Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
When I look back at the nearly half-century of my life, and I think about all the people I have met and the conversations I have had, the number is very, very large. Yet, as I look back, there are a few conversations that have actually changed the trajectory of my life. And probably the most profound conversation I ever had in my life, because it truly changed the trajectory of my life, was with Fr. James Adams, of blessed memory, in August of 1991, when I was 19 years old.
I came to Fr. James that day at what was one of the lowest moments of my life. My participation in sports (I won’t call it a “career” because I was not going to play sport professionally) had ended suddenly, with a serious injury and resulting surgery on my right elbow. Now, I wasn’t a star athlete, but sports was definitely part of my identity, something I looked forward to, something I counted on, and something which helped what was actually a low self-esteem.
I had the pain of the operation (my arm in a sling, many stitches in the elbow), the loss of freedom and mobility (I wasn’t going to be allowed to lift anything for a few months, and was going to need physical therapy to gain the use of my elbow again), the loss of something I loved (playing soccer), the loss of part of my identity (I had played sports from early childhood), and in some ways the loss of faith (how could God do this to me) and with it the loss of hope. For the first time in my life, I was actually wondering if the world would be better without me in it. I actually said in my mind, on the way into the operating room a few days earlier, “God, if You really are there, just take me out of this world during the operation.” Obviously, that did not happen, as I woke up from the surgery. While I would never self-harm, that mere fact that I thought about it (thankfully) scared me and caused me to make my first appointment ever to see a priest.
I told Fr. James my “sad story”. His reaction surprised me. It actually upset me. He couldn’t have been more kind. He had the sweetest voice. He was one of the most dignified people I’ll ever meet. But he challenged me. He wasn’t going to let me wallow in self-pity. He took a book of his shelf called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Harold Kushner (a Jewish rabbi who had buried one of his teenage children). He told me to read the book, that it would help me understand how God’s love for each of us is still present, even when it seems like it isn’t, even when it seems like everything is going wrong. Inside the book, he wrote an inscription that said “Stop being a victim, and start being a survivor. God does not want victims, He wants survivors.”
As I said, I was initially kind of upset with Fr. James. Here I had come in looking for empathy, or maybe pity, and I was being challenged to read a book and change my outlook on life. I took the book, forced myself to read it, read it with an open mind (which was still a little frustrated) and through that book, God opened my heart to understand that He still loved me, that He hadn’t abandoned me, that it was I who had abandoned Him. And I took those words that Fr. James had written in the cover of the book to heart. I was now determined to stop being a victim and start being a survivor. That conversation changed my life. Not because I never had another hardship. I have plenty of them. But because it helped reshape my attitude to one of being a survivor and not a victim. I resolved that I could survive anything, any setback. And not only could I survive, in most cases I could thrive.
When I went back to Fr. James a month later, I reported to him how much the book had helped me. I asked him what I owed him for the book. He said I owed him nothing, that I should pay it forward and buy the book for someone else. Well, in thirty years, I have purchased approximately 300 copies of this book. There are always at least 5 in my office. When I give them away, I write the same thing in the cover—Stop being a victim and start being a survivor.
Years later, I went and told Fr. James how profound that conversation had been, how it had changed the trajectory of my life. He said he didn’t remember our conversation. And when I asked how could he not remember this amazing conversation, he said simply, “the grace of the Holy Spirit that comes down on you to take away sin and shame, comes down also on me to take away my memory of these difficult conversations, so that I will never see someone with judgment based on what they said to me, but so that I will see them as God sees them, with unconditional love.” That was another profound conversation in itself.
I will forever be grateful to Fr. James Adams, of blessed memory, for that life-changing conversation in August 1991. In this unit on choosing to thrive in our circumstances, we all have the ability to choose to be a survivor or a victim. And when faced with this choice, choose to survive. Because God doesn’t want victims, He wants survivors. And if you find yourself in the low place I was in 30 years ago, please call someone. Don’t carry that cross alone. And as I do periodically, if you don’t have anyone you can call, you can call me. My number is 813-394-1038.
Lord, please be with all those who feel alone today, who feel like they have no one to talk to, or no one who will understand them. Lead them to people who will listen without judgment. Help me to have eyes that are open to see people who need help, and an ear and a heart that will be open to listen and help. When I’m in a valley, lead me to others who can help me. And when I can’t seem to find anywhere to turn, lead others to me. Help me to be a survivor! Amen.
Don’t be victim. Be a survivor!