In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon titled, “Looking Beyond Your Circumstances.” It was eight years before his “I Have a Dream” speech that would change America’s course. In this lesser-known sermon, Dr. King suggests that one of the great temptations is to become too absorbed in our circumstances, which leads to the conclusion that changing our circumstances is the only way out of them. Under than mindset, Dr. King states, our personality becomes “thinner and thinner, ultimately disintegrating under the pressing load.” Martin Luther King concludes that we are part of the equation in determining the outcome our circumstances give to us. Seeing that can change everything.
My grandfather’s story was a legend we heard many times growing up, a true tale embedded in our family history. Each time I heard it, it nurtured the traits of perseverance and grit that run through my Serbian veins. With the recent struggle our country has had with whether to keep immigrants out, it’s ironic to think that some of our country’s best stories began with letting immigrants in.
At least my family thinks so.
Against All Odds
Todor Pero Polich left Serbia in 1906, at the time when his country was struggling under Austro-Hungarian rule. Like a multitude of immigrants across the globe, he came to America to make a new start. Boarding a boat by himself, he traveled two and a half weeks across the Atlantic, accompanied by no one he knew. At the age when I graduated high school, my grandfather left his homeland, never to return.
He knew no English when he arrived. His possessions consisted of a dollar in his pocket and the clothes on his back. After he got off the ship at Ellis Island, he traveled by train to California, where his fifth cousin gave him a job washing dishes. With only a few English words and very few contacts, he was lucky to get even that. However, Todor never limited himself to the way his circumstances might have looked. Instead, he viewed each circumstance as part of his journey and persevered to where they would lead him next.
Forty-one years later, my grandfather sold his first construction company for $7.5 million. That amount doesn’t sound like much until you realize that the year was 1947. After Todor sold his company, he started a second construction company, which he turned over to my dad after he retired. The money he made in his businesses didn’t only foot the bill of many of his grandchildren’s college education (including mine), it also contributed toward building several Orthodox churches that still stand today.
Yet in spite of his financial and material success, my greatest memory of my grandfather consists of two words he repeated over and over until the day of his death. To this day I cannot read those words without hearing them in his deep Serbian voice. He would lean in close and repeat them to me every time he had a chance:
“Morale and character,” he’d say, with a tremor in his voice. (Although with his accent it sounded like modal and chadacter.) “Thees is most important,” he’d whisper, shaking his long bony finger up to my face. “Never forget, Lauritza Annitza.”
And I never did.
Morale is defined as a person’s courage, optimism, and determination. Character consists of the distinctive qualities and reputation that sets a person apart. These two words helped my grandfather persevere in his circumstances instead of disappearing under their weight. Somehow he believed that the way he lived his circumstances, rather than the circumstances themselves, would make a bigger impact on the way things turned out. He was right.
My grandfather looked at each chapter of his life as giving him strength and fortitude, knowing it was shaping him for the dreams that were ahead. He believed each circumstance was equipping him for where he was going and paving the road to what was next. The vision he had for more than what was immediately in front of him ended up charting his course.
With the lens of the big view, we diminish the power our circumstances have over us. And we are buoyed by the truth that the way our circumstances look is not always an accurate indicator of what is ahead.
An Unlikely Path to a Presidency
As a child, I remember vaguely hearing about a man serving a 27-year sentence for wanting what his people deserved. But my adult eyes watched as that man emerged from his prison cell and four years later was elected president of a sovereign state. Under this man’s leadership, an entire nation was transformed.
For the 27 years that I moved freely from childhood to adolescence, and then adolescence to adulthood, Nelson Mandela lived every day in prison, with the same schedule, the same limitations, and the debilitating structure of prison life. He spent nearly a third of his life in captivity. However, in more than one interview, Mandela said he learned things in those 27 years that uniquely prepared him for his presidency. Though Mandela would not have chosen the route he was forced to take, it was clear his circumstances shaped him into the person he became.
While he was in prison, Mandela informed his ideals through books he disciplined himself to read and built bridges of friendship with enemy prison guards to widen his grace. He never surrendered to a sedentary life. When he finally emerged from prison, it took little time for his country to recognize their new leader. But the time Mandela spent in adversity helped make him the leader he turned out to be.
When we see our circumstances with the long view in mind, it empowers us to live them well, because we are viewing our circumstances as an important part of our story. Difficult circumstances shape what happens to our character and often position us for what our story will become, but we usually see this only in hindsight. Keeping this perspective in front of us enables us to persevere with promise and hope. It was apparent in my grandfather’s eyes that we were the dream he saw when he faced adversity, and we were the story he wanted to finish when a chapter looked bleak. The vision of things ahead caused him to live his circumstances the way he did.
If we don’t see our circumstances with the lens of the big view, we may draw conclusions, based on our limited view, that could alter what happens next. Certainly that was true for Nelson Mandela, for at any time in those 27 years he could have surrendered in despair to the apparent realization that prison would be his life. History now shows that prison served as preparation for his life; however, Mandela didn’t know that when he was living it. He made a decision not to give in to despair, and his grit and perseverance helped him make the next good choice in front of him. The way he grew in grace and knowledge while in prison gave him a deep well to draw from in his presidency.
Though our story is somewhat limited by the circumstances we are given, the stories threaded through the Bible support the fact that we play a significant part in how our story gets written. The narratives indicate that God writes our story with us, not around us, and our story evolves by the way we respond to each scene. God’s overall plan may be secure, but we have been given freedom for how we live our part.
Looking at what is happening to us as building something in us helps us view our circumstances as giving us something we need for the path ahead. This can infuse us with hope and optimism in those seasons when we are waiting for something to change. Our faith is stretched when the path is long and the route seems unclear. But during those times, God does his finest work in writing our story—if we can hold on until he is through.
Laurie Polich Short serves as associate pastor at Oceanhills Covenant Church in Santa Barbara, California. A speaker at numerous conferences and colleges, she is the author of When Changing Nothing Changes Everything and Finding Faith in the Dark. Taken from When Changing Nothing Changes Everything by Laurie Polich Short. Copyright 2017 by Laurie Polich Short. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.