Wednesday morning - I'm still in need of a conclusion, but the body of what I want to say is together. Staying persistent...
Think for a minute about all the wise sayings pertaining to persistence. We learned Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare as children, noting that the fast little rabbit lost to the persistent turtle. In the end the victorious turtle proclaims, “Slow and steady wins the race.”
“If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” This is attributed to Robert the Bruce, legend has it, after watching a spider in the stable. Robert was in hiding and losing his battle against the Longshanks and saw the spider try six times to swing up to a beam and start a web. Bruce felt great sympathy and then saw the spider make a seventh effort, inspiring him to go forward with the fight. He went on to defeat the English and became one of the best loved Scottish kings. Now we have a range of one-liners such as, “If at first you don’t succeed, hide the evidence.” Or “If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.”
Some of the best stories of persistence come from the publishing field.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm made Time’s list of best English-language books ever written, ranked in at #31 on the Modern Library’s List of Best 20th-Century Novels, and won retrospective Hugo award in 1996. But not only was Orwell’s classic written off (and completely misunderstood) by a publisher who noted, “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA,” Orwell’s peer and good friend T.S. Eliot was also less than impressed. Orwell sent a draft to Eliot, who responded that the writing was good, but the view was “not convincing” and that publishers would only accept the book if they had personal sympathy for the “Trotskyite” viewpoint.
It hard to believe that 36 publishers read Gone With the Wind and “Frankly they did not give a damn.” J.K Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books, which have made her the wealthiest author in history, were rejected by HarperCollins and Random House. Talent is never enough for an author; it is usually talent plus persistence unless you are a celebrity with nothing really important to say.
We are well prepared to hear and understand this parable about a widow who is so persistent in demanding justice for her cause, that even a judge known to not care about justice gets worn out and just wants to be rid of her. I am inclined to accept this at face value, though I am troubled when I think about this more deeply. Is persistence always the best thing for our spiritual life? What if I am persistently seeking the wrong thing? In the Twelve Step Big Book for Alcoholics Anonymous, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Addiction is an example of someone who is persistently wrong because the solution to every emotional problem is to take a drink or get high. No one is more persistent than an addict who wants to get high. A woman named Brenda went through our program at Hillcrest House. She had ruined her life smoking crack. As she got clean and went to therapy she learned that she had Bipolar Disorder and had used drugs to self-medicate her struggles. She was in her late 40s and didn’t even have a GED or much job history. For two years she really worked at her life. She took care of multiple health problems, studied hard and went to 12-Step meetings every day. When she got her GED, she began working on a college degree on-line because she had surgery and couldn’t start attending school. She was the most persistent person I had ever seen in her recovery and she once told me that whenever she felt like quitting and not doing the things she needed to do she remembered how persistent she was when she wanted crack. “I would walk two miles in a blizzard when I wanted drugs. When my dealer wasn’t around, I would find another one. I would do anything to get the money I needed for my habit. So when I think about not going to a meeting or giving up on school or struggling to cope, I just remember how persistent I was for drugs and that is how persistent I need to be in my recovery.”
As I think about her words I realize that we are all persistent in our habits and behaviors, for better and for worse. A psychiatrist named Aaron Beck discovered that depression is often related to persistently negative thought patterns. People with depression often have these destructive thought patterns in common, which Beck called cognitive distortions. They filter out everything good about themselves and only hear and believe what is negative. When confronted with a problem, they “castrophize,” meaning they take the problem to its worst possible conclusion in their minds rather than believing it to be something they can deal with. “All or nothing thinking,” where the words always, never and “there is no alternative” lead to depression. Beck built his therapy around helping realize their distorted ways of seeing themselves and their world, and helping them develop new ways of thinking and seeing.
For years I was persistent in thinking that I was responsible for solving everyone’s problems, and if I couldn’t I was a failure. Because of my persistence, I was too busy trying to fix people that I didn’t do what they most needed, which was to listen and to love. When I had health problems, I was determined in my thinking that my problems would go away if I just ignored them. I was unrelenting in my belief that I did not need to change my life to be well, and I was enduring in my denial. Persistence really isn’t that hard. I am persistent to a fault about many things. What is hard is being determined in a new direction. What is hard is breaking an old habit and attitude, and acting and thinking differently. Old ways of thinking are hard to break because we know them and they are comfortable.
Now I am ready to understand what Jesus had to say about persistence in prayer. It is easy to lose heart when we pray, because if we are truly praying, some of our persistent ways of thinking and acting will be challenged. When we pray, we want answers, we want help, we want solutions. But are we ready to change? Can we give up our old solutions, our pat answers and our persistent ways of seeing other people in order to allow the creative renewal of the Holy Spirit? Anyone who has truly tried to pray, knows that this is not easy. Jesus is saying to hang in there and don’t lose heart. Even and unjust judge will eventually listen, so will not our loving God hear us if we are persistent? The real struggle is not whether God hears us. God is not an unjust judge. The issue is we often have our own inner judge that will not let us hear God. God can’t work when we are busy filling our lives we the distortions and judgments that separate us from divine grace.