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Turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones

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By Hyon O'Brien

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) once said, "There will always be rocks in the road ahead of us. They will be stumbling blocks or stepping stones; it all depends on how you use them."

I think of the 27 years that Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) spent in prison: it is pretty clear from his biography, "Long Walk to Freedom," that he used those long years of confinement as stepping stones to lead the country when he was finally freed in 1990 and was elected as the first black president in 1994 in the first multiracial general election. The rock of the unjust and immoral system of apartheid was dissolved. The oppression of the black majority by the white minority was finally over. Mandela's 1993 Nobel Peace Prize was the proof of his endurance and of the transforming power of justice triumphing.

Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983), a Dutch Christian lady who together with her family saved many Jews during World War II, wrote about her time in a Nazi concentration camp in one of the chapters in her book, "The Hiding Place." One thing from the book that sticks in my mind is that her cell was infested with fleas. As a result of the cell's reputation for vermin, the prison guards left her cell alone. This seeming curse became a stepping stone for her, as she was able to study the Bible freely and pray fervently without worrying about interference from the guards. Her sister reminded her to be thankful for even the fleas. What a spirit of unshakable faith in God they demonstrated! They were more than conquerors over the unbearable conditions they were in.

I think of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as another excellent example of turning a stumbling block into a stepping stone. In 1980, 13-year-old Cari was killed by a drunk driver. Her mother, Candace Lightner, founded the Texas-based organization ( According to statistics, in 2013, 10,076 people were killed in the United States by drunk drivers, a 55 percent drop in deaths since MADD's founding. (By contrast, in 1920, with only a fraction of today's U.S. population, nearly 25,000 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes, 50% of all traffic deaths that year.) I am so glad that Mrs. Lightner, instead of giving in to despair after her daughter's tragic death, and MADD succeeded in introducing the concept of the "designated driver" and radically changing the attitude of society towards drunk driving.

We have a friend who served with his wife as Peace Corps Volunteers recently in Botswana. However, eight months into their service they discovered she was seriously ill with the last stage of liver cancer. They had to be medically evacuated. After her death, he began a project in her memory to provide micro-loans to help villagers back in Botswana. Serving others will help him to heal and move on. The sudden loss of his beloved wife will not make him wallow in his sorrow but will push him to use the obstacle as a stepping stone and go forward as his wife would have wanted him to do.

My personal case seems rather minuscule compared to what other brave people have faced and overcome. In 1965, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to enter college, but my father dictated that he was willing to pay college tuition only for Ewha and only for a major in English Language and Literature. I pleaded with him that I wanted to study medicine or art. He explained that he was doing me a big favor by allowing me to go to college at all, that art supplies for an art major was an extra he didn't want to pay for, and as for medical school the extra years of study would cost him more money than he wanted to pay. He had to think about college education for my siblings (five brothers and three sisters) as well. So, I studied English, got involved in the campus English newspaper, and upon coming to America I pursued and obtained a master's degree in Library Science, which led to a job as a librarian in New Jersey years later. The fact that I am writing this monthly column is thanks to my father's stumbling block that turned into my stepping stone.

I am truly thankful that he included me in sending his kids to college. In the Wonju of 1965, sending girls to college was still regarded as an unusual act of forward thinking.

Are we facing gigantic boulders in our lives? Are we paralyzed by the scale and size of the problems? Let's try to see how we may turn them into stepping stones.

I end this piece with words from 2 Timothy 1:7. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of sound mind." Indeed, let's not fear, but have courage. Let's not hate but love.

May all the obstacles in our lives teach us to be brave and loving!

Hyon O'Brien is a former reference librarian now living in the United States. She can be reached at


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