Finding Hope in Hard Times - Part I

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 09, 2009

"One of life's great questions centers not on what happens to us, but rather, how we live in and through whatever happens." 
Henri Nouwen

For some time I have been pondering about sharing with you some insights form one of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen. I was deeply challenged years ago by his book The Wounded Healer

Over the years I have read just about everything he wrote. And even though I never met him, when he died in 1996, I felt like I had lost a close personal friend. 

Henri Nouwen was a prolific author, lecturer, and spiritual mentor to countless persons of faith. He was an ordained priest and gifted teacher who taught at many prestigious universities around the world, including Harvard. He spent the last decade of his life, however, as pastor of a community in Toronto, Canada that welcomes people with disabilities. 

He was an amazing man with incredible life insights which have helped me on my own personal journey, especially in the hard times. And since our recent times in our country have been harder than usual, I thought some of Nouwen's insights would encourage you as they have me. 

In his Turn My Mourning Into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times (2001), Nouwen shares encouraging insights for discouraged people. This will be a three-part series beginning with today. The first part of the book is titled "From Our Little Selves to a Larger World." 

Nouwen embraced his experiences in the community of ministry to disabled people. He reflected, "I realized that healing begins with our taking our pain out of its diabolical isolation and seeing that whatever we suffer, we suffer it in communion with all of humanity, and yes, all creation. In so doing, we become participants in the great battle against the powers of darkness. Our little lives participate in something larger." 

And it is that larger reality into the human condition which gives us perspective in the middle of whatever life may throw at us. Occasionally, I will share the story of the loss of one of our twin sons two days after their birth. I am always surprised how many parents come to me and share their loss of a child. As we talk, something special happens between us. We connect. It is that "larger world" of which Nouwen speaks. 

Facing our losses, Nouwen observes, does not come easily, because "We like easy victories: growth without crisis, healing without pains, the resurrection without the wonder our communities seem organized to keep suffering at a distance: People are buried in ways that shroud death with euphemism and ornate furnishings." 

Another quality Nouwen suggests to help us move "from our little selves to a larger world" is gratitude. At first glance, this counter-intuitive perspective seems counter-productive. Why should we be thankful of anything during loss? How can gratitude help our hard times? 

Again the words of this wise man help us. "Gratitude in its deepest sense means to live life as a gift to be received thankfully. And true gratitude embraces all of life: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the holy and the not so holy...Grateful people learn to celebrate even amid life's hard and harrowing memories because they know that pruning is no mere punishment, but preparation." He says simply that the call to gratitude asks us to say, "Everything is grace." 

Although these words profoundly challenge us, I must agree that I understand them more at 63 than I did at 36. Without a doubt, some of my most difficult seasons in life have produced some of the richest nourishment for me. I find this perspective is hard to share. It is better felt than 'telt.' 

As the difficult times come (and they always do), let's remember Nouwen's summary, "The unpleasant things, the hard moments, the unexpected setbacks carry more potential than we usually realize." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to