Ringo Starr wrote in one of the Beatles’ hits, “Got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues. And you know it don’t come easy. ” As a culture, we seem to have forgotten the simple truth that life “don’t come easy.” A hallmark of civilization’s advancement is making products faster, better, cheaper, and human life easier and more effortless. From Easy Bake Ovens to Easy Chairs, America is a culture striving for Easy Street.
And what’s wrong with that? What exactly are we missing in today’s quest to avoid difficulty?
The Olympic Games’ estimated audience of over 25 million viewers indicates that Americans still do appreciate achievements that “don’t come easy.” No pain, no gain – it’s easy to see in athletics. Year after year of grinding practice and mind-numbing drills, all coming together for one do-or-die competition.
Still, while millions of us tune in for the spectacle and pomp of the Olympic Games, and vicariously share the thrill of seeing the Stars and Stripes rising above other contenders for the laurels, we mere mortals aren’t very likely to have that singular moment of triumph and glory.
So what do the rest of us gain from pain?
The question of pain and its purpose is timeless. While theologians and philosophers have offered ageless truths, more often, answers tend to be trite – even simplistic and meaningless. But some are Olympians in the question of pain; their answers have been hard-won. Joni Eareckson Tada, a woman who has spent the last 37 years of her life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic, is one of these people.
Joni’s recent appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live provided a stark contrast between the modern focus on ease and pleasure, and the purpose and meaning she has found beyond the pain. Even though Joni is paralyzed from the neck down, and must have help with the most intimate daily routines like brushing her teeth, she is happily married and leads a worldwide ministry. Despite her disability, Joni radiates a joy that Larry King clearly found puzzling . . . perhaps even a bit intimidating.
The idea of embracing difficulties is alien in a world of drive-through dinners, year-round climate control and whirlpool baths. But Joni lives out the Scripture that explains: whenever we face trials, we are to “consider it pure joy.” Joni Eareckson Tada, as an ambassador from an alien world, told Larry King that she thanks God for her wheelchair, which she calls her “passport to joy,” because “there are more important things in life than walking.”
King brought the conversation around to Joni’s marriage with prurient curiosity. How, he wondered, could they have a marriage when they couldn’t “have an intimate physical life?” Joni responded graciously that they could be intimate “just like any other couple.”
King, clearly skeptical, responded: “Except you don’t have feeling, right, below the neck?”
Joni again patiently tutored King in the things that don’t come easy: “But there is more to romance,” she replied, “than what happens below the neck, Larry.”
She enumerated the results of a hard-won relationship: “And I think that the joy and the commitment and the love and the affection and the respect and the honor and the duty and the devotion that flows between my husband and me is more precious and perhaps it is more unique in this society than maybe many marriages.”
Larry King, now at age 72 in his seventh marriage, moved on. He, with all his capacities intact, has the “feeling,” but she, the one in her wheelchair, has had a happily “intact” marriage for 22 years.
The path to finding meaning in life is not easy. It’s only on the other side of real trials that we discover a God who is faithful, friends that are true, and character that endures. As Socrates famously said, the unexamined life is not worth living, and trials often focus our gaze, change our understanding or correct our values.
Ronald Reagan’s decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease brought back memories of my own family’s experience with this terrible illness. We watched in helpless sorrow as my mother-in-law, a brilliant, strong, gracious and self-sacrificing woman, and an elegant lady, slowly degenerated into an anxious, needy invalid who, in the end, could not remember her children’s names.
As the disease invaded more of her mind, we stored the dining room table and installed a hospital bed in the center of the house. And we experienced first-hand the terrible toll that the disease takes on caretakers – first, the fear when she wandered into the neighborhood seeking a destination known only in her clouded memories, then the abbreviated nights when we awakened to her terrified screams as shadows horrified her stricken mind, and ultimately, debilitating back pain from the physical demands of helping her move.
Caring for this saintly woman in her diminished condition was a privilege . . . a frustrating, agonizing privilege. Did we do it perfectly? No! Did we sometimes reach the end of our patience? Yes! Do we wish we could have done better? Yes, without a doubt. In short, it was an ordeal that we sometimes wondered if we would survive.
But we knew we could not draw back from this duty that God had put before us. He had not called us to go to India, like Mother Theresa, to care for children and dying beggars picked up off the streets of Calcutta. For us, the call was to care for one woman whom disease had stripped of all her brilliance and dignity. It was a call to walk with our loved one through a living hell of agony. But it was a sacred privilege to see that, though Alzheimer’s had robbed so much, there was a part of her that God protected from the ravages of that terrible disease. Her last words were “Jesus” and “love.” In the midst of pain was the presence of the Living Word.
Her final homegoing was a scene that I will never forget – and it made all the previous months fade into insignificance. Surrounded by her family singing the hymns of praise and promise that comforted her – and us – she made the final trip across Jordan. It transformed her face from torment into a look of peace.
It was a moment, not of ease, nor of pleasure, but of profound meaning. And, very hard-won, indeed. For her, that time was a final struggle after a lifetime of service to her King; for us, a calling to minister in the everyday and mundane.
Nothing worthwhile comes easy.
No pain; no gain.
Gotta pay your dues, if you want to sing the blues.