Wednesday, March 19

Live into Compassion

Dear Jacob,

When you were growing up homeschooled, you missed out on something.  It was called "invite everyone in your class to your birthday party because you can't leave anyone out."  It's a ridiculous rule and yet I completely understand it.  It seems very compassionate on the part of the parents who make their kids follow this rule, but it's not so compassionate on the kids who show up and realize they're just there because everyone had to be invited.  Demoralizing. You know what? You actually didn't miss anything important.  Carry on.

When I was in first grade I went to the birthday party of my friend, Kathy. She was in my class and I don't remember if everyone in my class was invited because it was about a thousand years ago now, but since that was the generation of the Birthday Party Invitation Rule, she must have. We were rule followers in the 70's because those 60's kids were complete rule breakers.

When I went to Kathy's party I won every game; musical chairs and pinning something on something else and games like that. I have to say, winning all the games was exhilarating. The first couple wins were a complete surprise but then I was starting to track with the universe and so when I won the next game it was like, "Well, sure.  What did you expect?"  The winner's circle was a fun place to be in and when my mom came to pick me up, I remember proclaiming snobbishly that I would need help carrying all my prizes out to the car because I'd had such a wonderful time winning all the games. Thank you, Kathy, for inviting me to your lovely party. I had a delightful time. Cheers.

I'm sure my friends were highly unimpressed.  I think they got over it.  I, on the other hand, grew a tad bit more conceited and it stuck with me for an entire year.

The next year when Kathy's birthday rolled around I was invited again (Kathy and I were real friends because that year she wasn't even in my class and I still got an invitation). This time I was smart.  I didn't want to do that same complicated juggling act with my plethora of prizes this year.  And so I went to the party prepared.  I went to the party with a bag.

When the first game began, musical chairs again, I promptly lost.  I was humiliated and for the rest of the party I believe I sat in the corner and sulked.  My friends insensitively called me things like "sour loser" and "cry baby" though I don't think I actually cried so that was a little unfair especially since they were taking home all my prizes -- which should have been enough.  I was angry; the universe had tricked me and left me the victim of utter injustice. I took my empty bag and went home.

A few years ago, there was this unbalanced actor who coined the term "winning."  He'd say it sarcastically in his character role on his sitcom show and then he carried it over into real-life interviews as well.  Every time he said it people mocked him because he was never winning. He, or his writers, started it as sarcasm but when he forgot that his fake life wasn't supposed to be the same as his real life was when the term took a turn.  Now people say it when you're being an idiot.

If you have to declare that you're a winner, you're not one. If you feel the need to always come out on top you're going to hurt some friends, destroy a party and make it completely obvious that all you care about is yourself. If we have to win an argument instead of show someone love and compassion, we've completely missed the point of living like Jesus.

Think about it.  Jesus was a pretty likeable guy.  He traveled all over being kind to people.  He wasn't a blowhard.  He didn't go around saying, "Hey, I bet I can light that bush on fire faster than you." Even though he was God and he knew it, he thought other people were pretty important and he showed it in how he treated them. The Bible says that God's kindness is what brings us to repentance -- which is a fancy word for change. When we force change, no matter how that appears to play in our favor, we'll still never get wholeness.

I understand the drive to win. Competition actually is our primary posture in life.  I read a book by a great guy named Henri Nouwen last year and he pointed out to me that we are much more likely to define ourselves by what makes us different than by what makes us the same. Imagine introducing yourself to another guy in your class and saying, "I'm the one who wears jeans like you and I have glasses like that and I always sit on the right side of the room just like you."  Adults usually say what they do, "I'm a writer" or "I'm the mother of three boys" or "I'm a professor." And we don't really expect anyone to say, "Cool, me too!" We define ourselves by what makes us different.

The things that make us different from everyone else could be good things like virtue and integrity and excellent guitar skills.  They could be the good things that we do like financing micro businesses in Africa, housing a homeless friend, or serving meals at the Rescue Mission. But they could be things that get us rejected like racial conflict and class confrontations and criminal tendencies.  The point is that competition is all-pervasive.  Nouwen said, "Competition reaches into the smallest corner of our lives and relationships and prevents us from entering into full solidarity with one another."

There's the rub; that big word -- solidarity -- means unity, harmony, or teamwork. And that's really the goal of life. Rugged individualism may look cool on the Discovery Channel, but it's actually antithetical to our reason for living. We won't get anywhere as a people, as a nation or as a family as long as some of us think we're better off alone.

The opposite of competition is compassion. Compassion means "to suffer with"  which is more than just feeling sorry for someone, or giving them money to fix their own problem, or even visiting their country to observe first-hand how they live. Compassion moves us to do more, to actually participate in what their lives are like, to enter into friendship and relationship and be okay when that whole effort displaces you or changes your priorities. It requires that we view people with reverence and respect.  It requires a lot of us.  That's why we usually default to competition.  It's hard.

But it's not impossible. Jesus proved that it's not. And all the people in the world who are following him who actually demonstrate compassion prove it too. We can be empowered to demonstrate compassion but we have to face our own broken places first.  We have to deal with our posture of competition and selfishness and disunity or we'll never be able to walk with someone into their own brokenness because we have enough of our own.

If we could care less about the victories and more about the struggles, we'll go a long way toward developing a posture of compassion. I can tell you this; as long as you think you should win everything -- and even carry a bag around to collect all of your prizes -- you have a ways to go. When we identify with the struggles of others and die to our own desires for the fun of the party that's the real prize.