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This morning, you come downstairs to find me. You greet me in that sunny voice with which you always bless the beginning of my days.

Then you slump on the couch beside me. Your youthful face darkens to a storm. “How could Biden have done this?” you say, in dismay.

You’re talking Afghanistan. The panic at the Kabul airport. The gunfire. The mad rushes on the tarmac. The desperation of thousands to escape the Taliban. The failure of our government to plan a better evacuation.

“You’ve been reading your newsfeed,” I say.

“It’s immoral,” you say, in soft-spoken outrage, tinged by grief.

How to console you? Your heart is as deep as the sky is high. You dream of a perfect world, even as you’re learning that “perfect” is a trap. (The Taliban, too, seek the “perfect.”)

“We could have done better!” you exclaim.

“Yes,” I reply, “and we should have. There’s no excuse … Still, there’s no clean way to end a war.” What begins with bombs will end with blood, I think to myself. “Now there’s chaos, and the threat of slaughter. No way around but through.”

* * *

No way around but through. This is one of the mantras of my life. I didn’t borrow the phrase from anyone, though others have probably said it. Rather, it emerged from my spirit as I wrestled with the lesser angels of my nature and the sorrows of this world.

Its roots run back to The Book of Isaiah:

When you pass through the waters,

I will be with you;

and when you pass through the rivers,

they will not sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire,

you will not be burned;

the flames will not set you ablaze. (43:2 NIV)

This imagery got seared into my mind as a girl. Back then, I sometimes thought of the speaker as God, just as the passage is written. Most often, though, I imagined myself as the speaker, promising my compassionate presence to an imperiled world. (Try reading the text this way, if you’d like. Offer it your full voice.)

Are flood waters rising all around? We have to plunge into them. No way around but through.

Are fires burning on all sides? We have to walk into them. No way around but through.

I’m not sure when I began to use these words to shore myself up (and others, too) in times of trouble. But they’ve been part of me long enough that, whenever I need them, they rise unbidden.

You heard me say these words often enough during your childhood that now, as a young adult, you say them to rally yourself; to persevere through what hurts.

I smile when you do that. You’re making my mantra your own wisdom. May it serve you well.

No way around but through. This isn’t a prayer that you and I might be spared hardship or crisis. Rather, it’s a reminder that no matter the mess we’re in, something worth striving for is waiting on the other side. We might not be able to see it from here—the floods too high, the fires too hot, the Taliban too menacing—but it’s there. Our struggle to reach it can teach us things that we didn’t understand before; things we might not have learned, had the path been easier.

No way around but through. These words work no magic. But they help us keep going when we’re tempted to turn back. Or run away. Or throw up our hands. Or bury our heads in the burning sand.

These words prepare us to be brave. To be resilient. To pay attention. To be resourceful and creative. To convert our despair into loving resolve.

You’ve heard of “tough love?” Well, I’m talking the grittiest, most tenacious, down-in-the-trenches, nobody-left-behind kind of love—a love of this world so fused with hope for this world that no amount of suffering can destroy it.

So, dear heart, I promise you, we will do better. In the disaster of Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. In the raging pandemic. In the plagues afflicting our democracy. In the upheaval of a changing climate … In all our trials and tribulations.

Will we get frustrated sometimes? Often.

Tired? Yep.

Broken-hearted? You’d better believe it.

But we’ll keep keepin’ on.

No way. Around. But through.

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.