Last weekend I struggled with a high school senior who is trying to raise her ACT score a few points so that she can get into a college of her choice so that she can become an event planner. Her struggle? Although her grades are As and Bs, her ACT score is at the 12th percentile — meaning that she scored better than 12 percent of all the students who took this test. Her goal is modest — she just wants to climb three points, which would put her at the 30th percentile. We’ve spent four hours together at this eleventh hour — two weeks before the February ACT. She is realizing, painfully, that her education has not prepared her for this test.
Last night I struggled with a different student — a high school junior who is also trying to raise his ACT score a few points to that he can get into the college of his choice and become a physician. His struggle? He goes to a premier private high school in Detroit and has been exceptionally well-prepared, but he ‘only’ scored at the 95th percentile, when he really needs to be at the 99th percentile. Again, it’s only a jump of three points. And he’s got a year to raise those points, but let me tell you, scoring in the 99th percentile doesn’t leave much room for error. And the elite schools that he and his family expect him to go to require that high score.
What do these two students have in common? They are both willing to meet a middle-aged English teacher in a public library in the evening or on the weekend to poor over grammatical rules and to talk test-taking strategy so that they can gain access to a dream. The pressure on each of them is significant. Their struggles are real.
Almost everyone I talk to has real struggles — illness, financial strife, marital conflict, employment issues, car trouble.
Struggle is not the exception to the rule. It’s the norm.
A friend and I were talking about our struggles — the things that have happened in our lives that we never would have expected. She said, “All these difficulties have given me perspective. I find it much easier to not sweat the small stuff.” Depending on how much ‘perspective’ you have been given, your ‘small stuff’ may be different than mine.
Early in our marriage, when we had very little disposable cash, I combed grocery ads to stretch my dollars as far as they could go. It might give me undue stress, at that time, to find the money in our budget to make a meal for a friend. Today, after years and years of cutting the budget incredibly close and living to tell about it, making a meal for a friend is ‘small stuff’.
A few years ago I had to miss three days of school in a row because I had the flu followed by pink eye. I couldn’t believe I was ‘so sick’! I was distraught at having to lie in bed for three days with little to no energy. Now, after living for two years with chronic pain and fatigue, minor illness such as the flu has become ‘small stuff’.
And yet I am learning that my ‘big stuff’ is someone else’s ‘small stuff’. I am aware of a woman about my age who is undergoing her second bone marrow transplant for cancer. She will not be able to return to her home for several months as she recovers from this procedure and re-gains her strength under the watchful eyes of her doctors. My chronic pain, in comparison with her life-threatening illness, is ‘small stuff’.
When we look at it that way, we might be tempted to think that we can’t feel badly about our ‘stuff’ because it really isn’t as bad as their stuff. But, guys, to each of us, at the given time, our ‘stuff’ is real. Our struggles are real.
My struggling senior will likely lose sleep tonight and tomorrow worrying about the ACT on Saturday morning. She really needs her score to go up. And the fact that my struggling junior has a score that is over twice the score of my struggling senior doesn’t diminish the amount of pressure he feels. His score also really needs to go up. They each at this moment are experiencing a difficult struggle.
You may be in such a financial place that making dinner for a friend would be a hardship. That’s a difficult struggle.
You may be sick in bed with the flu and pink eye. That’s a difficult struggle.
You may have chronic pain and fatigue. That’s a difficult struggle.
Fill in the _________________. That’s a difficult struggle.
We’re all struggling together. I am convinced that we move through life from struggle to struggle. Those brief periods where we experience a lack of trouble should be breathed in and fully appreciated, because they are momentary. And so are the struggles. Yes, so are the struggles.
Each episode that we think is the worst thing that could possibly happen fades into that one thing that we lived through. In two years, or possibly even two months, my students will be past the ACT and onto the struggle of living with roommates. And after that they will be struggling to pay back student loans, or find a job, or get into grad school, or find an apartment. You will one day be able to make dinner for your friend. Your pink eye will heal. Your pain and fatigue will diminish. Your cancer will be no more.
This too shall pass. One way or another. So what do we do now? “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Galatians 6:2) for one thing. Walk beside one another in hardship. Share ‘Trouble Talk.’ Help carry a load. Laugh when you can. And try to keep your perspective.
I have told you these things so you may have peace.
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world.