Many of us struggle with how to perceive the painful experiences in our lives. We may try for a lifetime to forget them. We may view them with a sense of shame. Perhaps even we are embarrassed by them and try to conceal them from others. We can spend many years or even decades trying to get a perspective on the trials and tribulations we have experienced. We often view them as weakness, as a handicap, or as a punishment. They become silent, inner scars that we try to hide.
I would consider myself a history buff and have a fondness for military history. It is not rooted in the glorification of war; war is tragic and is best never to happen. However, it is a worthy endeavor to study how people before us triumphed and succeeded in the face of adversity. My mother is from England and the British half of my family had a heavy involvement in WWI. Sadly, many of my British forefathers were killed in WWI or badly wounded. Indeed, some still sleep under Flanders Fields in France (the photo for this blog post is of my Great Grandfather and his five brothers, all who served in WWI. The two brothers on the end both died in the war and my Great-Grandfather (the bandolier across his chest) was disabled due to wounds). Those who survived did not speak of their experiences. They were silent about them. Yet it is clear from family stories, that the power of those experiences held sway over them for the remainder of their lives. It was long after their departure from this world that I learned of the battles in which they fought and struggled. Certainly, we would not have wanted them to glorify their experiences, but if only they could have assimilated them a bit more into their lives. Many of us approach our sufferings and painful experiences in a similar way. We become silent about them and try hard to forget them. We want to live as though they never existed. The WWI generation of veterans became known as the “lost generation”. Those who survived were not the same and very few ever healed from their experience. Part of helping soldiers heal from PTSD is eventually helping them to assimilate their experiences into their lives; rather than practicing avoidance and trying to live as though those experiences never occurred. Even though they wished those experiences never happened, they did, and those experiences are part of them. They learn to heal from the bad, find the silver lining, and make some good from it. JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are both examples of WWI veterans who assimilated their painful experiences into their lives and found the silver lining. Does this not apply to all of us who have suffered painful experiences in our lives?
The drawing of parallels between the Christian life and military life is not new. Indeed, St. Paul often made such parallels in his epistles. In Philippians 2:25 and Philemon 1:2, St. Paul describes fellow Christians as “fellow soldiers”. Again, in II Timothy 2:3-4, St. Paul states “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer”. Finally, in Ephesians chapter 6, St. Paul makes his references to putting on the full armor of God, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. If we go a bit further in drawing parallels between our struggles in this world and the military life, we can learn new ways to understand and perceive the painful and even traumatic events of our lives.
Are our struggles and painful experiences not battles? Borrowing from St. Paul, can we not refer to the crosses in our lives as battles that we fight? We suffer experiences and throughout them strive to cling onto the humanity that God has given us. We strive to emerge from them victorious and holy. Military units or regiments often have something that is called “battle honors”. We often see them on a regiment’s flag or even inscribed on the swords of officers. Each struggle and suffering of that unit becomes one of their battle honors. Civil War flags often had all the names of the regiment’s battles sown onto the flag. As Christians fighting the good fight in this world, do we not also have battle honors? Perhaps rather than perceiving our painful experiences, traumas, and trials and tribulations, as weakness and with shame; we can instead learn to perceive them as battle honors. In fact, St. Paul boasted of his battle honors in II Corinthians 11:25,
“In labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths often. Five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of water, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and in toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.”
If we were to have our own personal battle honors placed on our headstone or inscribed somewhere, what would they be? For each one of us it would be different. Perhaps for some: “ACOA (adult child of an alcoholic), abusive parent, survivor of an illness or disease or one who still struggles with one, victim of abuse, poverty, parental divorce, parental conflict, struggling with depression, chronic loneliness, etc. We could go on and on. Indeed, all such experiences can be considered battle honors. They are the battles that we fight and the crosses that we carry that make us who we are today. They are battles in our lives that we endured but emerged victorious from and that ultimately made us more resilient, closer to God, and wise. Each one of our sufferings are the battles through which we experience and participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. Our struggles and sufferings help bring us closer to the Kingdom of God. Should we hide them? Should we be ashamed of them? God forbid. They are indeed our battle honors and they should be inscribed on our own personal battle flags from our life in this world.