November 9, 2019

The Storms of Our Lives

In an Ignatian group exercise this month, I was asked to write a “letter of forgiveness.” “To whom?” I thought. I laughed at myself noting that there are indeed a long list of people that I need to write to. The exercise was a success in that it had me reflect on who I thought I was mad at in this moment. My reflection took me back to all the times I felt cheated in life. How far did I want to go on this journey? I stopped at deciding to again reflect on each of my downsizings that have played such a significant role in my professional and personal life. As importantly, in the lives of my family.

To some, downsizings are “just business.” Such a worthless phrase. “Just business” is not an excuse for being a jerk, dismissing dignity nor taking advantage of someone. Maybe that is “business” in the corporate world these days, but we should all insist on it being better than this lowly standard.

My reflection took an unexpected turn. I intended to reflect on the hurt that I felt. The Spirit, however, had me reflect on the personal growth I had during each of these periods. I went from expecting a resurfacing of the pain to a contemplation on the joy that I found at the completion of each of these experiences. I realized how such “storms” produced new and unexpected growth in me.

My first “storm” in this regard came early in my career when I was a successful chemist starting out in industry. My career grew well and shortly after it started, my wife and I were blest with our first house and the two children that joined us along the way. I knew a downsizing was coming, but it was implied that it was not going to affect me. Fifteen hours later, I learned differently. I was shocked, hurt and, didn’t really know what to do. I had to learn the hard way the various stages people go through in the depression that comes with job loss. I was full of anger. Eventually, a wise priest helped me see that the hate I had  didn’t hurt those I was angered at. It hurt only me.  A year later, we celebrated our joy at living in a new city and being stable again. The anger had subsided, though I hadn’t still learned much about forgiveness.

The next “storm” came when the company I was at decided to move its R&D to outside the US. It was too soon after the first storm for me and I didn’t want to go through that again. A decision to either move or ride out ate at me. It was a stressful time. Moving on was the decision. I was fortunate to change jobs before the downsizing came and my kids hardly knew the difference since a relocation was not involved. I learned to appreciate what we had in our lives at that moment.

Of course, the rain was not done yet. The new company closed operations in that city  and this time, we had to move. My wife was upset. She was happy in our current niche, but we also knew staying with this company was the right thing to do. We knew everything we had to do from earlier “storms” and were much better prepared this time around. Except for the higher cost of living in our move, moving to a new location was not as emotional. However, I didn’t much fancy the location. Yet, in this location, my family prospered. We met great new friends and my kids rapidly adjusted. I became more active in the Church and joined an awesome KofC council, which I was later honored to be its Grand Knight. In this move, my faith was coming alive again.

After a while, changes in the business made it a very hard place for me to work. I had to look for outside activities to balance my stress. In this battle, I started theology classes and began to reconsider the diaconate. I wanted to move on again. Nevertheless, my wife and I decided after serious deliberation that since the kids were happy and our bills were getting paid that leaving at this time would be unwise. This deliberation made aware of how blest we were and why I went to work in the first place.

My decision to stay was also based on a medical diagnosis. Perhaps it is from these phone calls that I now let most of my calls go to voicemail. I will forever remember the two calls I received giving me various stages of cancer news. The first call arrived when I was alone on a business trip. It hit me out of nowhere. I pulled to the side of the road and lost myself in pity. The second call came the day after Christmas. Even at a time of faith, my first instinct after receiving the news was again “why me?” Cancer isn’t personal. I hadn’t learned that yet.

It didn’t matter anyway as the company forced our hand by closing operations at my site during this time. I didn’t have time to wallow in pity. I had a family to support. This was long before a time when one could be open about health history on job interviews. I interviewed with seeping stitches in my back. During that time, my wife had to dress my open wounds until they healed. Each time, I remembered how much she loved me. Stitches are a great way to humble a person. That was the easy part. Telling my kids  that they had to move again is what really sucked.  

Life brought us home to where my wife and I grew up. I didn’t like the job, but it allowed us to live close to aging parents. Work was less important knowing I could be around more for them. We were blest to be there for their deaths. I was the one who called the time of death for each of my parents. I got to be in the room both times. Never would I have thought that was a beautiful experience until I almost missed it. Work again turned challenging when my position was taken so that a more “connected” employee could have it. I wasn’t downsized, I was just moved to a lesser position. My rage from the first downsizing storm returned and hit me hard. This “PC” company would not stand for such rage and I had to find a way to deal with it. For some unknown reason, it happened at the time I when on a retreat with Miles Christi and the Spiritual Exercises. I know now it was the Spirit again moving me in another direction. The spirituality of Ignatius gave me the tools I needed to get my act back together. It’s hard to admit that humility and gratitude are the tools I was missing. In being passed over for a slam dunk promotion, these new tools reminded me that I was too focused on the wrong Kingdom. I was upset about the unimportant one. I changed my focus and improved my disposition.

God used a series of journeys down tough roads to teach me tough lessons. Looking back, how blessed am I that he did. He had to hit me hard. I wasn’t paying attention. It is hard to see God when we are not looking. When life is about us, it is not about Him. We forget that Jesus is the way, the truth and the light. His Gospel brings us freedom. Freedom from society and, more importantly, freedom from our unhealthy selves. Faith doesn’t cause the storms to stop. It lets us know we don’t face them alone. When we look for God, he won’t disappoint us; rather, He will bring the good. His good, not the one we may be asking for. His good is what we need. His good is what heals. 

In his classic song, I Hear Leesha, Michael W. Smith sings: 

Into every life a little rain must fall. And losing one you love is like a storm. But storms are passing.

Life events are passing storms we all must live through and endure. It is hard to be reflective during these events and our emotions are high. However, after the emotions subside, I can look back to see that God was always on my side. He used the hurt I felt to open me up in a new awareness— fertile ground for new growth.  

This week, take some time to reflect on the “storms” and celebrate the evolution that comes from them. How have you grown?

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster

REVEREND DR. GREGORY WEBSTER is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate by Francis Cardinal George in May 2014 and is assigned to St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Old Mill Creek, Illinois. Deacon Greg holds a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Northern Illinois University, M.A. in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary and an M.A. in Bioethics and Health Policy from Loyola University of Chicago. Deacon Greg and his wife have been married more than twenty-five years and are blessed with three beautiful daughters and two pretty cool terriers.

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Written by Deacon Gregory Webster
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