Rise to the Challenge

"I love a challenge!"

How many times have I heard that in an interview?  Usually, this is said in a chirpy voice, as though the interviewee does a little dance of joy every time a problem comes their way.  What I've often found, though, is that when someone says, "I love a challenge!" what they really mean is, "I love doing things that other people think are hard, as long as I already know how to do them really well!"  Ask them to do something really difficult, though, something that doesn't play to their strengths, and many of them disappear with a muttered, "that's not really in my wheelhouse."

Somewhere along the way, we forgot what a real challenge is, and in doing so we've lost a crucial catalyst for our own personal growth.

In nearly every story that human beings have ever told, the hero faces a test of his prowess, his intellect, or his skills and experience.  Rarely do these challenges play to the hero's innate capabilities or strengths.  Hercules wasn't sent to enter a bodybuilding contest, but to clean a gigantic stable.  Harry Potter was the Chosen One, but he wouldn't have survived his first year at school without the help of his friends.

As we celebrated Passover last night, I thought about Moses and the story of the Exodus (a classic example of the Hero's Journey, by the way).  This was a challenge if ever anyone faced one, and it struck at every weak spot Moses had.  What were his strengths when he stumbled upon the burning bush?  True, he was educated as a prince of Egypt, but so far the only skills he had exhibited were:

  1. A strong sense of justice coupled with the ability to lose his temper in dramatic fashion
  2. Hiding bodies
  3. Herding sheep

His known weaknesses included:

  1. Public speaking
  2. Convincing anyone other than sheep to follow him
  3. Keeping track of his sheep (since he wandered away from them to look at a burning bush)

Now he was being asked to go before the greatest leader in the known world and convince him to free a valuable slave labor force, then to lead that obstinate group of slaves through a desert to a place he'd never seen before.  Like any sane person, he refused, citing the very weaknesses that this challenge would require him to overcome.  Essentially, he looked God in the eye (or at least in the flame) and said, "Not my job."

Like any good boss, God wasn't willing to let a strong candidate go just because he didn't feel like he was up for the job.  He gave Moses a partner, his brother Aaron, and let him delegate the speaking duties until he was comfortable taking the lead himself.  But he didn't let him off the hook.  To paraphrase, he said, "I know that you're the man for the job and that you'll take care of my people.  You're up to the challenge."  Then he sent him off with a couple of magic tricks and the promise that more instructions were forthcoming.

I can only imagine what Moses thought as he walked off to find his sheep and start on his new assignment.  He had to be wondering how a stuttering shepherd could stand up to the most powerful man in the world.  He probably also flashed back to his last disastrous attempt at freeing a slave, which ended in a shameful flight through the desert and forty years of self-imposed exile.  The temptation to flee again had to be nearly overpowering.  But of course, that's not what heroes do.  When heroes, even reluctant ones, face a challenge, they rise to it, and in doing so they are changed forever.

Challenges, real challenges, shape us.  They make us grow.  Under normal circumstances, we hide or compensate for our shortcomings, focusing instead on what we do well.  When a challenge strikes in our area of weaknesses, we can no longer hide.  We are forced to acknowledge and finally overcome those weaknesses, and in so doing we steal their power over us.  We emerge from the challenge stronger, more capable, free of fear.  In the language of the Hero's Journey, we have become "the master of two worlds."

This doesn't mean it's fun, of course.  Sometimes, the hero dies.  At a minimum, he always faces the risk of death, the feeling that something could be lost forever if he continues on this perilous course.  The hero's journey is not an easy one.  But it is transformative.

Now, I don't think that this means that every day needs to be a challenge.  In fact, if you wake up every morning thinking, "Here comes another day of struggling through my weaknesses!" then you might want to take a moment and reexamine your life choices.  There's a lot to be said for using the gifts God gave you to make the world a better place.  He gave them to you for a reason, after all.  But when the challenges come -- and they will come -- embrace them.  Seize the opportunity to learn what you're made of and shore up those weak spots in your character, your skill set, or your experience.  Resist the temptation to say, "Not my job," and flee.

In other words, be the hero.

When it's over, you'll look back and say, "Wow, look what I did!" and you'll know that, whether it was fun or not, you could do it again if the need arose.  You'll emerge stronger, more confident, and free of fear.  You'll be better for the experience, as will the people who depend on you, because now they'll know that their trust was well placed.  After all, everyone needs a hero.

By the way, there's another definition for the word "challenge."  It's "a sentry's call for a password or other proof of identity."  Your challenges are calling you out.  Who will answer?

(cross-posted from "The Lion and the Bull")
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