April 9, 2014

Next to me in an office supply store line was a young woman in her mid to late 30s. She was working so hard to get just right a lamination of a long sheet of quotations that everyone in the waiting line got interested in her. Turns out that it wasn’t even for her, but for a dear friend. When I mentioned to her that her friend was lucky to have such a caring friend, she remarked in a very soft voice to me that creating this gift for her friend took her mind off her own troubles.

Conversationally, almost as an aside, I said, “Hopefully, your troubles aren’t too bad.”

When she puddled up, I realized I was in too deep to back out without further dialogue, and, well, one question led to another and before I knew it we’d moved away from the counter so she could speak confidentially. It helped that she’d purchased some of my books in recent years and trusted me.

It was far far worse than I had imagined: her husband had recently died from cancer. . . . Her teenage son had got in with the wrong crowd, overdosed on drugs, and died. . . . Without her husband’s income, she’d lost their home. . . . And the final straw: she’d lost her job too. She was homeless and destitute and didn’t know where in the world to turn.

She summed it all up with these poignant words: “God is my last resort, and I struggle to make sense of it all one day at a time.”

“One day at a time.”

* * * * *

Which reminds me of another encounter I had in a hospital break room a few years ago. I incorporated it into my story, “The Clock of Life.” in Christmas in My Heart 18 almost five years ago.

I’d been operated on for an obstruction in my bile duct that had resulted in my skin turning yellow with jaundice. My hospitalist had told me that if I made it to dawn without the most excruciating pain I’d ever experienced, that would mean I’d escaped pancreatitis. So I walked the hospital corridors hour after hour, stopping once in a while in the break room. Once, there was a woman sitting there who was the spouse of another patient in the ward. Turned out that her husband had a rare virulent form of leukemia. When I asked how severe it was, she answered almost matter of factly, “He can’t even turn over without my help.”

I followed up by asking, “And how long has he had this condition?”

There was a very long pause before, in a soft but strained voice, she answered, “Twenty-five years!”“

I was so stunned, I was almost unable to speak. Finally, I said, “Twenty-five years?

She nodded. “Yes. And in all that time I’ve never left him–not even for a day.”

I could only stammer, “My dear woman, how do you do it?”

Never will I forget her response: “God gives me strength for one day at a time.”

* * * * *

I was on the phone for over an hour one night recently. On the other end of the line was a friend I’d worked with in a university some years before. His voice was so soft I hardly recognized it. He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was so weak he couldn’t even get out of his chair without his wife’s help. He was undergoing 28-day cycles of radiation, each of which did all but kill him. The prognosis looked anything but good.

In situations like this one is almost incapable of speech. What do you say to a dear one who knows for a certainty that, unless a miracle takes place, he is living his last hours in life?

I told him I’d been praying for him. He told me that many others were praying for him too. . . and added, “It’s not too hard: we all know we’re going to die, so it’s not an “if,” only a “when.” And clearly he was getting his house in order: family and close friends visited him or phoned him often.

And he now lived “one day at a time.”

Before I signed of, he thanked me again for taking the time to call, saying, “You’re part of what means most to me: true friends who stay by me to the end.”

* * * * *

One day at a time. . . . God gives us strength for one day at a time.


This is the title of one of my books (WaterBrook/Random House, 2001).   Though it has been out of print for some time, at book-signing tables, people will pay almost any price we ask for one. 

Today, we are facing what pundits tell us is the toughest time Americans have faced since the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  No one, it seems, can stanch the hemorrhaging – not the President, not Congress, not Wall Street, not the so-called financial wizards – not anybody.  There appear to be no easy answers, no generally accepted exit strategy out of the morass.  Just as was true during the 1930s, we are in uncharted waters – no GPS instrument yet invented can show us the way out.

We have two alternatives: wallow in self-pity and cower before each day’s financial analysis – or, with God’s help, find courage and strength we didn’t know was in us.

It may seem preposterous, but there’s a lot of truth in the contention that good times are bad and bad times are good, for the fact is that we rarely grow much during good times; and the flip-side is that we grow most during trauma.

If we study the lives of men and women we consider great, invariably tough times play a major role in their life stories.  Indeed, the qualities a nation seeks in its leaders vary according to conditions: In good times we’ll elect a Chamberlain, in tough times a Churchill.  Why is Lincoln our most beloved president – by far! – with FDR and Washington the only near seconds?  Perhaps because all three were seasoned in the crucible of anguish, and emerged with such evidence of greatness that when the nation experienced three of its darkest periods (the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and from the Depression through World War II), it turned to men who had the qualities to guide it through.  All three appealed to the finest in human nature, and all three achieved the near impossible because they did not even consider failure to be a possibility.

We treat differently those who have been through hell and survived.  I am reminded of students of mine who waited many hours to see Mandela [of Invictus, now playing in theaters], who had been imprisoned for 26 years and yet emerged without vindictiveness.  When I later asked my students what the experience was like, they could come up with no adequate answer – the closest being “I was so awed by the man that I just stood there, looking at him.”  Much of our admiration for Senator John McCain of Arizona stems from his having endured so many years of terrible treatment as a prisoner of war – we can’t separate the man from what he endured.  F. C. Budlong put it best:

“Look into the face of the person who has fought no great temptation and endured no supreme sorrow, and you’ll find little there to arouse your admiration.  Look upon one who has weathered a great grief, like a mighty ocean liner ploughing through a tempest, and you’ll observe strength and grace in ever lineament. . . .  The expression in your eye, the lines in your face, the quality of your smile, the tone of your voice, tell the story, without your being conscious of it, whether your soul has faced its Gethsemane with courage, or with shaming compromise and cowardly surrender.”