Loving People in Pain: Humility and Compassion

Sometimes we are impatient with the weakness of others. When those closest to us exhibit neediness, it’s easy to recoil in judgment. Their vulnerability triggers our fear: fear of being blamed, fear of unreasonable demands, and fear that our own neediness will become visible. The result is distance, leaving the other person feeling abandoned in their pain. While this reaction may provide a fleeting sense of control, over time it erodes trust and makes intimacy more difficult.

When people experience weakness, their soul cries out for compassion and support. They need trusted loved ones to draw close, to empathize and tell them that they are still loved. Deep down inside, most of us want to offer these gifts, but fear and pride compel us to withdraw. If this results in shame, we can justify our callousness in the name of tough love or healthy boundaries, thereby increasing the disconnect and adding insult to injury.

The cure is humility.

Humility is a misunderstood virtue in our culture. It is usually associated with impotence and confused with humiliation, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Genuine humility is about self-awareness. It’s about knowing, showing, and embracing our strengths and weaknesses, our beauty and brokenness. It’s an affirmation of our common humanity (our imperfection), which counteracts the tendency to elevate or degrade ourselves in relation to others. Humility teaches, “The weakness that I see in you is the weakness that resides in me.”

When clothed in humility, our response to neediness can be supportive. Instead of compulsively withdrawing in fear and judgement, humility empowers us to connect with the pain of others through empathy, and in this way humility is the gateway to compassion.

Contrary to popular opinion, humility and compassion require enormous strength. It is easy to react in fear, defensiveness, and judgment, leaving others feeling abandoned and bereft. It is difficult to enter someone’s pain and hold them there. In fact, we cannot muster enough courage to love in this way without drawing on a power greater than ourselves, without grace.

So, let us pray for that which makes love possible: humility, compassion, and patience. And let us practice these virtues as others trust us enough to show their weakness and pain.

Don’t Fight the Lazy River: Finding Spiritual Power Pockets

I just got back from vacation at Atlantis in the Bahamas. One of my favorite things to do at the resort (in addition to eating) was riding down the lazy river on a double tube with my fiancé, Emma. The first time we pushed out into the current it was surprising to discover that many parts of the river were not so lazy at all! At several points, we were pulled into class two rapids and hit with a series of big waves generated by a damn that repeatedly opened and closed with ten second intervals. About halfway around, you could get out, climb a series of stairs, and ride your tube down slides that dumped back into the river. The rapids, waves, and slides were exciting, but in between these fast places the river got so lazy that it felt like you were standing still. We even got stuck in a few places against a wall and had to paddle back into the current to get going again. Every time things slowed down, my natural response was impatience. I knew that things were supposed to slow down at various points (after all, that’s why they call it a lazy river). I also knew that the contrast between the fast and slow parts of the river made the fast sections more fun. Finally, I knew that when things slowed down if we just relaxed in the tube then the current would pick us up again. But it was hard to relax and our compulsion was to paddle ourselves back into a power pocket or jump out and walk the tube back into the fast part of the current. As we navigated the lazy river a few times, I thought of several connections with my real life.

Sometimes we are shooting the rapids, riding big waves, and flying down slides. Life is exciting and we have lots of momentum. Other times we feel like we are standing still or stuck against a wall. During these times our natural instinct is to paddle—to push, work, or otherwise exert effort to create momentum. If we are stuck against a wall then some paddling might be necessary, but don’t forget that there is a current to help you along. I really believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world creating a stream of life—a current—that moves the world in a certain direction, toward God’s preferred future. If we forget this and just start exerting a bunch of energy to get unstuck then we might find ourselves inadvertently paddling upstream, which will result in an exhaustion that leads nowhere fast. But if we remember that we live, breathe, and have our being in the stream of life generated by the Holy Spirit then we can cooperate with this current by paddling into spiritual power pockets that will launch us forward. You don’t have to create all the energy and forward momentum by yourself! The real question is, “Where are the power pockets?” and the way to answer this question is by spending time in prayer and meditation on scripture. And if you are not stuck but things are not moving as fast as you like, then maybe you don’t need to paddle at all. Maybe you just need to relax, appreciate the gifts that a slow pace provides, and trust that the current is strong enough to move you forward.

Another connection I made was related to my relationship with Emma. When you are riding in a double tube all of this stuff gets more complicated! Both people have to remember and trust the current, both have to communicate about when to relax and when to paddle, and both have to find the power pockets together. Sometimes one person is saying “Relax!” and the other person is saying “Paddle,” but when you are connected in a life-long partnership you can only move forward as a team—you have to act in harmony. This requires two people that are willing to stay in the tube together, good communication, and real patience.

Where are you on the stream of life and how can you work together with the people you love to find the spiritual power pockets that will propel you toward God’s preferred future?