We all struggle in our lives. Some of the daily battles we wage are harder to bear than others. Nevertheless, it is rarely comforting to acknowledge that there are others worse off out there. If anything, it makes us feel guilty for not having a better attitude about our own situations. “Not only do I feel bad that I’m upset about A, B, and C, but now I feel guilty that I’m feeling so down when there are people in the world who are going through X, Y, and Z.” For anyone who followed the coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, you know what I mean here. The suffering of others all too often gives us perspective. Whether we benefit from it or not depends on how we approach our own situations.
I can still recall being a scrawny kid (ah, the good old days), sitting slouched down at the dinner table in front of a heaping plate of pasta and meatballs that was twice my size, hearing my grandmother tell me in a high pitched nasal voice how there were children “starving in the world” who would “die” for the food I was wasting. (I usually preferred this tactic to get me to eat my dinner above being told that my macaroni was growing hair – something that to this day still rings in my ears when I’m not feeling particularly hungry!) I usually gave in, begrudgingly shoveling forkfuls of pasta into my mouth, wondering how exactly the starving children of the world would benefit by my having eaten the food they would have “died for.”
I felt even guiltier! Not only was I a wasteful child, ungrateful for the wonderful bounty of food set before me, but now I was consuming food that could have benefited those starving children in such an unappreciative manner. And even though it was not my fault that these children went hungry, and even though there would have been – at that time – no feasible way for me to remedy their situation, I felt badly. I almost felt responsible. In her effort to get me to appreciate my situation more, my grandmother had succeeded only in reinforcing my Catholic guilt, as well as getting me beyond my “scrawny” phase, neither of which I am altogether thrilled with as I sit here typing!
And it got me thinking… Why do we constantly feel the need to compare our situations to those of others? Does it make us feel better to know that we are unable to properly deal with our mundane problems when there are others out there with “real” issues struggling to survive? Perhaps it would if we realized that we are not ultimately in control of - though we are surely responsible for - our own lives. All too often, we are so busy worrying that things could not possibly get worse (as I did for far too many months before things turned around) that we forget that with God, all things are possible. We let our own doubts put limits on our God whose powers are limitless, and in the end we only limit ourselves, eventually trapping ourselves in self-defeating circular logic that ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rather than looking at the devastation and destruction in other people’s lives and feeling more helpless and hopeless, perhaps we should look at our own lives. What terrible times have you gotten through that you thought would surely be the end of you? Instead of comparing your life to the lives of others (lives that will surely range from far better or worse, depending on perspective), reflect on where you were then and where you are now. In this, God’s faithfulness is truly demonstrated. And if God can get us through the “unsolvable” problems – self-imposed or not – that become such heavy burdens for us to bear, then how much more will He move to help those who seem beyond help, all the starving children of the world that don’t ever benefit from our cleaning our plates for grandma?
A little perspective goes a long way.