Is perseverance our most common struggle? To test that out, let’s look at our most common proverbs. It’s like looking at a nation’s laws to get a handle on what its most common crimes are. In the US, laws against stealing, violence, and hazardous driving abound. That’s because we are prone to steal, get violent, or drive hazardously. Laws against, for example, sword fighting or pistol duels are rare, because there’s no longer much need for them.
Impulsiveness must be a common issue, gauged by the number of proverbs dealing with it. “Look before you leap.” “Don’t test the water with both feet.” “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” “A fool and his money are soon parted.” “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
But perseverance in the midst of disappointment and trials may be our most common struggle. I looked up a list of 150 common proverbs (the link is here: https://lemongrad.com/proverbs-with-meanings-and-examples/). Twenty-five of the proverbs (1 out of 6) dealt with perseverance. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.” “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “A thing begun is half done.” “No pain, no gain.” “Slow and steady wins the race.” “All’s well that ends well.” “Practice makes perfect.” “The show must go on.” “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
At first glance, living in our current Western culture wouldn’t seem to require much perseverance. We are used to instant gratification in virtually every area. Not so, for most of the world. For example, according to a 2017 National Geographic article (the link is here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/guatemala-cook-stoves/), 3 billion people in the world cook over open fires. In Guatemala, a family may spend 20 hours a week gathering firewood. Talk about perseverance!
But here in the U.S., most of us are living relatively comfortable lifestyles. The way to grow in perseverance is to persevere, of course. “Adversity builds character” – as it happens, a proverb. But our culture doesn’t present the obvious challenges to persevere that past cultures or today’s developing nations do.
Nevertheless, proverbs about perseverance are still popular. Why is that? What are the unique ways our culture calls for perseverance? What makes it uniquely difficult?
First, when people are part of a group in crisis, the value of perseverance is obvious. In crisis, people tend to help each other out. They encourage each other to persevere. My parents hated the Depression. But the common struggle to get by did foster a sense of community and mutual responsibility. Jobless men would stop by my maternal grandmother’s house, and she routinely gave them something to eat. The recent floods in Nebraska this summer led to thousands of volunteers opening up their homes, wallets, and time to people who were previously strangers. Hurricane Katrina, a decade ago, led to similar outpourings of support. People stepped up and did what they needed to do, because it so obviously needed doing. There being no quick fix, they had to go with the long haul. And they did.
But unlike many areas of the world, such crises or disasters are uncommon in the US. We tend to be inside watching TV, and the suffering we see on the news is rarely close to home.Those who are suffering chronically – the elderly, physically or mentally disabled, or those dealing with cancer or other serious illnesses – are often sequestered in nursing homes, hospitals, or even the isolation of their own homes. In our transient culture, family may live far away. So if we suffer, it can seem that we suffer alone. Everyone else seems to have such happy, productive lives. To persevere seems lonely and overwhelming.
Second, more than any previous culture or age, we lack the support of a sense of meaning in our suffering. In his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl recounts how those who survived the concentration camp were often those who were able to find meaning in their suffering. They persevered because they saw a reason to do so. Those who lost their sense of meaning, or never had one, were more likely to perish.
A sense of meaning most often comes from religious belief or a personal philosophy that honors the existence of absolutes. To persevere requires the sense of a higher good, a something more. Our culture increasingly lacks both. More and more, the highest good seems to be self-fulfillment. We have nothing beyond ourselves to strive for or appeal to. In such a void of meaning, suffering leads us into “lives of quiet desperation”, the antithesis of perseverance. The void leads to such “symptoms” as a growing acceptance of assisted suicide and euthanasia as “rights”, a dramatic increase in teen suicide and the abortion of the “genetically unfit”, and escalating rates of opioid abuse, depression, anxiety, random shootings, and other ills. If suffering is meaningless, why persevere in caring for those too disabled or ill or old to care for themselves? Why persevere through my own difficulties, if all I can look forward to is death and dissolution?
Third, secular and pop psychology have persistently fostered the myth that suffering is something to be fixed. The normal state of life on this planet should be more-or-less unruffled pleasantness. If I’m suffering, I must be doing something wrong. There must be a way out. The right therapy or medication or recreational diversion should take care of it. Even Christians frequently buy into this myth, especially with regard to divorce. “God couldn’t possibly want me to suffer like this. He wants me to be happy.” Christians and seculars alike try to credit card their way out of privation or sacrifice, leading to a culture of chronic, crippling debt.
In contemporary Western culture, growing in perseverance is a lot like recovering from addictive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. In the late 1980s, Anne Wilson Schaef applied the template of addiction to US culture in her book, When Society Becomes an Addict. Her background is in the Twelve Steps, first used in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) but now extended to a host of recovery programs.
As those who have experienced it know, recovery from addiction requires steadfastness in the midst of suffering. So it’s no surprise that AA has a number of pithy slogans about perseverance. These include “One day at a time”, “Easy does it”, and “Progress, not perfection”. Although AA membership does not require Christian belief, it identifies itself as “a spiritual program”. That is, it does invoke a system of meaning. Surrendering to a Higher Power (“God as we understood Him”) is its cornerstone.
Of course, the Bible itself has a host of passages applying to perseverance. Perseverance is not just today’s most common struggle. It has been our most common struggle through all ages and nations, including Israel in the Old Testament, and the Church in the New. (A link to scriptures about perseverance is here: https://www.openbible.info/topics/perseverance.)
I’ll close with my favorite passage on perseverance, Hebrews 12:1-2:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.