(Photo courtesy of Hope Heals)
The Story of A Joy Rebel
An Interview on Discovering Gratitude in The Midst of Suffering with Katherine Wolf
By Sarah Komisky
When it comes to gratitude, one would argue that Katherine Wolf’s life experience would rightly give reason for ingratitude. For the full-time author, speaker, non-profit pioneer, and advocate for those with disabilities, her pain would speak otherwise. Offering it in the hands of God, the impossible opened possibility for deeper perspective, joy, life, and even gratitude.
At the age of 26, Katherine experienced a massive brain stem stroke where her journey as a model, young mom, and wife to then law-student husband Jay would change forever.
To live, doctors performed extensive surgery removing over half of her cerebellum. The news that Katherine survived through it was a miracle in itself. She would go on to surprise everyone working through many challenges and deficits including the loss of fine motor skills, balance, paralysis, double vision, and deafness in one ear. Persevering through years of recovery and rehabilitation, this fighter learned to re-walk, eat, and speak while overcoming multiple surgeries, therapies, and procedures.
Through it all, although cognizant of her painful past, she chooses to say, “Life is very full.” Highlighting Hope Heals Camp, a community for families with disabilities, and giving birth to her second child John, now age five, are just some of the incredible good that has been woven in her story, Katherine believes change isn’t the end, it is the beginning. In this place of openness, she has learned to steward life as a self-professed “joy rebel.” Her objective is to see the beauty and good in what has been given and steward life by living it well.
Noting gratitude as one of her favorite subjects, I was able to catch up with Katherine for our special, “Gratitude” themed issue at Marked Ministry. This conversation has been one I myself have learned from, been extremely blessed by, and grateful to have. One we hope you will be impacted by as well knowing there is hope and healing for the most broken places.
Sarah: I wanted to talk to you about the fact that many this year universally have experienced loss and suffering in many ways. In your book “Suffer Strong,” you talk about redefining loss with open hands. Most people want to steer away from suffering, yet, you said that, “the redefining of you became the redefining of you.” And I love that. So maybe you can expand on that thought.
Katherine: Absolutely! Yeah I definitely think that somehow me having the stroke, really woke me up to this need to redefine everything in my life. And that as I’ve had to do, I had to really redefine things and see things more through an upside down kingdom worldview after my life was totally up ended. There is this crazy clarifying thing that happens. And, it is so biblical, that we see throughout the Bible that somehow persevering through really hard things enables someone to emerge with a different level of character and a truly refined version of themselves.
Sarah: Right, absolutely agreed.
Katherine: Of course, no one wants to do that or redefine anything.
Sarah: Yes and what I think is so great is that you don’t say that life is wonderful, sunshine and lollipops. You say, “no, it’s hard, but there’s good.” Talk about that.
Katherine: It’s terribly hard. The reality is, that’s where that growth happens––where we’re comfortable to where we’re uncomfortable. It’s awful no matter who or what their story is, but there comes a point where we see a wonderful picture of what happened. There’s an element of maturing – being made complete that includes trials and sufferings of all kinds.
Sarah: That’s so good. I was going to ask, there’s a quote that I read that said, “Choosing joy is never about denying reality and you acknowledge that that life is hard, but life is also good.” So how does that truth bring healing into our lives?
Katherine: Yes, I totally see, joy is not separate from hardship. There is joy, there is goodness, even in hard things. There are hard things in joyous things. Life is not one note.
I think you see the good by choosing to see the good! There’s always going to be hard stuff. I guess the answer to that question is that you adjust your expectations. You recognize that the world will disappoint, and we live in a broken place and it’s not OK. We need to accept less of this place and stop putting so much weight and expectation on our experiences here. And honestly, that’s more of God. He can do abundantly more than we can ask, think, or imagine. So put the weight on Him and we can’t be disappointed by Him.
Sarah: That is so powerful. This month our theme of our magazine issue will be gratitude.
Katherine: Oh and I love, love, love that! Perfect!
Sarah: Yeah! And, with that said, I think right now people are having a hard time expressing gratitude.
Katherine: Of course.
Sarah: And there’s this negativity of like, “Aww I want 2020 to be over with. I want to move forward.” Some of that is natural, but how do you think we can incline our hearts more towards gratitude instead of negativity?
Katherine: Yeah, I think once again you set your mind on it. Gratitude just doesn’t happen. It’s very intentional. You know we see in the book of John, that they count the fish. One by one…they count 153 fish. It’s not ambiguous. It’s not, “Oh it was around 150 fish.” But 1…5…3, every last fish is counted and celebrated. I think that’s so important in all of our stories. Count it out. Count the fact that God has been good and has showed up in your story.
Sarah: And I think the opposite of that is negativity. We’ve all dealt with negativity ourselves, but then, encountered people who are negative around us. So how do we deal with being surrounded by people we encounter that might have that negative attitude?
Katherine: Oh gosh yes. We have to decide whose voice we listen to is about the size of it. Even though it may be someone that we deeply love, maybe a family member but they are really raining on our parade. [Laughs]. Their voice can’t be given the weight of a voice that speaks to our hearts. You know what I mean? We call it the need for a “Souls Board of Directors.” You get to decide who’s on it and from that place, you get to tune into the voices you want to tune into and respond to what they are saying and not anybody else.
Sarah: Exactly. And I think one of the things I also appreciated about you (and there are many things), but I liked when you talk about “Invisible Wheelchairs.” Maybe you can expand on what that means.
Katherine: Absolutely, I love this notion of invisible wheelchairs because, obviously, I have a very clear disability. I have a wheelchair that’s always with me in my story, and it makes it very obvious – you can’t walk without a chair. I think all of us regardless of what’s going on, are all very different. We have internal wheelchairs, invisible wheelchairs of issues in our lives; pain, shame, things we’ve been through, haunting memories, current realities that are really hard, and no one would know because it’s not apparent like the wheelchair is. Wheelchairs like mine symbolize that something’s a matter here. Whereas, most people who you see in the grocery store don’t have that luxury. You have no idea what’s going on with them. Whether it’s mental illness, which is just rampant. Especially right now, there are all kinds of mental health issues with much internal suffering that people wouldn’t know about.
Sarah: Absolutely. And I think that is important because we don’t think about it and we can compare ourselves to other people and say, “Well I don’t have this or I am not like a person like that.” It’s so good to say that we’re all really the same, which is, we all have brokenness.
Sarah: And I think, as you said, the pandemic has brought up so many different emotions for these invisible wheelchairs to be magnified. So with that said, with COVID-19 and all that this year has brought, how do you think we can begin to redefine our perception of the invisible wheelchair at this time?
Katherine: I guess 2020 in a way has brought us all to our knees in terms of our understanding that things are out of our control. There’s a lot in the story here that nobody can deny. But, it’s not up to us. No matter how much we do or how much we are positive or what not, we’re always going to fall short because life happens.
The global pandemic and the economic recession, etc. has really taught us that uniquely, even in America 2020, we can have a tremendous loss of freedom in all regards. It’s very scary and just a dangerous feeling that life is not OK. So, I imagine we’re all a bit more in touch with our own depravity at this point. I definitely think that we know in almost a renewed way, that yes life is scary, but also, we must extend grace to each other because we’re all going through some really, really hard stuff.
I believe that my wheelchair, that many would call an element that “binds me,” is language that is just so incorrect. In my story, I’m not bound at all. My wheelchair is actually my avenue to freedom. It enables me to go where I want to go and do what I want to do. So actually, the wheelchair is a freedom tool rather than a confining limitation in my life. And I think the same is true for all of us and all of our various disabilities if you have eyes to see it that way.
Sarah: I appreciate that when we flip and see a new perspective, we can actually see something that can just free us. Like you said, we think our invisible wheelchairs constrain us and when we change how we see things, and that’s so beautiful.
Sarah: I would like to quote your husband. Jay said, “Suffering is not the end of the story, it’s something new.” So, I thought maybe you could talk to that person who can’t see the new right now. What would you tell them?
Katherine: Right, well the first thing I would tell them for sure is that for around the first five years after my stroke, I kinda couldn’t see up. I just couldn’t imagine that this is going to be my new life and new reality. And, I think it’s so important to give people the opportunity to really grieve their losses and not expect them to bounce back tomorrow from this terrible suffering. But when they are ready, I would totally tell them suffering is not the end of the story at all. In fact, it is the beginning of a new story. For some reason when you are trusting God with your life and every part of your day, you somehow know, you believe, and you see, it happened. You see God doing something different and it is not the end, it’s just something different than what you thought it was going to be.
Sarah: That’s so true and I think that plays out in all of our lives that we say, “Oh maybe it’s not what I thought it would be.” And, we get disappointed and disillusioned about that and kind of stuck when we focus on it’s not what we thought.
Turning a corner, I like that you said that you love your life and that you want to cherish it and champion it, every part of it. So, how can we look at our lives, even when it brings unexpected things and say, I want to live right where I’m at, right now.
Katherine: That is probably one of the most difficult things for all of us to do because deep down, we wanted to do it the way we thought it was going to be with the dreams and goals we had. These are the stories we would have written and then when it’s different, we think, we can never be happy. But, the reality is we are so busy comparing ourselves to other people that we’re miserable. The truth is, their grass is greener because they are tending to it, watering it, and taking care of their grass. but we’re just standing in our own terribly ugly, sad grass because we’re preoccupied with theirs. And it’s a powerful takeaway to stop looking around. We are called throughout the Bible to not compare ourselves to other people. It makes a lot of sense to not worry about it. Honestly, what is so bad about my life?
I definitely think there’s also something that we as Christians have to wake up to the uniqueness of our assignment on Earth and not wish for someone else’s assignment. For some reason God chose me for this life and story and I’m gonna live this unique assignment even if I don’t fully understand it. And, live with joy within that and recognize this is what God has for my life and I know God can only write good stories. So, I trust that somehow this is a good story for my life .
Sarah: That is so good, and I think it plays into my next question. I was going to ask, this year so many people had job loss or experienced change in life and they think, “I don’t do what I once did” and their identity is kind of shaken. So talk to that person. How would you encourage them to redefine calling?
Katherine: Absolutely, so much of our lives is about learning how to “pivot” and it’s a lesson nobody wants to learn to do. You take what you thought your life was going to be and learn to walk the other way.
You walk straight into what God’s doing into your story right now. And that is extremely painful, but when we can, it’s a release. We can embrace the reality of what is and there’s joy in that.
I love my life because I’m OK with the fact that I’m not doing X, Y, or Z and will not ever be X, Y, and Z. I’m never going to run a marathon, but I’m OK with that. It’s like, ‘So what?’ it’s probably not gonna happen. Ever! Even if I could, it wouldn’t happen [laughs]. But I’m OK with the fact that I can walk a couple of steps and I’m just developing with a disability, but that’s what God has for me and God has His very best for me.
Sarah: That’s so true. And, developing that confidence in Him and saying “I know who I am” is beautiful; when we work on getting to that place, it’s such an amazing thing.
Find out more about Katherine by visiting hopeheals.com