Relativity: the Problem

 Short men are happy, for they can pass easily through the door. Tall men are happy, for they can stand erect and pluck oranges with their hands. Again, short men are angry, for they cannot stand erect and pluck oranges with their hands. Again, tall men are angry, for they cannot pass easily through the door.  ~  Michael Bassey Johnson


There’s a virus circulating on social media sites. It’s the same contagion we’re vulnerable to when we go to the grocery store, turn on the TV or text on our cells. We’re so susceptible that most of us have been passive hosts since childhood. We became infected by phrases like: You should be grateful, others have it so much worse…

It’s embedded in the thoughts that comfort us, sometimes dormant, sometimes flaring up. We reflexively think it and often speak it: Comparatively speaking…

Comparatively speaking the weather is good; the pay is fine; the pain is manageable; the loss is less…

If my contentment lies in anything beyond my present reality, it’s fragile at best and worse yet, it’s a covetous contentment.  The contentment of relativity says I can only find my stability, peace, serenity, bliss in relationship to the lesser security, peace, contentment, and happiness of another.

It’s the It could be worse syndrome.  Yes things could always be worse but that isn’t gratitude that’s just fatalism. It could just as well be better and that certainly isn’t gratitude, that’s greed.



Relativity: the Cure

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. ~ 14th Dalai Lama


If my weight is too high, my features too plain, my health too precarious, my finances too tight, I can always look around and find someone who faces greater challenges in those areas. Therein lies the trap: when uncomfortable, seek solace in comfort by comparison.

It seems that much of our measure of pain and pleasure and our sense of thankfulness and peace is based less on our experience in the moment and more on our perception of how this experience compares to that of others.

Comparison carries the pathogens of jealousy, greed, lust, revenge, envy and narcissism- permeating the thin membranes of our mind and the thin skin of our heart, tainting the meaning we assign to life events.

The condition is fed by gaining comfort by comparison, making it nearly impossible to focus on giving comfort through compassion.

If I can only appreciate my situation in relationship to the suffering or to the bounty of others, I don’t know anything about gratitude. And if I know nothing about gratitude, I have very little to offer in the way of compassion which is the antidote to the disease of comparison.

Compassion isn’t relative.

Compassion isn’t reserved for the worthy.

Compassion is what we owe each other simply based on our shared humanity and fragility.

True compassion is poured out freely in light of another’s path or plight, not meted out relative to our own circumstances. Compassion is the inoculation against the rampant contagion of comparison.

Comparison sickens. Compassion heals us. Gratitude keeps us well.


Tilting at Windmills

It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to succour them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds.
~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

They brought it on themselves we say as if it matters. Of course it’s often true – regarding others, regarding me. But the very statement reveals a blindness of the heart that replaces compassion with blame and shame. They brought it on themselves.

Who hasn’t? Who among us doesn’t contribute to a significant portion of our own suffering? Am I less in need of compassion because I’ve been the root of my own troubles? Am I somehow more worthy of God’s unmerited favor if some wrong has been done to me rather than by me?

We have a reputation, we who call ourselves Christian people, religious people, spiritual people. We’ve garnered our fame in much the same vein as Don Quixote. So certain of our truth, our headlines and sermons and personal encounters are too often filled with an almost fervid insanity as we go about tilting at windmills.

We, who have knighted ourselves in our own faith, justify wars of weapons and words waged upon those whose convictions and vices vary from our own. Cultural wars, denominational wars, political recriminations, all carried out, so we claim, in service of our King.

If this were, in fact, true –  then the King is sending some very mixed messages.

It serves a certain purpose to vilify those with whom we fundamentally, or sometimes even superficially differ. It proffers both provocation and justification.

Sometimes in light of a personal attack or an attack on my belief system or an attack on someone I love – sometimes I respond by turning the other cheek. Without guile or defensiveness I wish only for light and peace and grace for the other.

Sometimes. Sometimes I remain in a state of grace. Sometimes not.

How can we, who are the benefactors of God’s irresistible grace which binds our wandering hearts to Him, offer anything other than The Good News, grace without merit in return? How is it possible that we can be supplicants of God’s unmerited favor one moment and turn His words into a weapons the next?

When the suffering run from us rather than to us, perhaps it’s because we’ve forgotten our calling to live compassionate lives that succor rather than scourge the wounded.

How TO Help the Hurting

Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken”.  ~ C.S. Lewis

Before listening, before doing anything or saying anything to the hurting person, we have the task of keeping our own attitudes in check.

We won’t always understand another person’s struggle. We won’t always agree with their choices. And we certainly aren’t called to be their fixers. If our approach to the hurting person is to fix them, we’re likely to do harm, however well intended. God heals. We’re just here to lighten the load.

A few things to try;

  • Listen – Listen without assumption. Listen like you’ve never heard or experienced anything like this before so that you really hear what’s being said, not what you expect to hear.

*Caveat – Not everyone wants to talk. And even if they do, you may not be the person they choose to share with. There’s a difference between being an attentive listener and going in with a crowbar.

  • Touch – Sometimes a touch on the arm, holding a hand or a hug conveys caring in a way that words can’t.

*Caveat – Some people don’t like to be touched. It’s not up to you to decide that what they need is a good hug. If a person stiffens or pulls away from your touch, honor their physical space without disconnecting emotionally.

  • Pray – If you have a shared faith, you may want to pray out loud with them.

*Caveat – If the individual doesn’t share your belief system, praying can be construed as preaching. Your lips don’t have to move for God to hear your heart.

  • Act – Look for practical ways to lighten the load. Give a gift a certificate for a pizza, do yard work, run an errand etc…

*Caveat – We often say, Please call me if you need anything and almost no one does. If you know there is a need (and the need isn’t always for yet another casserole) assist or enlist another to assist when you can’t. Don’t expect the hurting person to ask. That said, it’s important to be certain that the hurting person is OK with your help. Honor their boundaries.

Above all, remember that it takes immense courage to be vulnerable. When someone trusts you enough to truly let you in, tread softly because you will, without a doubt, be leaving footprints.

Prisoners of War

A group of Navy SEALs were performing a covert operation, freeing hostages from a building is some dark part of the world. They stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The room was filthy and dark. The hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified. When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, telling them they were Americans. The SEALS asked the hostages to follow them, but the hostages wouldn’t. They sat there on the floor and hid their eyes in fear. ~ Donald Miller

Miller goes on to describe the events that followed. The SEALs were at a loss. The ones they came to rescue didn’t trust them until one of the men put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the prisoners. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around them, something no prison guards would do. He was trying to show them he was one of them. He waited until eventually they began to meet his gaze. Then he whispered that they were Americans and had come to rescue them. Will you follow us? he asked. As he stood, one by one, the hostages did the same until all of them were willing to follow him to freedom.

The soldier had shifted from a position of authority to becoming like the hostages in their suffering. Miller says this is the story that helped Christianity make sense to him. He could see the parallel of God becoming a man, joining us in our suffering so that we would know it’s safe to follow Him.

I think it also applies in another way. We’re often at a loss when those we’re trying to rescue won’t follow. Maybe it’s because of our tendency to storm into the room, armed with all of the answers.

As we seek to serve the One who sets the hostage free, it’s time to put aside our weapons that wound (attitudes, words, actions), soften the look on our faces and the condition of our hearts, and get so close that we touch those we hope to reach. It’s a risky operation, all of that touching instead of just telling. There’s a universal code word for it: grace.

Bactine and Band-Aids

God does not comfort us to make us comfortable only, but to make us comforters. ~ John Henry Jowett

The house I grew up in had a big wrap around porch. I loved that porch. I loved the big swing, I loved the secret side escape route. I especially loved the front steps. There were only 3 but they were deep and wide.

The summer just before I turned 4, I was determined to jump up the steps. Jumping down was easy. A baby could do that. I wanted to go the other direction. I tried over and over and over. I didn’t want to jump 1…2…3.          I wanted to jump all 3 at once. I always fell.

If the scrapes were especially deep, my Mom would get out the dreaded Iodine. She would apply it to my wounds and blow softly until the sting went away.

But most of the time, my knees and elbows, which were in constant flux between scabbing and bleeding, could be patched up with Bactine and Band-Aids. I can’t remember if I finally conquered the steps that summer or if I lost interest or if I grew taller. What I do remember is the smell of Bactine and my mother’s tender care.

I don’t think she ever said: Debbie Lynn, how many times are you going to do that before you learn your lesson? She just held me and comforted me and doctored my hurting parts. I caused my own pain, yet she was unfailingly compassionate.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt compelled to jump up the steps. When I fall now, it’s my Father that I run to. He tenderly cleans me up and comforts me. Just like my Mom, He’s never withheld His compassion because I’ve caused my own problems or because I keep making the same mistakes.

How often have I heard or even thought:Well, he brought it on himself. Probably true. Does that matter? How often have I refused to forgive myself what God has already forgiven because it was my own fault?

There’s a whole lot of pain in this world. Some of it happens to us, but much we cause ourselves. God comforts me with His mercy and patches me up with His grace, regardless. As I accept that, not only am I comforted, but I become a much more compassionate comforter.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. ~Thomas Merton

Long before Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about it or Kelly Clarkson sang about it, folks held tightly to the theory of the school of hard knocks. I think we often do this in an attempt to make sense out of pain and suffering.

It’s peculiar, though, isn’t it? The school of hard knocks is the playground where the bully wins. What doesn’t kill us makes us something, but I don’t think it makes us stronger. It’s more likely to make us: angry, resentful, unforgiving, fearful, hard…

Sometimes I think we confuse hard with strong.

If we get stronger, it’s most likely despite, not because of the hardship. What doesn’t kill us in fact often makes us weaker but our Father, in His grace, promises to be strong in our weakness.

It’s not what almost kills us that makes us stronger. It’s love and compassion and tender care that enables us to fight the good fight because these gifts nurture and strengthen us, expanding our capacity to learn to love and lean when pain and grief and loss come along again.

I believe that Merton is right: Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. It’s our job to keep a careful eye on the winged seeds.