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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

There but for Grace

Breakfast this week with a friend got me thinking about the expression, “There but for the Grace of God, go I”. When you stop and think about it there are some contradictions that are apparent at first glance. But before I go on let me explain why this thought came to mind.

My friend, whom I have known for nearly two decades, was a strong and vital guy, a former navy fighter pilot, a businessman and many other things, who gave of himself to help many non-profit organizations in our community. Two years ago, he went out to shovel some snow—we had had gotten some wet and heavy downfall which was unusual for our area. He came in after finishing his chore and sat down on the sofa to rest and maybe catch a short nap. When his wife found him a few hours later he was passed out on the floor. He had suffered a stroke leaving one side of his body paralyzed and his speech severely impaired.

Since then I am happy to report that he has made some good progress. He can speak, and get around, albeit slowly with the use of a crutch—and sometimes, if he is tired, a wheelchair. He had to give up his work though he remains interested and visits often.

While I was happy to see that he had grown stronger and more independent since the last time we met for breakfast, I could not help but feel sad for him at the diminishment of his health, and I will admit it, quieted by the thought that our circumstances could just as easily be reversed.

Therein is the positive aspect of the phrase above—the reminder that we do not get to choose what will happen to us; that life is not filled with guarantees. And while I was thankful that I still had my health I was also chastened by the reminder that at any instant things could change.

But there is also a bit of perversity in the expression above, invoking a slight hint of what the Germans call Schadenfreude. Literally it translates into pleasure at another’s pain. To be clear, I was not feeling pleasure by any means—but I did feel relief. And as I looked at the folks in the restaurant watching my friend slowly make his way to the table I saw on some of their faces something that was not quite pity, and not quite sympathy but what I can only describe as relief that they too were not afflicted.

I do not want to excuse my feelings, nor hide behind the fact that others may have felt the same. And make no mistake about it, my friend wants neither pity nor sympathy. He is getting on with his life, doing more painting and sketching--something he has a talent for—reading, going to physical therapy—and cooking. Considering where he was just a year ago, this is remarkable and a testament to his will. But beyond all that I noticed in my friend a different outlook on the world. His own challenges have softened him in ways that neither of us might have predicted.

For one thing, he is less inside himself and more engaged in the world and those around him than ever before. That’s saying something because he has always been someone who was engaged with others. But it has a different quality today—a sense of acceptance of human frailty and an indulgence in the foibles of others. I also observed a more reflective quality—as if he had a new sense of patience when it came to listening and sharing with others. In short, what I saw was a man who was in the midst of becoming an even better man than he was before he lost some of his strength.

It had me thinking that while I had seen what he had lost, I had missed what he gained. Now this isn’t the way any of us would wish to grow wiser, gentler, or become better versions of ourselves. We would like to think we could get there without such hardship. But for my friend, life dealt him a challenge and at the same time gave him an opportunity to use it to transform himself.

So, when I think about that expression, there but for grace I think it might read just a little truer as “there by God’s Grace go I”. We are quick to assume that what happens to us is either bad or good when it is neither. Bad and Good are human judgements. I am not putting a good face on things when I say that by most standards, what happened to my friend is undeniably a hardship. But it has also been a blessing, opening him up in ways he might never have otherwise experienced. For my part, I can only say that Grace comes in many ways—not all of them will be perceived as good, but all will change us in ways we never expected. How we experience change is a decision we get to make. There but for Grace we decide whether to grow through adversity or succumb to self-pity and despondence. There but for Grace, we can transform even great challenges into rich opportunities to live better, happier and stronger. There but for Grace……

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