What Are You Learning?



I have absolutely no idea where this was injected into me, or honestly who even said it, but somewhere in my development when I was going through a hard time, I heard the words, “Well, at least you’re building character.” Maybe it was an internal voice? My grandma? An annoying friend? It really doesn’t matter where it originated—it’s in me, the idea that somehow, some way, I am always being developed.

And hard times build character. Right?

I honestly don’t think it’s one of the most helpful things to say. I would put it on the list of “Things to not say in the moment when your friend is hurting.” Seriously? That’s what you’re going to tell me in this moment?

But whether someone says it or not, it’s in my head. I can’t count the number of times over the decades I have screamed out, “I’m tired of building character! I don’t want to build character! I just want things to be easier! Now!”

Yet, alas, some truths we have to live with.

And it is true—every single hard experience we go through is somehow building our character, shaping us, forming us, growing us, teaching us, strengthening us.


At least that’s how I feel.  Most days, I don’t want to be shaped and formed and grown and taught and strengthened.  

I just want a nap.

Last year was a good year for me in a lot of ways, but it was definitely a hard year, too.  I have felt extremely vulnerable in more ways than one.

I was out there, more, talking about Faith Shift in a variety of venues in real life and online.  I’m always reminded that anything related to our faith stories is bound to be tender, raw, intense.  Also, the work that we do at The Refuge is complicated. Living in the day to day of so much pain and real, messy life on the margins—along with theological differences in a diverse community—sometimes takes its toll.

I am in more hard conversations than I want to be.

I am showing up, telling the truth, trying to trust God and let go of the outcome more than I actually want to show up.

I am being forced to building more character than I want to.

The question that I do like a lot more than character building that I tried to lean into in 2015 was: “What am I learning right now through this??

That’s the question I’ve been integrating into my life more, and it’s been bringing me some peace.

What am I learning through ___________ (fill in the blank)?

Usually it’s always somehow about myself, or others, or God in some way. And like all things, they are usually somehow all tangled up together.

Ugh, again!

Or is it, Yay?

I know in the deepest places that learning is not something to resist but something to embrace.

That I’m always being formed.

That God is always at work in my life.

That people in my life are each here for a reason.

At the same time, I haven’t been trying to figure out “what am I learning?” in every bumpy moment and make it all neat and tidy and explainable. That defeats the purpose and makes real life far too mechanical. What I’m trying to lean into is to embrace a deeper sense that every conflict, every tension, every wacky moment, every circumstance where I can feel my heart want to close down and protect-protect-protect or my mind starting to spin that I am, indeed, learning something.

Something’s going on in a deeper place.

In my soul.

In my heart.

In my mind.

And it’s worth paying attention to.

Not to beat myself up. Not to figure out how to solve it. Not to make it all “work” somehow.  

But because I’m a learner.  

A student.

A human.

And there’s always an awful lot of amazing, hard, beautiful, tricky, painful, wonderful things to learn—about myself, about the people around me, about the God who’s with me.

That’s a gift, a treasure.

It makes me think of the Chinese proverb—“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.”


Shelovelys, what are you learning these days?

Kathy Escobar
Kathy Escobar co-pastors The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver. A trained spiritual director, speaker, and advocate, she also blogs regularly about life and faith at kathyescobar.com and is the author of Faith Shift and Down We Go—Living out the Wild Ways of Jesus. A mom of 5 young adults and teens, she is married to Jose and lives in Arvada, Colorado.
Kathy Escobar

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  1. pastordt says:

    LOVE this, Kathy. Especially the ‘ughs!’ Oh, how I recognize that feeling. And the ‘what am/are I/you learning through this?’ is a question I ask myself/others regularly. It’s a necessary question that is so dang hard to love! Thanks for your insights here – they’re gonna stick with me, I think.

  2. Whenever I hear “it builds character” I think of the dad from Calvin and Hobbes. 😉 What I’m slowly learning (and what I often feel I should have learned by now!!) is that I am enough and that this slow, small, mundane season of life is what I need to embrace. Thanks for reminding me to remember that.

  3. Saskia Wishart says:

    Your posts are always full up of wisdom Kathy, I appreciate that you add that we can’t always tie it up neat and tidy, but this learning is something in the midst of the mess, which means it is a much deeper process. This question is a keeper.

  4. I’m taking this question to my journal today. Thank you, Kathy …

  5. Sandy Hay says:

    “I am showing up, telling the truth, trying to trust God and let go of the outcome more than I actually want to show up.” This is me specifically yesterday and today. I’ve hard to send 4 hard emails, ones that most likely won’t be received as I intend. I’ve been sitting on this since before Christmas. Now is the time. I’m learning I can do this and that God has this…and me…and the 2 women…no matter what.

    • oh, sandy, that is so brave and i’m glad that you did what you knew you needed to do, no matter what ends up happening in the end. it’s such good practice (and so hard to do!) peace to you from colorado…

  6. Hannah Kallio says:

    I really appreciate the way you framed those “character building” experiences as gifts right at the end. One thing I’ve struggle with is how many people have seen our family go through suffering, and talk about it as “preparation”. They make it sound like we aren’t actually living or doing real work yet, and that’s hard. But if I can frame those experiences as gifts, treasures that I will always carry with me, possessions that make me lighter instead of weighing me down, then my life now feels whole even as I am being prepared. Thanks for this.

    • hannah, thanks so much for sharing this excellent perspective and how pervasive that idea can be. it seems to me to be a bad set up, not only for us personally but theologically in relationship with God, too, that life is somehow about “getting” something so then it will be easier. i really appreciate you sharing!

    • I’ve been told that recently … by my mom …. that I’m being prepared for ‘mighty works of God,’ and that ‘God knows what is coming, so He’s making me strong.”
      My goodness, WHAT’S COMING?! lol

  7. I love this Kathy. I’m learning that I didn’t know as much as I thought. I’ve always paid too much attention to when people surprised me with how awful they could be until I just expected it of everyone. This year I’ve shifted and I’m realizing how good people can be if we pay attention and really listen.

  8. Most of the time I think of myself as a “big picture” person. BUT – not when I’m going through a disappointment or a time of “suffering.” The forest is gone, and baby, it’s ALL TREES! Thank you for this reminder that it’s in the middle of the hard times that I’m supposed to be asking the questions and listening for the answers; that difficulties are given to strengthen my attachment to and adoration of Christ; and that I’m not given the gift of suffering just so that I can find my way out of it.

  9. Lately, I’ve felt like Gregory Peck in HIgh Noon. Like I’m a cosmic experiment to see how much the human soul can withstand… Thanks for the reminder that we’re all learning. :0) I’ve often said that I want to learn whatever lesson life’s trying to teach me, so I don’t have to keep coming back this way around. I lost sight of that perspective sometime in the last couple of years.

    • thanks for taking time to share, maggie…i have had such a hard time over time embracing the lack of ability to “master” (i like to master things and honestly, a lot of what i was taught in my faith circles was about mastering too, which always leads to failure, falling short, and a whole bunch of other not-good-stuff). embracing that life is not to be mastered but to appreciate and notice and grow and stretch and learn and be transformed has been so freeing. but i’l admit, i want to just learn the lesson and move on 🙂

      • Oh, that’s a great point. I’m type A (at least I used to be…), and was an Energizer Bunny. Yes, I think most of us have been taught to ‘master.’ And have lived with the shame of failing…
        Obviously, I fall into that category of wanting to ‘learn the lesson and move on’–just sucks how hard life is, and a little relief would be great. But part of what I want is not just mastery; but to be a little more brave and a little more wise. For me, that is ‘mastery’ enough. :0)

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