The obstacle is not the enemy; the obstacle is the way.
On the day Sir William Osler delivered his address at Yale University, Wilder Penfield was sitting in the audience as a student. What inspiration he took from Osler’s speech is unknown, but Penfield would discover just how difficult it is to bury dead yesterdays. Wilder Penfield would go on to study neuropathology at Oxford before setting up the Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital.
By the end of his illustrious career as a neurosurgeon, Dr. Penfield had explored the brains of 1,132 patients suffering from epileptic seizures. Using an instrument known as the Penfield dissector, he meticulously mapped the human brain. By stimulating different parts of the brain with a mild electrical current, Dr. Penfield found that his patients experienced vivid flashbacks of their past.
One patient recalled every note from a symphony she had heard at a concert many years before. The same spot was stimulated thirty times, and each time she remembered every note. Another patient recalled sitting at a train stop as a child, and she could describe each train car as it went by in her mind’s eye. Not only were the flashbacks extremely detailed; some of them predated the patients’ first conscious memories.
Dr. Penfield concluded that every sight, every sound, every smell—every experience that has once captured a person’s attention—is somehow recorded on that person’s internal hard drive, the cerebral cortex. Here’s how it works. When you hear a song or see a picture, a line called an engram is traced on the surface of the cerebral cortex. If you hear the same song or see the same picture again, the line is retraced. With each repetition, the memory is more deeply ingrained until that song or picture is literally engraved on the surface of the cerebral cortex.
Our ability to remember the past is a gift from God, but it comes with a caveat. We don’t always remember accurately. This fact reminds us that memory is both selective and subjective. As such, it can be a blessing and a curse. When we remember yesterday the wrong way, we live a lie. And living a lie undermines our ability to win the day.
Sometimes we misremember—or try to forget—because the past can be incredibly painful. That’s where kiss the wave comes into play. You’ve got to own the past, or the past will own you. How? You have to accurately inventory your past, hiding from nothing. Then you have to own all of it—the good, the bad, and the ugly. It is what it is. Or maybe I should say, it is what it was. You may not be responsible for what happened, but you are response-able.
Two people can encounter the same obstacle—a difficult diagnosis, a bitter divorce, or even the death of a loved one—yet come out on the other side very different people. One person owns his or her pain, while the other person is owned by it. One person becomes better, while the other person becomes bitter. The difference? You’ve got to kiss the wave that throws you against the Rock of Ages. You’ve got to come to terms with the pain that has made you who you are.
God comes to us disguised as our lives! Every circumstance, from the greatest of joys to the deepest of sorrows, is an opportunity to discover new dimensions of God’s character. Instead of trying to change the past, which is impossible, what if we leveraged its lessons to change ourselves? Any obstacle you encounter is not the enemy; the obstacle is the way.
It’s time to kiss the wave!
Mark Batterson appears on LIFE TODAY this Monday. Adapted from Win The Day by Mark Batterson. Copyright ©2020 by Mark Batterson. Used by permission of Multnomah, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.