A Good Man’s Story

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“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I pushed some hard weights in the gym yesterday. It must’ve been obvious since I got a comment from a woman. Normally I get all kinds of annoying comments from men: Smile. Don’t look so mad. You’re too pretty not to smile – lame things men say when women make them uncomfortable by not making them comfortable. So, for a female to notice and speak, it was something.

I went to the gym on a few hours of sleep, the anxiety of motherhood bearing heavy on my heart and worn spirit. After overcoming the temptation of a return to my pillow and cozy covers, I pushed and strained, pulling my muscles and mind to sufficient exhaustion.

I checked in with John. John frequents the gym more than most. At 87 years of age, his determination to defy the aging process is fierce and clear. He shuffles about from machine to machine, weight to weight with dedication and purpose. The man does not waste time. He’s quick with his workouts and wit, his six-time-replaced hip and advanced age slowing him down to a suitable pace, so the rest of us don’t feel like absolute losers.

John asked how I was doing, how my workout went. I mentioned something about difficulty with teenagers and needing to sweat and clear my head. In a prodding manner I joked with him, asking if he ever had teenagers, not expecting the answer he was about to give. Gazing at the ground, my wise friend verbalized his deep, rutted suffering: No, Jen, we buried both of ours at birth.

Gut punch.

I started to apologize and backpedal. He wouldn’t let me. He would not allow me to heap shame upon myself, to experience a moment of guilt. He could’ve easily avoided the difficult admission, but he trusted me enough to answer with honesty, which led me to trust him. His honesty delivered hope and restored my perspective. This kind-hearted gentleman had important things to teach me.

Our pain and concerns often place us in a wasteland of isolation and fear, loneliness and myopia. Nothing good can come from this place. We believe the lies – no-one understands, no-one will empathize, no-one is safe.

And the most harmful lie –

I am alone. 

Perspective is everything, isn’t it? John’s story did not negate my difficulty, nor did it negate my responsibility. His story helped me step away and take a break from my own suffering and pain for a brief moment, to experience grace. My calling as a parent, partner, friend, citizen is unthreatened by a story more tragic than mine. The important work remains, unchanged, but the burden is lifted, lighter. Suffering’s redemption is in the sharing.

Our problems and concerns can be hard and painful and scary, but there are always beautiful stories of resolve and goodness. My difficulties are never the end, nor are yours. If we pay attention, if we find a new perspective we might be able to see the threads of wonder weaving through the tumult and the grief. We might be able to discern the hints of achievement. We might be able to observe subtle building blocks of empathy – shoots of love and compassion poking through the cracked dirt. Shame has no place here. Restored perspective and new understanding allow us to honor our efforts and achieve sturdier footing in this new, more confident space within ourselves.

John’s goal was to take care of me. He did not yield to self-pity, nor would he allow me to resort to shame or embarrassment. He wanted me to feel better, to be able to unload. And in his self-deprecating, redemptive way, mentioned: Well, maybe it’s for the better. I don’t know how I would have done with kids, particularly teenagers.

He considered my comfort, my well-being, my day. He wanted me to experience a sense of goodness and relief. And because of his response, I could return the favor to him.

Iron sharpens iron. There is nothing like good community to remind us of the importance of sharing our stories, of confiding our difficulties. We can never know what someone’s experience might be. Nor can we know, the fresh perspective, that lightens the load and fuels a fire toward true compassionate kindness.

Community is our antidote. Stories are our ammunition. In these fraught times where loneliness abounds, social media echoes, family members have opinions – stories are the solution. We have to listen to one another. We have to have high regard for another’s experience. And we must abound with empathy and desire to love our fellow humanity.

Love is our fiercest weapon.

Love is never soft nor is it weak or spineless. Love is the hardest job we get to do, the work of driving toward common ground. Sometimes the best way to love is to walk away and sometimes the best way to love is to dig in.

Either way – it’s love.