This topic scares me.
As the saying goes, “there, but by the grace of God, go I.” There’s a litany of things that can go wrong. The further we go in life’s journey, the more we personally experience these misfortunes or witness them in others: bankruptcy, divorce, infidelity, chemical dependency, chronic pain, life-threatening illnesses, or death of a loved one (especially a child). These are easily recognized and frequently heartwrenching.
Others, though, have lived through systemic suffering, daily fearing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Immersed in the hostilities of religious, political, or ethnic persecution, entire communities live on the edge of despair.
I feel like such a fraud when I think about all of the precious souls whom have survived these horrors—or met their deaths with nobility. In the throes of such suffering, could I respond with kindness, hope, and the convictions of my faith?
I don’t know.
Oddly enough, while taking a break from writing this, I hurt myself while closing my broken garage door. I pinched my right middle finger between two of the panels of my double-car-sized garage door…and it hurt. A lot.
My wife, mother-in-law, and father-in-law all witnessed the incident. My wife quickly reminded me to go lay down and implement counter-measures for shock, as everyone knows that my system is hyper-reactive to pain. Within moments I made it to my bed, feet up, without throwing up (which was an accomplishment).
I wasn’t exactly crying like a baby, but I was close. It really hurt. Some tears came, but, more than anything, I was angry. “That was so stupid,” I quietly chided myself in my wife’s hearing. Then there’s the reality that my wife was taking care of me, getting ice, medication, and helping me elevate my feet, etc. I don’t like it when others have to help me because of my mistakes. On top of all of that, this injury hijacked the evening we planned with my in-laws.
Then I remembered this blog.
“Not funny, God.” I got through the rest of the evening with ice, various medications (over-the-counter and scripted), and sincere thanks for my loving wife’s support. I prayed, asking God to accept my pain as some sort of sacrifice for this crazy world.
But, yeah. It kinda was funny. By the next day, my middle finger looked like a deep-purple grape, and I could easily track my heart rate by its throbbing.
After my unplanned field trip into pain, above, I’m still left with the question of whether I would be worthy of greater tests of pain and suffering. What if I experienced a longer duration of pain, or if it were somehow more intense? And, rather than physical suffering, what if it was the suffering of religious or political injustice?
Do you ever wonder about these things?
Remote and recent history give us models we could emulate, though this subject is not something frequently discussed in a History class per se.
From what was described to an evangelist in Uganda, a semi-nomadic tribe, the Koromojong, did horrible things to the Sabine people on the northwestern edge of Mt. Elgon (a.k.a. the place of “Gorillas In The Mist”). The Koromojong raped, pillaged, and burned entire villages, driving the Sabines high up to Mt. Elgon for refuge. The Koromojong reportedly found cases of AK-47s, left behind by the Idi Amin regime. They used their newfound power to steal and destroy the prosperity of the peaceful Sabine people. This occurred about 50 years ago. Many Sabines believed God had forgotten them. Others kept praying that deliverance would come. And it did.
There was an influx of evangelists across Uganda in the early- to mid-2,000’s. Child sponsorship programs were birthed, and many hearts were transformed from bitterness to compassion. Stories were told of Sabine tribal members pooling their limited resources to build a well for their enemies, the Koromojong. Many also gave up their only pairs of shoes to the Koromojong, as they did not have the semi-nomadic life of their African brothers. Forgiveness and friendship replaced the poison of resentment.
Another horrible set of circumstances comes to mind. I’ve recently begun re-reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning.” Two-thirds of his book recounts his first-hand experiences of the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. Most of us think of gas chambers at their mention. But imagine living minute-by-minute with hunger, fantasizing about the favorite dishes you may never taste again. Or imagine the combined cruelty of a German winter and near-complete nakedness—with thread-bare clothing and virtually no body fat. Then there were the random beatings from a guard’s slightest irritation or whim. This all occurred while forced to work in these conditions. At the end of the day, prisoners might have the time and modicum of energy to pick lice from one another’s bodies.
And I complain about a throbbing finger.
A comparative discussion may often occur in moments like these, as if to say, “someone else always has it worse,” or, “you should be thankful that something worse didn’t happen.” That’s not very helpful, and I think it completely neglects bigger considerations.
Let’s start with compassion, which literally means having a shared emotion in response to another’s pain. Along similar lines, it’s been said that the worse pain is your own. In other words, each person’s pain, however defined, is valid in and of itself. It deserves to be acknowledged and understood through the sufferer’s experience. This is why comparative remarks—from the previous paragraph—land unfavorably at best, but are often harmful and/or marginalizing to the one in pain. Genuine compassion, or empathy, can never be overused. It’s one thing to be in pain; but to be in pain and completely alone, without the compassion of another? That’s Hell.
Aside from compassion, nearly innumerable rivulets come from the headwaters of suffering. Frankl’s book suggests that the degree of suffering requires a correspondingly resolute reason for living, or else you will die. Alternately, one might ask, what’s the point of suffering? Is there always a silver lining to suffering? We similarly hear the saying, “everything happens for a reason.” Is that an empty platitude, or is there something to it? And so on.
This is where I’m quickly met with a limitation, some may say, of my worldview. I mean no disrespect, but wow. I just don’t get how someone can live in a world without some metaphysical beliefs in order, intelligent design, and—ultimately—a belief in God. The alternative, with any serious depth of consideration, quickly devolves to Nihilism. THAT’s depressing.
The rock-bottom reality is that we are creatures of relationship. Rather than self-propagating individuals, we depend on others for our physical, emotional, and spiritual existence. I already entertained some of these dynamics in previous posts about identity and self-esteem.
Our most fundamental relationship involves our relationship with God. In sum, He created us and gave us everything we needed, including the capacity to make decisions that affirm or depart from what He has ordained and provided for us. At some point there was a game-changer, whereby our forebears decided to go their own way instead of abiding by our Creator’s will. In a perfectly ordered world, they committed disorderly conduct; and we’ve been suffering the consequences of that ever since.
But that’s not the whole story. Not by a long shot.
Again, relationships are most important, first with our Creator, then with the created world (especially with one another). If we miss the importance of this, then we degenerate into all sorts of problematic beliefs, and an escalation of destructive choices. Much of what we currently observe in our supposedly “civilized” world exemplifies this: the ever-widening confusion about gender identity; pockets of brazen celebration about abortion; and a bewildering lack of clarity about the nature and purpose of marriage/family. People go from anger to despair, then from despair to apathy. The blaring allure of consumerism exploits our delusions about a life without God. We are rewarded with momentary pleasures, at best. These never satisfy the gnawing hunger in our souls, however, for the relationships we were designed for.
It’s no wonder life is so miserable for so many people.
I would like to suggest a difference between misery and suffering, however. Suffering is a circumstance, while misery (i.e., gloomy, despairing) involves one’s attitude in response to suffering.
Before we dive deeper into this, I realize that some of you are in tremendous pain—whether physical or emotional, short-lived or chronic. I don’t want to minimize or treat this topic flippantly in any way. My only desire here is to consider something beyond suffering and toward hope.
Everyone suffers. Misery, however, occurs when we have no sense of purpose with our suffering. All we can see is the suffering per se. It’s the flip-side of the same coin that seeks immediate pleasure, insofar as misery only seeks immediate relief of pain…at almost any cost.
How do we explore suffering in a more nuanced way, rather that the either/or of misery vs suffering, above? I want to suggest different levels of suffering. My hope is to offer some starting points for reflection and a pursuit of something greater within the human experience of suffering. Maybe someone else has already done this, but a quick Internet search offered no such developmental perspective. (I’m intrigued by Fr. Robert Spitzer’s “4 Levels of Happiness, which has some parallels to what I propose, below. I encourage the reader to explore it.)
It is curious that the most prevalent theoretical remarks and attempts to soothe suffering come from a Buddhist viewpoint. This includes articles from a psychologist in Psychology Today, a publication of the American Psychological Association (APA). The adage, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” at the least, recognizes a need to admit our limits of control and consider metaphysical solutions. Sadly, the APA seems to encourage the use of eastern mysticism in the pursuit of psychological wellness, while it tolerates western mysticism (borne from Christianity)…but only so long as it refrains from asserting its truths and moral absolutes.
Level one in the paradigm that I propose focuses solely upon the relief of pain. Whether psycho-spiritually and/or physically, we experience discomfort and seek to end the pain per se. We physically recoil from an adverse experience, or at least try to numb its effects. We avoid people that bother us, or we try to deny that we were bothered at all. This response to suffering is basic and necessary for the purpose of survival or simply navigating the breadth of life’s daily demands. It has its shortcomings, however.
What happens when there’s no relief of the pain? Maybe you’ve heard others say, or thought to yourself, “it’s not working,” or the rhetorical question, “why even try?!?” (Because nothing is “working” to end the pain.)
Unmitigated pain becomes miserable when we see no way out of it, and it begins to fester.
We know we’re at this level when we’re lashing out at God, oneself, or others; and we also experience suffering in this manner when it feels like we’re on the outside (of life) looking in, as if we don’t belong here in this reality. This is where serious thoughts of suicide—or otherwise wishing to get out of this experience through any means possible—come to mind. Over time, this becomes a quiet, living death; and despair can morph into apathy. We need something more than solely focusing upon relief of pain.
Level two assumes level one, insofar as practical and reasonable relief is sought. Whether the suffering per se ceases or decreases, however, the individual shifts to a purposeful mindset. We might call this the “silver lining” level. This attitude seeks opportunities for good in (presence), through (anticipation), and from (retrospection) the suffering.
The saying, “everything happens for a reason,” may not always be an empty platitude. Another adage comes to the fore, “that which does not kill us only makes us stronger,” and so on. At a minimum, the Apostle Paul’s remarks to the Romans reflect his observation that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God….to be conformed to the image of His Son…” (Romans 8:28-29). We can also discern this in Paul’s statement within what we understand was his second letter to the Corinthians, as he describes another silver lining of suffering:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3-4; emphasis mine). The silver lining level, however, sometimes meets with limitations. Something more is needed. We may struggle to receive a direct, practical benefit about the suffering.
Level three adds a redemptive mindset to levels one and two. It represents penitential attitudes and actions, borne from true guilt for what one has done; and it’s a choice (not something received and surmised). This attitude seeks amends for the wrongs done toward God, others, and even oneself. We observe this in the middle steps of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In a somewhat different vein, a person might construe unrelenting challenges as a general penance for one’s history of poor choices, and an opportunity to face these challenges without presumption or the complaint, “why me?!?” (To which one can respond, “why NOT you?”)
Level four builds upon the three previous, with a next-level emphasis upon redemption. It’s both mystical as well as sacrificial. Rather than an act of personal penance, the sufferer prayerfully seeks the benefit of others.
I’ve only recently recognized this as a legitimate form of suffering within the Christian faith, even though Scripture offers some clues along such lines. The Apostle Paul remarks to the Colossians, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of the body of Christ, which is the Church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24).
Whoah! There’s a lot packed into that statement, and I will not attempt to un-pack it in very great detail. I had always been led to believe, however, that Christ’s afflictions were altogether sufficient within His crucifixion. Clearly, per Paul’s remark, it isn’t over until it’s over. In other words, as Christians, we have more suffering to do. Moreover, per Paul’s example, we should rejoice in our suffering, and seek to accredit our suffering toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes in this world.
We may observe another clue about these dynamics in the book of Revelation (a.k.a. “The Apocalypse”). After the Apostle John hears the souls underneath the altar cry out “with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’…and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (Rev 6:10b, 11b).
From these passages we may each consider and submit our suffering as a sacrificial prayer. These prayers can be realized toward the afflictions yet to be fulfilled before all of Creation is consummated in Christ. Stated differently, the pain from our disorderly world will eventually accrue and be transformed toward the restoration of perfect order—between God, Creation, and humanity.
Though not mutually exclusive, we may also seek more specific benefit for those with whom we have some sort of particular knowledge and relationship. We can “offer it up” within a prayer for others. Somehow, mysteriously, it seems that God is especially moved by the prayers of those who suffer from no fault of their own. Bob Schuchts reflects this within his book, “Real Suffering,” but it wouldn’t take long to find other stories along such lines.
There. That was a lot. Again, in sharing these reflections, I don’t want to minimize suffering in any way. Rather, my desire is to consider something beyond (or through) suffering, toward hope. This is especially needful for those whose suffering seems without end and beyond one’s control.
I don’t pretend to have all of this figured out, and I’ll not belabor this with further caveats. If you can shed more helpful light on this subject, please let us know.
There is hope. You don’t have to be alone.
Frankl, V. (1984; originally published in Austria, in 1946). Man’s Search For Meaning. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Schuchts, B. (2018). Real Suffering. Charlotte, NC: St. Benedict Press.
“The greatest among you will be your servant…” (Mt 23:11)
It was another Friday night, sometime in the Spring of 1985. Engrossed with another week of college studies, the eruption of voices and doors alerted me to an undeniable fact: my college dorm peers had something fun to do, and they also had someone to do it with.
I spent more than one night of tearful tossing and turning, wallowing in self-pity that Spring.
With the onset of Summer, a series of events led me to reacquainting with a young woman I knew from high school youth group. I used my God-given skills in listening and empathy to win her intrigue and attraction. Our fast and ecstatic dating relationship quickly lost its luster (pun intended), and I returned to a sense of loneliness and insignificance.
Go figure. It was actually the second consecutive summer of superficial attraction and zero sense of lasting purpose.
By the grace of God, I had no interest in pursuing the same pleasures with yet another young lady. Looking for praise, acceptance, and pleasure from others had become an end in…myself. There was no lasting benefit from this narcissistic hedonism—least of all to me. Something had to change.
Roundabout that time, I decided to help out with the incoming freshmen at the Christian college I attended. No, I wasn’t checking out the girls (which was a first for me). As a junior, I genuinely wanted to help young men and women in their adjustment to college life. It was partly motivated by a wish to spare others from the pains I experienced.
Happiness surprised me. I showed people around campus, initiated conversations in the cafeteria, and listened to the goings on of others’ lives. Instead of using my skills to gain acceptance, per se, I employed them for the benefit of others. I saw how, in the simple exercise of my gifts, I cultivated their sense of belonging. One older, marginalized person comes to mind; her countenance lightened when I simply engaged her in conversation in a corner of the cafeteria.
Duh. I knew these truths, as a Christian, but I hadn’t realized them until that time. I was gifted and called to serve as a healer/helper, but I was unaffirmed and mis-assigned in these gifts. Then, in my junior year, I experienced using my gifts for the benefit of others, and I wanted to do more.
However imperfectly, that began my journey of purposefulness in community. Unbeknownst to me at that time, another young woman was watching me, attracted by my simple kindness toward others. We were married less than two years later…and have remained married for 36 years thus far.
It’s interesting to note that meeting and marrying my wife occurred after I experienced and demonstrated a sense of purpose in community, not before.
How about you? Have you realized, yet, that you have a place in community? And not just for your self, but for the benefit of others?
Scriptures start to pop in my mind along such lines: “…God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired” (1 Cor 12:18), “for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7b). Similarly, we read, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
How many times have you heard a sermon about what you should and shouldn’t do, in family, in politics, and in church? Though by our very existence on this planet we have roles and associated responsibilities (e.g., in families, business, community, and faith communities),‘shoulds’ prove inadequate toward sustained effort. The guilt peters out, and the sense of duty lacks oomf for the long run. We need something more than dutiful drudgery.
What about grace? Notice, for example, that immediately preceding the verse about being “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10), we are told, “for by grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Grace, properly received, seems to beget works.
Paul speaks more directly to the impact of grace in his letter to Titus (2:11-14), how “the grace of God has appeared,…[and how He] gave Himself for us, to redeem us from all lawlessness, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, who are zealous for good works.” Something about the grace of God, when we really experience it, makes us want to do good things. (See also 1 Cor 15:9-10.)
The motivational power of grace doesn’t have to be an overtly spiritual consideration, i.e., in relation to God. It manifests in small and great expressions between people. Most of us have stories from the receiving end of these graces. Fictional narratives, like “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Les Miserables” also depict the motivating power of human-to-human grace as a sub-theme. We want to pursue lives that are worthy of the grace we’ve been given.
While grace is perhaps the most powerful motivator, a sense of human dignity and/or solidarity can also spur us to action. We do well to recognize the inherent value of each human being as our brother or our sister and, “there, but by the grace of God, go I.” We want to help someone because we know that, next time, we might be the one in need.
Moreover, common sense dictates that we contribute to the future of the world and the place of humanity in it. I recently stumbled upon two contrasting news articles in this vein. One involved a priest’s disgust at being requested to bless someone’s dog; the other reported how a two-time Super Bowl champion (Harrison Butker) exhorted Georgia Tech graduates to get married and have children.
Granted, as one electronic comment reflected, I’d rather someone treat their canine pet like a child than treat their child like a dog. Also, to be fair, some people are charitable to animals and persons of any age. It seems strange, though, when destitute neighbors are ignored while would-be benefactors fawn over their pets instead.
Butker’s remarks to GT graduates arise from a whole different mindset. He challenged his audience to consider a vision beyond themselves, to actively invest in the generations that will follow them. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m not suggesting that every one of us get married; but we each have opportunities to contribute to the betterment of our society—for today and for tomorrow.
Every adult, whether married or single, has an important role to play in our society. If possible, every married person should become a parent (hint: that’s what often happens from healthy sexuality). It doesn’t take a psychologist or sociologist to discern that our world needs more—and better—parents. In the U.S., our birth rate is below replacement, at less than 1.8 children per woman. That’s messed up. Moreover, many of our children grow up without a healthy sense of belonging or moral guidance, often in a single parent household. (E.g., in 2022, 19 million U.S. children lived in single parent households, 80% of which were led by women).
Those who remain single and/or childless, however, can provide tremendous service to society. They have invaluable time and energy that parents must prioritize for raising the next generation. You might know people who fit into this category and/or have witnessed and benefited from their acts of goodwill. Whether educator, artist, religious minister, or Big Brother/Big Sister, etc., our communities can greatly benefit from more volunteerism.
I realize the recent paragraphs might be a stretch for some readers. To start a family or perhaps dedicate oneself to service and single life, etc.—these are big questions, often with commitments and/or certain responsibilities involved. For now—for today—you could look for specific instances or situations where you might benefit others.
One branch of psychology, Positive Psychology, focuses a great deal on this idea. In both the vernacular as well as within actual studies, we call these “random acts of kindness” (RAKs). Look up the phrase with your search engine, and you’ll find a number of benefits associated with RAKs. It essentially explains my surprise of happiness described earlier in this post.
So, how about you? Some may read this post and, if they haven’t stopped reading already, look at these words with disgust. For example, “why should I care about others?!? After all, no one has ever cared about me.” That’s genuinely sad, if you experienced that, and maybe you’d do well to talk to a therapist about it. But here’s the thing: would you rather perpetuate the problem or be a solution to it? In small or big ways, you can be an antidote to the disease of apathy and isolation in your community.
Alternately, a person might say, “I’m too selfish to have kids.” I’ve heard that one multiple times. Life cannot be reduced to only benefiting one’s selfish whims day in and day out. That sort of mentality will invariably doom anyone to all sorts of mental, emotional, and spiritual problems. In the end, it leads to superficial relationships (at best) and despair.
Perhaps the most common impediment to serving others involves a lack of belief in oneself. It’s as if to say, “no one would care to have what I can give.” I find that really hard to believe, especially insofar as you would genuinely seek to meet the needs or benefits of others.
“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). More could be said, but, it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
Try it. You’ll like it. :-)
Duffin, E. (2022, December 12). “Number of U.S. Children Living in a Single Parent Family 1970-2022. Statista.com.
Jerkovich, K. (2023, May 10th). “Super Bowl-Winning Chiefs Player Tells College Graduates To Prioritize Having A Family Over Career.” Daily Wire.
Meads, T. (2023, May 12th). “Amen! Pope Francis Smacks Down ‘Dog Moms’.” Daily Wire.
“U.S. Fertility Rate 1950-2023.” Macrotrends.net.
It’s one thing to acknowledge the truth, or at least the possibility that something is true; but it’s another thing to actually test it out. In the previous post, we considered the assertion that we have inherent value because God made us. So, how do we pursue and realize this truth for ourselves?
I don’t see how any of us could possibly do this in isolation. We have to explore and experience the truth of our significance in the accompaniment of others. The Apostle Paul encapsulates much of this within his words to a young pastor, Timothy:
“Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim 2:22; italics mine).
First we are told to run away from our idols, or, all of the inherently empty and discontenting pursuits of this world. This is the opportunity—and the challenge—of what we considered in the previous post. But that’s only the half of it. Ever wonder why those private commitments to “never do it again” can so easily fall apart? It’s because we need to gather together with others who “call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
The writer of Hebrews drives this latter concept home a bit further:
“…and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (10:24-25; italics mine).
This idea of being with others has to be a habit. If you’re so inclined, you might recognize that the context of this passage pertains to fellowship. The surrounding passage suggests that even the loftiest of aspirations can become imperiled by a lack of consistent, healthy companionship. Granted, the Hebrews chapter 10 is probably talking about the observance of Mass, or being dedicated to the Apostles’ teaching (a la Acts 2:42); but the general dynamic seems to nonetheless apply. Each person’s sense of identity, value, and purpose can only be found in relationships. Isolation leads to death—emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
To be clear, insofar as a person might explore and experience a sense of mattering in this world, corporate spiritual disciplines (like going to church, Bible studies, etc.) are not the be-all-end-all. Granted, as a Christian with very orthodox tendencies, I have a natural affinity toward these endeavors; but I’ve experienced a significant sense of value in some of the least “churchy” situations.
One such experience occurred soon after December 9th, 2008. I remember that date, because that’s when I suffered a complete patellar tendon rupture. Yeah, that hurt, and my prolonged recovery from surgery was even more painful. What touched my heart, however, was a sympathy card sent from my athletic club.
I actually received two cards. One was from the majority owner and all of the employees. It was nice. The handwritten notes were brief and kind, but most felt as though they had recycled their words for others whom had been ill or injured.
The second card moved me to tears. The inside panels were filled with remarks from my fellow master’s swimmers. (My eyes moisten a bit, even as I write this.) I didn’t realize that those people genuinely cared about me so much—men and women I swam with, twice a week, for the previous couple of years. Remarks like these made me realize that I played a simple but significant role in others’ lives: “our lane isn’t the same without you, Scott.” “We miss you, and hope you can get back here soon.” And, “it’s too tempting to loaf when you’re not here.”
Wow. How did that happen? I think it’s important to look a bit deeper than paying membership dues. I actually attended there regularly, and I still do, using multiple aspects of the facility throughout a given week or month. And I visit with people for various lengths of time, ranging from a simple ‘hello’ to extended moments of supporting someone in the challenging news of a cancer diagnosis.
It’s been said, “familiarity breeds contempt.” I’d suggest that familiarity breeds emotional safety for even some of the most superficial relationships. A new face gradually becomes a face with a name, and the name becomes a personality. You attach a story to the person you’re getting to know, and eventually that person becomes part of the shared story in your common endeavors, i.e., mattering together.
One might think, “that’s easy for you to say, but I’m an introvert.” Actually, I’m an introvert too. Seriously. Outside of my day job as a psychologist in private practice, too much time with people can drain me like a car battery at 50 below zero. We all need people. How we relate to people, and how often, varies according to our temperaments.
Some people find structured and/or task-oriented activities too boring or constrictive. Others appreciate the predictability such structure affords them; they can find success in tasking, then gradually branch out and connect with others. Alternately, some people quake at the prospects of novel and unstructured get-togethers, while others become energized by the newness and social improvisation these situations bring.
Here are a few ideas to pursue a sense of purpose and connection:
Some caution and clarification, however, might be in order. There’s a subtle but profound shift that must be made toward a narrative that goes beyond oneself. Otherwise, however nobly appearing one’s involvements, these will be doomed to the same emptiness of the Four B’s. This is the substance of my next post.
“You matter.” “You are important.” “You are special.” I’ve heard the words a number of times over the years. I’ve spoken them too. It seems most often to occur in groups, as a hearer or a speaker. There’s something deep within me that longs to experience this kind of affirmation—and to believe it. I bet it’s there inside of you too.
The Subaru grandma’s exhortation, “you matter…don’t give up” (previous post) affirms the timeless reality of each individual’s worth. But what does that mean, really? And where does that sense of meaning come from?
Can I be special by being ‘good’ enough? I remember Dr. Louis Foltz, in his Child & Adolescent Human Development class, describing the Four B’s: Beauty, Brains, Bucks, and Brawn. These metrics arise from a psychosocial dynamic related to the generalized other, from whom we may derive our sense of identity and value in this world. I.e., “I am who I think others think I am.”
Beauty is king, especially amongst the younger generation. Our screens bombard us with images, demanding adoration and provoking envy. “Wow. I wish I could look like that.” Beautiful faces and bodies enchant us and leave us wondering, “how can they be that pretty?” They’re happy to monetize their beauty, exploiting our worship and envy.
When Beauty reigns supreme, we click links and expand articles, feverishly chasing the god of beauty. We subscribe to exercise programs, buy make-up products, and drown in an ocean of nutritional programs. Thousands of dollars go to plastic surgeries. And millions of lives become what they worship—momentary images, deprived of any sense of purpose beyond these moments of obsession. The iron grip of pornography epitomizes this phenomenon, leading to massive mental health problems and absenteeism from life in general (on both sides of the screen).
When Beauty fades or otherwise loses its appeal, Brains come to the foreground. The priests of brains pander their ideas in every sector of society: politics, religion, health & fitness, wealth management, cooking, business, parenting, etc. We become dependent upon their simple hacks for everyday convenience, or we subscribe to sophisticated programs for business success. Acolytes of these priests of practicality, we then seek affirmation of our own intelligence. We talk about what we’ve been able to accomplish and how we did it, and we tell others how they should too. However practical or provocative these ideas may be, brains go the way of beauty. What’s the point?
Bucks. “Show me the money!” Cuba Gooding, Jr’s character from Jerry McGuire. Money is the ticket to freedom. We can have whatever we want. We can do anything we want. We can even pay other people to do what we don’t want to do. Money, however, is a horrible master. We get what we want, at the cost of time and energy spent elsewhere; and we lose the novelty of a possession or privilege, looking at more vacation porn, or searching for the next gotta-have-it. We frantically grasp for something to pull us out of the abyss of nihilism, never being completely satisfied.
Brawn provides one last handhold in this downward slide. The bitterness of broken promises finds a shallow purpose in being tough. When we go to Brawn, we demand respect, and we rebel against anything or anyone attempting to obligate us. People with antisocial personality traits infamously employ Brawn to get the privileges and possessions of the previous three (Beauty, Brains, Bucks); and they inherently presume that others will pay for it. Either figuratively or literally, however, unchecked brawn will eventually get you to prison. No one wants to be around this kind of person; and a sustained, secure relationship is out of the question.
So, again, can I be special by being good enough? No, at least not by the measures promulgated in popular culture. I can never be good enough (or good enough at being bad) in order to obtain a lasting sense of significance. This is where anger, if I’m not careful—and if you’re not careful—can turn to apathy. Eventually, like a house of cards, just the right brush of a fingertip will destroy every one of these distorted bases of value.
Is there anything wrong with the four B’s, per se? No. The problem, in substance, lies in our pursuit of any identity or sense of value apart from our Maker. Consequently, we alternate between two sides of a treacherous ridge line: self-loathing or conceit. Like the self-obsessed queen from Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, we keep returning to that mirror on the wall, never secure in its fleeting affirmation of our worth.
The late Leanne Payne speaks to this dynamic, in her book, The Healing Presence. It’s a deep book, which I especially appreciate for her irreverence toward humanistic psychology. She confronts the over-emphasis upon psychological insight, calling it “the disease of introspection.” Instead of the self-loathing or conceit borne from self-consciousness, Payne reminds us about Whose we are and how He intends us to live in this life. It’s the “incarnational reality,” as she calls it, encapsulated in the verse, “…Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27b).
Max Lucado and Sergio Martinez convey these truths in their children’s book, You Are Special. The small, wooden character (Punchinello) asks of the Craftsman,
“Me? Special?…Why do I matter to you?”
Like Punchinello, each of us has a growing list of reasons why we should not be loved or deserving of a place in this world. “I’ve been divorced—twice.” “I can’t seem to shake loose of pornography.” “I declared bankruptcy.” “My son killed himself.” “I’m too this or not enough that,” and so on.
But the Craftsman sees past our sins and supposed shortcomings:
“Because you’re mine. That’s why you matter to me.”
It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that. As Payne might say, we need to turn away from the despair of self-consciousness and toward the hope of God-consciousness. No enduring sense of identity or purpose can be found within oneself. If God made us (and He did), then the Maker and His Church have the primary authority to determine these matters. What does God say about who we are, what our purpose is, and how our value is measured?
Neil Anderson’s book, Victory Over The Darkness, affords a helpful introduction to such a breadth of Biblical statements. Granted, we can only lend credence to these affirmations if we have the most fundamental belief: faith. As the letter of Hebrews describes it, “by faith we understand that the universe was made by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (11:3). Maybe you’re not so sure about that, or you have some questions and objections about believing in any God who thinks you matter. That’s fine. Keep asking the questions and seeking the answers. It’s part of life’s journey.
From my part, I’ve realized the emptiness of the idols of this world, whether summarized through the four B’s or otherwise. On a recurring basis, I have to admit that I’m powerless and unmanageable on my own; that there’s One Who can restore me to sanity; and that turning my will and my life over to Him is the only sensible choice. (Steps 1 - 3 of the 12-step process.)
This is not a new concept. Jer 2:13 reads, “For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (NASB). This is a great metaphor for the insatiability of idolatry, addictions, or anything other than God for our deepest satisfaction, most stable identity, and enduring sense of purpose.
How about you? Or maybe some people you’re closest to? What’s your list of reasons why you think God shouldn’t care about you, or why you think you don’t matter?
Maybe it’s time to give up, but in a good way—give up the habits that never bring satisfaction or security, and seek what can only be found in our Creator and His people.
Anderson, N. Victory Over The Darkness. (2000). Bethany House.
Lucado, M. You Are Special. (1997). Crossway Books.
Payne, L. The Healing Presence: Curing the Soul Through Union With Christ. (1995). Baker Publishing.
The things people say or do often catch my eye, in what would otherwise be some of the most mundane moments. Like while driving.
It was about a year ago, in Spring of 2022. I was approaching a stop light on a busy, four-lane road. My eyes were drawn to some black-and-white bumper stickers on a gray Subaru Forrester. One was placed diagonally on the left side of the rear window, saying, “You Matter.” On the other side, “Don’t Give Up.”
I thought to myself, “Wow. That really says it.”
Then I did what I always do. I had to see the driver behind the bumper stickers. She wore salt-and-pepper hair, drawn back in a small bun, with glasses and a gentle face of conviction. Clearly, this was not someone with an axe to grind—angrily politicking or decrying the latest injustice. She was probably a grandma. To the desperate, the lonely, and those on the brink of self-destruction, her words were a beacon to any who had eyes to see: You Matter. Don’t Give Up.
Meanwhile, I’m aware of yet another community preparing to memorialize a precious young soul. She was 18 years old. She was artistic. She was funny. She had been part of two churches where her parents brought her up.
And she took her own life.
The pictures and the words wrench my heart, as people remember how much this young woman—this girl—meant to them over the years. Somehow, until after she had ingested far too many toxins for her young body, she had forgotten the quietly heralded truth displayed by that grandmother. For others, maybe they’ve never heard that they matter or that their lives are truly worth something. By what is said, or what is left unsaid, many believe quite the opposite. I think that’s what the Subaru grandma is speaking to us in the simplest way she can.
As the world sputters to life again, after the oppressive restrictions and lock-downs of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that our suspicions about the Internet have been confirmed. The younger crowd gravitates toward the video-gaming world, TikTok, and other social media platforms. Deluged by envy-inspiring images and stories, they internalize messages, “She’s beautiful…and I’m not.” “She has these friends…and I don’t.” And, “he gets to do all of that…and I don’t,” etc. It’s no wonder that recent data indicates a spike in suicides, especially amongst teen girls.
The older crowd has not been immune to these struggles either. Many are overwhelmed by the novelty of the Internet. Deprived of their tried-and-true get-togethers (like card-playing, senior centers, and Bible studies), a number of them still suffer in the silence of their homes. In the span of two years, many of the programs and people they knew have ceased to exist, or they moved away.
As a mental health clinician, I think the solution of lock-downs has been worse than the problem.
We need to get back to community, and we need to do it in a hurry. One person at a time, we need to re-engage with one another. Some of us, more than others, need to resist the false safety of isolation and reach out. Whether a helpline, a local church, or a counselor like myself…get connected and ask for help, and keep doing it until you find someone who can. Maybe there’s someone you can help too.
We would do well to hear it, to speak it, and to act upon it every day:
Don’t give up.
Words to live by.