Friday, April 18, 2008

General Orders Number Fourteen

"We failed, but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a blessing." - General Robert E. Lee

In eighth grade, I had to read Gone With the Wind. I loved it. In my teens and twenties, I read the book over and over. I could quote huge sections of it from memory. I went through my thirties without reading it and picked it up again in my early forties. But something surprising had happened. In my earlier readings, I thought Scarlett was a person to emulate, and I held Ashley Wilkes in such contempt that I hated when he appeared on the page. Especially, after the war, when he just appeared to be helpless and hopeless. Grandma Fontaine called him a turtle on his back. An apt description, I thought. Why didn't he just roll over and get on with it, I huffed in my superior teenage wisdom.

Because sometimes, you just can't. And it wasn't until I had suffered a catastrophic failure of my own a little more than 10 years ago that I came to understand that. I thought I had my life figured out, but I didn't. In the years after that bitter disappointment, I was a turtle on my back, living through my own personal Gotterdammerung. I was afraid I was being winnowed out. That God had weighed me in the balance, and I had been found wanting. My reaction was to lay on the couch and try to eat my weight in birthday cake. I was angry at everything and kicking madly against the oxgoads. I was slowly being poisoned by bitterness.

The reason I love these men, Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, is because they taught me how to act in the face of overwhelming disappointment and failure. They remained constant...believing that the Lord held them in His hand and, even if they didn't understand it, their failure served His greater purpose.

Jackson lost his life six months after his long awaited daughter was born. "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees." As Stuart lay dying, he lifted his golden voice in praise of the Lord. He told those around him that he was resigned; God's will be done.

Six years ago, I set out with a goal. I wanted to get a PhD in Middle East politics. I put my all my energy into that pursuit. Today, that dream has come to an end. Of the four grad schools I applied to, all have rejected me. In this heartbreaking moment, with an unknown future and no idea what I'm going to do in less than two months when I return home, I draw comfort from Lee's words and the examples of the men that I have studied for the past four years.

Failure is a necessary part of life. The challenge is in how we face it. Do I give in to the anger and self-pity like I did ten years ago. Or, am I a little wiser?

Think about the soldier of the Army of Northern Virginia on the morning after the surrender. He is heading home. But he has lost everything. If he is from the deep South --Georgia or Mississippi or parts of South Carolina --then his home is gone, his fields are barren, and his money is worthless. Maybe his family is scattered and he doesn't know to where. All he owns is on this back and in his pockets. The political environmnent of Reconstruction will do all it can to keep him defeated.

Yet, these gallant men returned home and began to rebuild. In Gone With the Wind, you see that happening. The great rebuilding. The years after the war revealed the quality of their characters more than the war itself. They put their hands to whatever was before them and rebuilt their lives. Their faith in God sustained them. They lived quiet and productive lives under the flag they fought.

Lee is an epistle written by God. He returned to Richmond without a home, without a career, with no money... and only the reputation of his name. He had a wife and three daughters to care for. He didn't dissolve into self pity. He looked forward and never back. That is so important. Jackson, on his death bed, looked forward. Stuart, on his death bed, looked forward. In looking forward, they saw the purpose of God and moved toward it rapidly and gladly.

So, my disappointment in not being selected for grad school will dissipate. I will return home in less than two months to rebuild. But I have been equipped with some powerful tools that I obtained in the six years I spent getting a very good education. The professors at Tel Aviv University taught me to how to be a historian. In the quiet of the two years I spent in Israel, I have discovered just what it is I want to study. I have a trilogy to finish and another one to begin. And I have a biography of Stuart that I am going to write. I want to write more musicals with my best friend. Unlike the soldier on the morning of April 10th, I am not destitute. I suffer from an embarresment of riches and a deep abiding peace that God is faithful.