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Chorus of Underdogs

Some of my fondest memories as a kid involve football. Though I fit the gender stereotype well (I have no idea what is going on during a game of football), back then there was something about it that kept my heart racing and my little knees bouncing.

I edged closer to the screen and almost off my chair if our team was down by enough to lose but steadily, almost miraculously, started gaining points (a fumble, then a touchdown, followed by an interception and then another touchdown). No one breathed as we ate our nachos or popcorn or chili. Even my step mom stopped the necessary task in the kitchen that never got done unless she did it.

We all waited, expectant.

And if the losing team came back to win it all in the end—well, that would bring the beautiful, longed-for feeling that maybe, miraculously, the world was alright after all.

Everyone loves a good comeback story.

The Power of a Story

There is a young woman named Katie J. Davis who after a high school mission trip to Uganda, decided to move back there and adopt thirteen children. Now, Katie oversees the care and education of hundreds of children and has a large, God-breathed family. Katie’s story is inspirational (you might have heard of it: Kisses from Katie). It has been talked about countless times in countless church services and women’s ministry events and even in books and blogs. Katie’s story resonates because everyone loves a hero story, too. Everyone cheers for a modern day Wonder Woman who is compassionate and has incredible hair.

Katie’s story should be celebrated and I am so glad it is—the world needs to know that incredible things can happen. God can and does work in the lives of His people. It’s not just reserved for Paul and Peter and the rest of the gang in the Book of Acts. But I’d like to argue that there are other stories begging to be told, too. Stories that aren’t so much about heroics or doing amazing things, but about resilience.

I first learned of Joni Eareckson Tada when I lived in a small town in Western Michigan. On solitary afternoons, I’d peruse the library’s religion and spirituality section with gusto (I was a newish convert). I discovered authors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Phillip Yancy, Max Lucado and Joni. What drew me in to her story was what I didn’t even have to name after reading the back of her autobiography cover. This woman knew suffering. There was a heroic element to be sure, but God had redeemed her through the intensity of her experience of being paralyzed. And what is more, Joni did not keep her doubts to herself—and this made me love her all the more.

Joni knew suffering.

And she knew doubt.

Yet she painted all of it—the pain and wondering and excruciating stillness of the desert—with such beauty and resolve.

She knew, through only the reality of having lived it, that there can be a season (and sometimes a long one) of trial and struggle and ache. Along with this, there can also be vast doubt, questioning of faith, and sometimes pessimism at the very existence of God. What Joni shared, I had heard around the tables of addiction recovery meetings. And in whispers from my own heart.

When We Connect Through the Struggle

Several years ago, I met a woman at a recovery meeting who lost both of her sons—two sons—to opiate overdose. In her eyes, the tears were hollow as if her sadness carved away any other feeling but grief. The day I met her, she could barely walk into the room. I watched her and wondered about her story. She pulled out the seat next to mine from the long, gray table and sat down.

I had just lost someone I knew to addiction, too, and talked about it at the meeting in tears. The woman next to me was quiet. I talked about my grief and how I was struggling with the purpose of addiction loss and why it has to happen at all. As I shared, there were nods. There was an enveloping silence.

After the meeting, the woman turned to me and took my hand in hers.

I looked down and noticed that her hands were rough like a farmer’s hands. They had veins that reached up to her wrists and tangled around the bone. As she pressed my hand with increasing firmness, they jutted out even more and reminded me of a maze of rivers on an old map. She had silver rings with faux gems and bracelets with tiny trinkets that jangled. Then she searched me with those wise eyes and began repeating the same phrase:

“I don’t know…I don’t know why this happens.”

I started to cry and then she pulled me into her soft chest that smelled like drugstore perfume. I inhaled everything that she was so selflessly giving me. Together we stood there, sharing a moment of the pain of addiction loss together. I forgot about my own pain as I tried to imagine, but could not even come close, to what she was feeling. Even then, before I was a mother, I could not even fathom the loss of a child—let alone both children.

The woman and I, we both walked to our cars after some time. She lit a cigarette and I wish I had one right then. I waited as she got into her car, waved gently, and drove away.

I’ve never seen this woman again, but she comes to mind when I think about women like Katie and Joni who have experienced their own trials and traumas. I wonder why God brings light to some stories of suffering and redemption and some happen quietly in church basements.

I write about addiction and trauma because this is what I know. Some women know the pain of leaving everything behind like Katie and walking in faith to do something absurd and brilliant. Some women know the pain of losing layers of the self and its abilities like Joni only to find new, shining ones. Some women like the mom whose children were stolen by addiction know the ache of loss and the connection in sharing this emptiness with others.

If you are living and breathing on this wild, confusing, unmistakably beautiful planet, then you have gone through or will go through something that makes your heart melt and your feet tired and your soul drenched with weary. If you haven’t yet—I don’t want to freak you out—it’s coming.

Since this is the nature of things and there’s no denying it (well, maybe if you are in active addiction you might be on the denial train that I tried for years—just fyi, it never worked out), what are we going to do about it? Since we are all underdogs or underlings in some shape or form, how can we move through this—or better—how can we allow our experience to be transformed by God?

That’s the thing about being an underdog. Even though it seems like all is lost, like there is no way out of the grief and no way to make sense of any of it, at the end of the game, there can be a win. There can be truth that the tears we've shed are, one fine day, wiped dry for eternity. There can be meaning in the tough stuff of life. And then, that feeling you get (like after running a race) will light your soul on fire and give you strength to keep going today.

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