Two men came to know one another on a spiritual level. Not in the space of a beautifully lit sanctuary, but in the damp basement of a community center. These men were drawn together in the sacred space of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was in those meetings that they shared their stories of their struggles with addiction, that great and unfortunate normalizer. They were from two completely different backgrounds with two very different experiences of the world.
Over several years, these men shared stories about their lowest moments, their incredible successes, and their growing appreciation for the reoccurring miracle of a single day. It came to pass that one of these men, a Philosophy Professor, was offered a job in another city. The other man was a local rancher. At the Professor’s last meeting, he grew more and more aware of just how much he had learned from the Rancher and just how much he would miss him: his stories, his vulnerability, his resilience.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the Professor was surprised when the Rancher immediately got up and came toward him. The Rancher said, “Sir, I just wanted to wish you well and let you know that I am pulling for you. I’ll miss having you here. I have learned a lot from you.”
The Professor was genuinely touched. This Rancher had much more sobriety. Within the walls of AA, the Professor was keenly aware that he was the student and not the teacher.
In that moment the Rancher stuck out his hand and said, “I apologize that I haven’t offered to shake your hand before today.” The Rancher looked down at the floor, then at his hands, and then back to the Professor. “I’ve just got so many calluses on these old hands,” he said, ashamed to shake hands with the Professor because he had labored hands, callused and worn.
The Professor, took in a long deep breath, smiled and said, “And all this time, I have been too embarrassed to shake your hand because I don’t have any calluses on mine.”
It was their willingness to be vulnerable, to flip the social expectation on its head about who was teaching whom. That was the greatest teacher and their strength. I have told this story in chapel and in a sermon and today it means something quite different to me. Our work, our life shows up on us differently. For some it may be calloused hands, a few creases around the eyes, or a little less hair on the crown. We all have something to teach one another.
I have known many strong and wonderful men with laborer’s hands. And I have known many strong leaders with not a callus to show. This story reminds me to pay attention to the difference between tough and strong, for we are easily fooled.
Our skin responds to repetitive pain, pressure, and irritation by forming an additional protective layer on top of the affected area … a callus. This callus serves as protection for future contact. It is as though our body is assuming that the future contact will be painful. Calluses help some to continue to do the things they love. Calluses can help you build the necessary resistance to be able to create music on a stringed instrument, or to learn to rock climb, to run, even to walk even in certain shoes.
When we practice something over and over we don’t have to feel our way through anymore … it becomes a pattern … a habit and sometimes even a callus. Too much friction occurring too fast will cause a blister or an abrasion instead.
We are taught that wounds show weakness and vulnerability … but calluses mean we are tough. We also use the word callous to describe someone who is unfeeling, insensitive, or heartless, someone who has packed on layer after layer between themselves and the world. The world is full of plenty of opportunities to build calluses. Sometimes, it is necessary to add another layer between you and the world in order to keep moving forward.
It took a lot of faith and heartbreak for me to learn that there is a difference between tough and strong. Both of those men in my story did the hard work to show up, be vulnerable, recognize the value in difference … and they took a good look at their own hands…that is what it means to be strong.
Being strong means your repetitive contact is not just on the surface of the skin, it’s on the inside: in the muscle, in the heart, and muscles grow strong from being torn apart and rebuilt.
Being strong is not about insensitivity. It’s not about being tough. It’s about vulnerability. And we are called in the church to show up for each other over and over again to the degree that we feel we can, as vulnerable as we can muster, so that we can become stronger out there in the world…
Because there are a lot of times out there in the world…When all you can do is buckle up and bare down.