There are things that happen to us, and when they happen, they give us two options. Either way, we will never be the same, and we shouldn’t. These things can either strip us down to the bone and allow us to become strong and honest, or they can be the reasons we use to behave poorly indefinitely, the justification for all manner of broken relationships and broken ideals. It could be the thing that allows everything else to turn, that allows the lock of our lives to finally spring open and our pent-up selves to blossom like preening flowers. Or it can be the reason we use to justify our anger and the sharp tones in our voices for the rest of our lives.
One of my dearest and oldest friends, Jon, married a girl I grew up with. In the middle of the night two years later, Jon called me because he had just found emails that made it clear to him that his wife was cheating on him. Soon after, she left and never came back. Less than a year later, they were divorced, and the day they went to court, we threw a party for Jon, not to celebrate the fact of the divorce, but because it didn’t seem right that he would go home to their empty apartment after the courthouse. We grilled out and drank icy margaritas with salty rims, and sat on the back steps of our townhouse, watching the bugs circle the porch light.
Jon had every right, you could say, to let his life be defined by that day, by that year, by that woman, by that betrayal. But what he did instead was a marvelous thing to watch. He laid himself open and vulnerable to life and God and therapy and close friends, and began the breathtaking process of becoming more than what he had been in a thousand different ways. He is softer, in the best possible way, and when you talk to him, you know that he’s been down to the bottom and fought his way back up. He listens more closely and prays like he’s talking to a best friend. I knew him well for years before she left, and although I would never wish upon anyone the searing pain I saw written on his face during that season, what God did in his life through that event makes me believe in God’s goodness even more than I did before.
In May, three years ago, I stood at the back of a church and cried great big happy tears as he married Christina, a beautiful and smart woman who loves him with a steadiness that feels like a sailboat’s keel. There’s something immovable in her, and it feels like just the right thing for the zig-zag path of his life. Their sons, Gabe and Will, are darling gray-eyed miracles, and when I see Jon with them, I know that it seemed like God was being cruel that year, that middle of the night when he called me. But he was not. What I know now is that his kindness burns through even the deepest betrayals and invites life from death every chance we let him. There are things that explode into our lives and we call them curses, and then one day, a year later or  years later, we realize that they are actually something else. They are the very most precious kinds of blessings.
…Celebration when you think you’re calling the shots? Easy. Celebration when your plan is working? Anyone can do that.
But when you realize that the story of your life could be told a thousand different ways, that you could tell it over and over as a tragedy, but you choose to call it an epic, that’s when you start to learn what celebration is. When what you see in front of you is so far outside of what you dreamed, but you have the belief, the boldness, the courage to call it beautiful instead of calling it wrong, that’s celebration.
When you can invest yourself deeply and unremittingly in the life that surrounds you instead of declaring yourself out of the game once and for all, because what’s happened to you is too bad, too deep, too ugly for anyone to expect you to move on from, that’s that good, rich place. That’s the place where the things that looked for all intents and purposes like curses start to stand up and shimmer and dance, and you realize with a gasp that they may have been blessings all along. Or maybe not. Maybe they were curses, in fact, but the force of your belief and your hope and your desperate love for life as it is actually unfolding, has brought a blessing from a curse, like water from a stone, like life from a tomb, like the actual story of God over and over.
We become who we are in these moments. I have a friend who falls back, whenever things are too hard, to an event in her life that happened over a decade ago. It’s the thing she uses to justify cruel behavior, wrecked relationships, terrifying swings of emotion. But wouldn’t it be great, wouldn’t it be just like God, if that terrible thing could be the thing that lifts her up and delivers her to her best, truest self?
I know it can, because it happens all the time, because it happened to my friend Jon, and because it happened to me.
**This excerpt originally appeared in Shauna Niequist’s best-selling book, “Cold Tangerines“.