promise that exists in every human life.

If you were raised in a household environment of discouragement, the antidote isn't to paste on a happy face and dig on. The people I've known who have successfully dug themselves out from under the rubble of such upbringings have taken some of the following steps:

  • Looked for mentors who would be both affirming about their strengths and constructively critical of their weaknesses;
  • Consciously worked at improving themselves by always reading and by making friends with good, wise, intelligent people;
  • Specifically, in the area of reading, delved into the biographies of people who have achieved notable and worthy things, underscoring the possibilities in our lives;
  • Worked at being good, reliable friends to others, becoming part of a network of mutual caring.
All of this stuff can be helpful in overcoming the discouragement that comes from being raised in a discouraging environment. But, I believe that there is an ultimate source of encouragement and that's the God we know through Jesus Christ. He's certainly been that for me!

In the New Testament book of Philippians, the apostle Paul, a guy who surely experienced more difficulties than most of us would likely endure in several lifetimes, writes:

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (Philippians 1:21)
What does that mean? Actually, there's a lot to those ten simple words. But, for our purposes, let me suggest a few:
  • Death comes to us all;
  • But if we believe in and follow Jesus Christ, the God-Man Who took our punishment for sin and rose again to give us life that never ends, death will not be the final word on our existences;
  • Knowing that God gives us forever life through Christ empowers us to live both with greater confidence and less concern about failure. When you know that you belong to God no matter what, you can be a more insistent advocate of justice, for example;
  • Knowing that God gives us forever life through Christ makes our days on earth here both more meaningful and more disposable. On the one hand, we know that every moment is soaked with eternal implications. We can invest ourselves in the only things on this earth that will outlast it, other people. On the other hand, we don't have to horde our days, using them selfishly. We can give ourselves to others and to the causes that promote others' well-being in the certainty that no matter how much of our lives we give to the service of God and others, God has lots more life to give to us.
Even if we were raised in a culture of discouragement, our lives can be changed. It can happen when we dare to believe in Jesus. And don't worry if you suffer from "an impoverished capacity for belief." Even the most deeply faithful person you ever met in your life was incapable of believing in the crucified and risen God-Man Jesus on their own. The New Testament says that nobody can say that Jesus is Lord without the help of God's Holy Spirit. All we have to be is willing to believe in Jesus and to maintain that willingness. We surrender our wills to Christ and God will begin to forge faith in our lives. Encouragement will only be one of the blessings that then will flow into our lives.
[Here are the previous installments of this occasional series:
Discouragement and Some Antidotes
Discouragement and Mr. Nice Guy
Discouragement and the Human Touch
What If I'm the Source of Another Person's Discouragement?]


P_J said...


I came here after "meeting" you via comments on Althouse. Thanks for the blog - it's very thoughtful and well-written.

I appreciate what you said about the power of encouragement and true hope in Christ. As a pastor, I too see the corrosive effects of despair, and am trying to bring people to joyful hope in Christ. It's also a good reminder for me as the parent of four kids...

BTW, some of the best material I've ever seen on this is "Sonship" and "Gospel Transformation" by World Harvest Mission (founded by Jack Miller). The confidence, love and joy that come from being secure in Christ free us to be the best people, the persons God created us to be.

And we had a wonderful Reformation Day celebration at our church. It's so good to remember and celebrate the great message of God's unearned grace to us in Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace,
Jef Schultz
St. Louis

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for the very encouraging comments!

I will have to check out the site to which you refer.

Your comments at Ann Althouse's site have caught my eye as well. The discussions that go on there among commenters are normally civil and informative. That's something I find really refreshing because there is so much shrillness and shooting from the hip in the blogging world.

Thanks for dropping by and for leaving your comments.

Blessings in Christ,