Thursday, February 25, 2016

Persevering – or Just Enduring?

Don’t you admire people that engage in endurance competitions? The annual Iditarod Sled Dog Race, for example, covers more than 1,000 miles, traversing from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. (Apparently there’s no place like Nome.) And in Ironman Triathlons competitors swim in open water for 2.4 miles, ride a bike for 112 miles, and cap it off with a 26.2-mile run. The still-popular reality TV series “Survivor” takes endurance to new heights (and lows) with each season.

It takes a special person to participate in, much less win, such contests. But in a sense, we’re all involved in an endurance race – we call it everyday life. It’s interesting how differently people view this. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that says, “Life is tough. And then you die.” That’s how life seems sometimes, isn’t it?

What keeps us going? What should keep us going? A while ago I heard an interesting distinction between endurance – and perseverance. Endurance, the speaker pointed out, can mean just hanging on, trying to survive. Perseverance, on the other hand, involves more than that: It’s maintaining a singular focus and refusing to become distracted by extraneous matters.

Perhaps that’s why some people excel and succeed, while others wallow in mediocrity. The person settling for endurance is like someone aboard a boat that sinks and clinging desperately to a life preserver, hoping someone will come to his rescue. A person in this same situation who perseveres, however, doesn’t get distracted by sharks or the surrounding waves; she tries to find a solution, rather than waiting for the solution to find her.

The innovator that perseveres pursues the dream and refuses to accept failure as permanent. After several attempts that fail, this person simply concludes, “Now we know ways this won’t work. So we’ll try something else.”

A person faced with a physical disability could simply endure, dwelling on his or her limitations. Or they can take a different approach, focusing on capabilities not restricted by their disabilities. That’s why people like violinist Itzhak Perlman, acclaimed tenor Andrea Bocelli, and author-speaker-artist Joni Eareckson Tada are so inspirational. They refused to let polio, blindness or paralysis prevent them from discovering and refining their gifts.

And nearly 50 years after her death, Helen Keller, who overcame both blindness and deafness to earn a college degree and become a noted author, political activist and lecturer, remains a classic example of perseverance.

Advancing from mere endurance to perseverance to attain success isn’t a virtue meant only for extraordinary individuals. It also applies to the entrepreneur, schoolteacher, scientist, small business owner, aspiring athlete, inventor, and virtually any other field of endeavor.

Years ago my friend Mike was blindsided by a legal crisis that virtually consumed 18 months of his life. He could have curled up into a fetal position of self-pity, reasoning that his circumstances were grossly unfair. Instead, he persevered through this difficult time, gaining priceless life lessons in the process. He’s currently finishing a book to share what he learned.

But how can we persevere when it seems the best we can do is simply endure? “Gutting it out,” as they say. We can call upon resources beyond ourselves. The apostle Paul, no stranger to hardships, wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

His experiences also enabled him to write with confidence, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Paul maintained a singular focus – to fulfill the calling God had given him. And he refused to be distracted, even by persecution and numerous hardships.

Citing Romans 8:37, Oswald Chambers expressed it well: The things we try to avoid and fight against – tribulation, suffering, and persecution – are the very things that produce abundant joy in us. ‘We are more than conquerors through Him (Jesus Christ)’ in all these things; not in spite of them, but in the midst of them.” So, shall we just endure – or will we persevere? Which we choose could make a great difference.

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