In ”The Upside of Adversity,” Os Hillman tells a fable about three men crossing a desert in the night, when they come to a dry streambed. Out of the darkness, a voice commands them to halt and dismount from their camels.
Seeing no one, the men obey and huddle together in fear. The voice commands them to bend down and pick up a pebble from beneath their feet. ”But why, what is this about?” the men ask in puzzlement. The stern voice cautions them, “I will only say that in the morning, you will be happy and sad. Now go!” They obey, each picking up one pebble from the streambed, and ride on.
As dawn breaks, each man takes out the pebble in his pocket and looking at it in the light, realizes that the pebble is actually a priceless gem. One man has a sapphire, another a ruby and the third a glittering emerald. ”Oh no!” the men wail. ”There were thousands of pebbles, and we only picked up one!” They are miles and miles from the crossing, and a desert wind has erased their tracks. They can never return to the place where they picked up those priceless gems, thinking they were mere pebbles.
It is the hardest of hard truths that our greatest treasures are gained as we walk through the darkest times. Everyone wants to have a happy life, and we pursue happiness, by God, we pursue it with all of our hearts and minds, but it is in the dry streambed in the dark of night that we pick up treasures of wisdom, patience, the will to endure, compassion and gratitude.
Growing up in a very small town, I was the oddest of odd ducks–nonconformist, out of place and out of time, born either two hundred years too late or 50 years too early, I’m not sure which, but I suffered for it, and at times I really hated life. And yet, I picked up treasures. I learned empathy for the weak and the outcast. Out of my deep longing to be understood, I learned how to listen and really hear what people are saying between their words. I learned not to judge, because judging sets people apart and alienates them. I learned not to take people lightly, recognizing that everyone is bearing a heavy load.
As A.W. Tozer said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply,” not because God is sadistic or enjoys watching us suffer, but because He knows that suffering blasts away the hard shell of arrogance and self-importance, freeing us to be humble and genuine and truly unafraid.
Maybe understanding all that deep stuff about suffering when I was growing up would have made the loneliness and humiliation easier, although it’s a lot to ask of teenagers to take a long view of life. Given the choice, I probably would have opted for happiness in the moment. ”Let me see, you want me to choose whether to be popular and happy now, or full of wisdom thirty years from now? Thanks, I’ll take the popularity, who knows if I’ll even be alive thirty years from now.” I imagine that’s what I would have said.
But now I know about the treasures to be found in darkness, and now when the opportunity presents itself, I force myself to get down off that camel and stuff my pockets full of pebbles. In the morning I will see that my pockets are full of precious gems.
What kind of treasures have you picked up in the darkness? Please share in the comments.