Imagine you’re hiking in the early morning in the mountains. It’s one of those wet, cool fall mornings, dew heavy on the grass and fog swirling thick around you. You’re hiking through the mist when up ahead, in a clearing, you see a shape silhouetted in the milky pre-dawn light. It appears to be two boards. The longer one is rising straight up out of the ground, while the smaller one is lying perpendicular to it near the top.
Now quickly: Is it a cross or a signpost?
In a murky situation, the two shapes look very similar. But of course, they have vastly different purposes and effects in our lives. And this idea, the similarity of the cross and the signpost, is crucial to understanding the role of crises in our lives. It is exactly this problem of identification that has caused me a great deal of internal turmoil in the past two weeks.
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“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) A fundamental condition of Christian discipleship is willingness to suffer for Christ, to deal with certain unpleasant parts of the life you’re called to live in order to be a fulfilled and happy person. As a matter of fact, it’s a fundamental condition of any lifestyle. Every long-term life situation and decision will by necessity contain struggle and suffering, be it troublesome coworkers, tedious work, frustrated expectations, or anything else. Pushing through obstacles gives our lives tremendous meaning, and a reward hard-earned is a much more lasting and important source of joy than an easy victory.
But carrying our cross can only become a joy if it’s a cross we’re meant to be carrying. Struggling through something is only worth it if the overall lifestyle is something to treasure more than the struggle. To carry a burden that we’re not meant to have, or to carry one that is heavier than the reward, becomes a weight on our souls, and can lead not only to unhappiness, but actual mental health issues, given enough time. Being in a difficult relationship is fine and even rewarding with the right person; even great marriages have times of struggle. But being in a relationship with a genuinely toxic person is something to be avoided, and if you’re in a relationship with someone like this, you should get out of it as soon as you can. Some burdens we’re not meant to carry, and trying to do so will only lead to despair.
And so, any time we are in a time of crisis in our lives, the fundamental question has to be asked: Is this a cross or a signpost? Is it a struggle that I need to push through, or is it a sign pointing me in a different direction?
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I am currently in the largest crisis I have experienced in my short life. It’s a crisis of family, a crisis of identity, and even, in part, a crisis of faith. Five weeks ago, my brother was killed in a plane crash, something that is still resonating and causing ripples in my family and in my own heart. And two weeks ago, I packed up two suitcases and a backpack full of books, piano music, clothing, and tea, crossed the ocean, and began a new life as a seminarian in Freiburg, Germany.
It would have been a difficult move in the best of circumstances, but in the wake of my family and I trying to cope with grief, it has become exponentially more difficult. I’ve left everything I’ve ever known behind—family, friends, culture, language, music school, everything—for a life that’s completely new, in a foreign country, and in an entirely different kind of school than I’ve ever experienced.
It’s not that anything here doesn’t match my expectations. Everything here is, in fact, exactly like I imagined it. Freiburg itself is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, let alone lived in; the seminary is a place full of wonderful, happy people, and is full of peace and joy; my activities here have been useful, practical, and interesting; and all in all, it’s pretty much exactly what I thought it would be. But what I did not anticipate was my reaction to these things. I did not know how much I loved the things I left behind until I left them behind, and I did not know how much I enjoyed being with my friends and family at home until I could no longer be with them.
Dealing with loss is one thing. Nobody chooses to lose someone they love. But dealing with the conscious choice to leave so much behind, one that you did out of your own free will and can undo whenever you want, is something else. It’s not necessarily harder to deal with than loss, but it is more conflicting. With grief, you know that the only thing to do is to learn to come to terms with what has happened. There is no decision-making process, no internal conflict about the correct way forward. The path is unimaginably difficult, but at least there’s only one path. In my life, the struggle is not walking the path; rather, it’s trying to figure out if I’m even on the right path at all.
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Am I at a cross or a crossroads? Where do I go from here? Do I shoulder the burden of living so far away, of sacrificing so much, for the sake of remaining here and pursuing what God is calling (called?) me to do? Or is my current state of conflict a signpost pointing me in another direction? I firmly believe that it was the right decision to come here. Not only do I believe it was God’s will for my life, but in purely practical terms, I would have always regretted and wondered what would have happened had I not come. But what I do not know is how long I am meant to be here. And with the difficulties I have had adjusting thus far, if it doesn’t get any easier, I’m beginning to hope for a short stay.
The longer we carry a cross, though, the stronger we become. The beginning of a time of crisis is always the hardest, because we aren’t accustomed to carrying the burden. And it’s entirely possible that, with time, I’ll adjust to living here and find the happiness I came here for. But it’s also entirely possible that this crisis has come into my life in order to direct me to another one. There are plenty of things I could be doing back home—including, in fact, being a seminarian. And in order to determine if the cross will get any easier to carry, I first have to carry it for at least a little while. Time is the only tool I have to tell what it is I’m carrying.
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Imagine you’re back in the woods. You’re squinting through the fog, trying to determine if the silhouette in front of you is a cross or a signpost. But you won’t be able to tell for some time. It will be a little while before the sun comes out and burns the fog away. But once the light of day comes more fully, once you give it time and wait it out patiently, everything will become clear. The way forward will be made known to you. “Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my path, a light for my feet.” (Psalm 119:105)