Dream big and work hard for it, because doing so takes you places — not always where you want, but often way farther than you can imagine. – Ranniveig Aamodt
Setbacks come in all shapes and sizes. They are relational, financial, physical, emotional, spiritual. They are sometimes enormous, like divorce, and other times “death by a thousand cuts”, occurring so slowly that you wake up years later and find yourself wondering why you’re in a story that so utterly misrepresents your deepest self.
Setbacks come for all kinds of reasons. They’re the result of our own bad choices, or the wrong actions of others, or both. They’re caused by the market (that’s me), or the weather, or political turmoil, or a cell that randomly decides to multiply out of control. They’re the result of ice on the road (that’s me), or a drunk driver, or a hidden chunk of ice and ski binding that doesn’t release (that’s me), or a salesperson who lied to you.
One thing’s certain though: Setbacks happen. Moses came to the point where he’d rather die than continue embracing his role as leader of a whining nomadic tribe. He wasn’t where he wanted to be. Jeremiah complained that God tricked him when God called him to be a prophet and now that things had turned out as they had, he was reconsidering. Peter thought he was strong enough to stand in solidarity with Christ but when he say Jesus’ eyes after his denial, he ran away weeping. Paul preaches and suddenly finds himself in a random dungeon, chained to the wall.
The question of the day then is “What principles can help me respond well when setbacks happen?”
1. Always get up – Failure is rarely our biggest problem. It’s how we respond to failure that sinks us. If the failure’s the result of our own bad choices, it’s easy to relive the moment or the decision that led to our predicament, over and over again. “Why didn’t I…?” If it’s the result of another person’s wrong actions, bitterness comes knocking. “If only…” as we replay the boneheaded or evil actions of the other. Random stuff that falls on us, like tornadoes, or cancer, are maybe hardest of all because there’s nothing, no one to blame.
Whatever the cause the, though best response is always the same. “All right then. This is where I’m at. What’s the next step?” That’s the remarkable story of Joe Simpson in Touching the Void, whose climbing partner, thinking Joe to be dead, cut the rope, sending him into a crevasse with an already shattered leg. That’s the story of David after committing adultery and murder. Every story of transformation and climbing out of the hole that is our setback starts with a profound acknowledgement of reality, a belief that transformation is not only possible, but our calling, and a commitment to take step after step, for ten thousand steps if necessary, as we seek to move into a different place. Self-pity, after about 20 seconds, is a waste of time, and needs to be seen for the enemy it is.
2. You are not your circumstances – When Norwegian climber Ranniveig Aamodt fell, she was damaged beyond recognition: “I had three compression fractures in my back from L2 – L4. I had broken my pelvis, both my talus bones (the main weight bearing bones in the ankle), as well as numerous small bones in my feet. The ligaments in my ankles were stretched and torn and had ripped small pieces of bone off the bones they were attached to. My right elbow was broken into many small pieces and my triceps tendon was torn halfway off. I’d also smashed up my front teeth.”
Her accident shattered her identity as well, and in the end she needed to say, “I realized that I had to distinguish between who I am, and what I do: I’m not a climber. Climbing is something I do. Even if I lost climbing, I would still be me.” Setbacks happen precisely because they create a dissonance between we think we are, and what reality presents in the moment. I thought I’d be married. I thought I’d be rich. I thought I’d be healthy. I thought I was a climber.
Her recognition that she is not her climbing became a critical foundation upon which she would rebuild her life and, ironically, climb again. All of us have images of who we think we are and some of those images need to die, not so that we can become less, but so that we can become whole. This is because it’s vital to be passionate about our goals and pursuits, but always with an open hand, allowing God to shape them in ways we wouldn’t have anticipated or chosen. Jesus reminded Peter, after his failure, that in the end he’d be taken places he didn’t want to go, but that this wouldn’t make him less, it would make him more.
3. You are not your limitations – The notion of holding our goals with an open hand, though, is dangerous. It becomes, at times, a license to embrace our limitations and wounds, cherishing them to the point where they come to define us. When we find ourselves making peace with our setbacks and sort of “moving in and setting up furniture” we need to shout, “Noooooooo!” and fight back. That’s the biggest value I find in Ranniveig’s story (a little long, but worth it). The word “overcome” and “overcomer” runs throughout the New Testament because God is trying to tell us that it’s our move, that we have next steps to take, that we are not our failures, that we can overcome.
The point for Ranniveig isn’t to get back to climbing again. It’s to overcome the incredible pull of complacency, pain, and self-pity that will not only prevent climbing again, but prevent any sort of meaningful life. We need to find our next steps, recognize that there’ll be a piece of us that doesn’t want to take them, and then take them anyway. She writes:
I decided to accept the condition I was in, think positive, and face what as ahead. This triggered a kind of power. “Bring it on,” I thought. “I will do everything I can to make the best of this situation.”
4. You are not your fear. The most insidious thing about setbacks is that as we begin to recover, we’re sorely tempted to spend the rest of our days avoiding the possibility of ever reverting to that pain again. Of course, when we do that, the pain begins to define us. Again: “Nooooooo!”
Our friend writes about it this way: my physiotherapist asked me to jump 40 centimeters up onto a squishy foam pad. I didn’t want to hurt myself, and the idea of jumping with my bad ankles was terrifying. But I had to make a choice. So in action and attitude, I jumped. I still remember his words: If you don’t do this, you’ll try to find ways around your limitations. But to know your true limits, you have to get in over your head, and more often than not, you’ll realize your limits are greater than you thought.
We need to step back in: to relationships, on the slopes, in the gym, in our walk with God, whatever it is. And yes, we’ll be afraid. That’s why it’s called “overcoming”
What’s your limitation? What’s your fear? What’s your next step?