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Defining circumstances

There was a moment during my cancer therapy that I now distinctly remember as an emotional turning point. It was on a day near the very end of my first year of treatment—the hardest year of the three in which I received the most difficult of my chemotherapy regimen. Bad news had followed bad news had followed bad news on that day. And though over time one gets used to the continual pummels of the cancer journey—learning to take them and continue on like a well-trained boxer—this long series shook me from my strategically developed numbness. As I stood by my bed at the end of that day, I did not clasp my hands in prayer as was my usual custom. Rather, overcome by anger and grief, I threw my arms up wide. I did not understand why more seemingly unnecessary struggle had been brought to my doorstep.

Fast-forward to the present and the tagline of this column: defining circumstances. I’m guessing most of my readers have probably never given these two words more than a quick read. I certainly don’t blame them. But these words to me are a powerful reminder. They are a reminder of one of the principle beliefs of my life: a belief that all of us have the ability to discover how God defines us by our circumstances, and to harness those circumstances to live a life of purpose. This is not to say that some people don’t face more unfortunate circumstances than others. It’s not to say that if people just try hard enough to overcome their circumstances they will have success in everything they endeavor to do. What I simply mean is this: A person’s God-given identity is his or hers alone to discover.

And that’s what this column has been about. It’s been about identity. For seven columns now I have delved into some of the circumstances that have defined me, and some of the circumstances that I have fought to define. In some cases I’ve dug down deep into the personal, showcasing vulnerable moments in my life. Cancer, the American Dream, politics, career ambition, dreaming big dreams—these topics resonate with my understanding of who I am. Some of them were about struggle, as with cancer. Some of them were about joy, as with a love of “Star Wars.” But always I sought to have these columns convey lessons I drew from circumstances I experienced and defined.

When, beside my bed those many years ago, I raised my hands to the heavens crying out to a God in silent anger, this was the greatest challenge of this belief I had yet, and have still, faced. Blow followed blow. It was a moment, in the throes of despair, when I was tempted to succumb to bitter resentment. To a feeling of utter helplessness. To let the situation in which I found myself dictate not only my present sense of hope, but destroy my very belief in any sense of higher purpose or destiny—replacing it with a cruel, fickle view of life in which we are all helpless slaves to circumstance.

Yet this moment is so indelible to me because at its emotional zenith, I came to feel a sense of peace. It wasn’t anything extraordinary. It wasn’t a feeling I haven’t felt since—it was the same feeling of relief I often experience after challenging events come to pass. But looking back upon this moment, it was at this time that I decided I would not let cancer cripple me spiritually. It was at this time that I came to be at peace with the prospect of death. I certainly fully intended to give my every last ounce fighting it, mind you. But I would not in any way let cancer and its struggles erode my belief in an individual’s power to discover his or her identity—to choose, up until the very end, how he or she reacts to circumstances.

As I said in my first column this semester, Duke is a place full of wonderful opportunities to define yourself. It provides unbelievable circumstances that you can craft and respond to, blessed opportunities to shape your values and character. But just as easily it can force you to succumb to circumstances and define yourself as something you are not. So this is my last message in this final column of the year: Discover your own God-given identity by discovering and defining the meaning behind your own circumstances. Both obstacles and joy will face us all in life, but these will be circumstances that we always have the power to react to and define.

Thank you for reading my columns this semester. Thank you for journeying with me as I sought to discover parts of my identity in 800 words every other week in the pages of The Chronicle. And I hope you all might sleep as well tonight as I slept that night so many years ago, always trusting in your ability to discover your identity and define your circumstances.

Daniel Strunk is a Trinity junior. This is his last regular column of the semester.

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