”Other People Have It Worse”: Modern Stoicism and Self Pity

Does knowing that someone else has it worse than you really ease your suffering? As I thought about this, I was seared with a memory from years ago. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. “It’s okay Nathan. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” The Confucian advice was from my well meaning dad. I just sat crying into my rice as my mom and sister exchanged glances and shook their heads. Another memory flows from its subconscious dregs into my mind — a recent friend of mine became a pastor in a rough area. Being from a more privileged background, the suffering and disorder he encountered was overwhelming. One way he continued to keep himself going was by minimizing his difficulties. After all, how can he complain when so many of his flock have it worse?

Thinking through this matters because suffering is real. In fact, it may the most real part of life. Life is suffering. Unless you close your eyes. So how do you find comfort? How do you counsel? And how do you understand what you will inevitably go through at some point in life? Without understanding suffering you may find yourself broken, shipwrecked, and damaged beyond recognition. You may become someone you never knew.

This was the case for many wives and children waiting to welcome their dads home after the Vietnam war, only to receive someone who was dad half the time and a raging alcoholic the other. This is the case for every single guy and girl after a break up or divorce. Who will they be now? The gym provides little answer.

While reminding yourself of the triviality of your suffering keeps self pity and pride in check, its objectivity doesn’t help you suffer well. It doesn’t give you the resolve to overcome it or to ease its sting. Suffering is costly. It eats you up the more you have it. Everyone has a breaking point. At its worse, such a stoic saying simply denies it and leads to the pretense that “I’m fine. And you’re fine.” And therefore nobody is.

It is written somewhere in the Psalms that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy. As I listened to pastor Tim Keller preach from this Psalm I realized this: that what comforts and heals and changes you is not knowing that people have it worse but that no one had it worse than Jesus. This man was a man of sorrows. But his sorrows were for you. His life was one trial after another and ended in agony – forsaken by God and condemned to die nailed on a tree by men. And it was all for the joy set before him.

Just as he wept for the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept bittersweet tears on that cross for us. His pain was undiminished. But his resolve was firm. And his joy was magnified. Because he knew it would reconcile humanity to God and ultimately fix this broken world. The darkness of alienation from God and men was worth every tear if it meant we could share his joy.

So when I suffer, without denying what I experience, I can remember that Jesus had it worse. I can continue to live, sowing tears and knowing that not one will fall to the ground and be wasted. Each drop will be reaped with joy. And though we don’t quite know what suffering will do to us, we know that we will be like him and see him as he is – one who suffered and triumphed and laughed over life even in death. This is the hope of redemption and the immeasurable glory that no suffering can overcome.

The Belly Buster

Around Christmas time, I saw a man with cropped hair, olive skin and arms that tried to squeeze out of his gray tank top. As he ducked and weaved his way through the crowds at Westfield shopping center, one bright Unicef worker dared to break through the blur and stand up to the tanned hulk.

Commence the pleading! First came the convenience: “just 2 mins of your time sir.” Then as his clipboard rattled, the cause was put forward — “a cure for AIDs.” But it was too little. And too late. The tank top’s bags had too much momentum. They propelled him forward rolling past the clipboard and spectacles with the polite flash of pearly teeth. Maybe he was shopping for a girlfriend. Then there would be no stopping him.

I shook my head at the man. Now I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t even the most generous person. But at least I wasn’t like that man. That’s what I thought. I enjoyed the amusement fo a second and then used the distraction to skip past the Unicef booth — hopefully unnoticed. The booth was an island among the 7 seas. Currents of people would ripple away from it. And there water often dried.

So I escaped. I survived not just the harassment to my schedule but the pangs of my guilty conscience. After all, who were they to ask for my money? How did one choose between all the noble causes that existed? What about the money I already gave? The entrance to Platypus shoes ended my day time reverie. I slowed my pace as I relaxed into the glassy cases of Vans and Timberlands and Converse. Not even the shop assistant’s questions fazed me. I was there to do my Christmas shopping. I was there to find the right Vans for me.

The Vans expressed how I felt about myself at the moment. Black and white. Size 10s. Lows. They are me. I am them. I would get around to other needs eventually. But 1st I needed to be me. I checked the label for its authenticity and satisfied with it, walked out with a black box. At least I’m keeping it minimal. So I thought.

Today We Said Goodbye: On Leaving St. John’s

Is it harder to lift your eyes to lead a service or to say goodbye? Today Sophia and I formally we were leaving St. John’s Anglican Cathedral. I’ve never enjoyed public speaking and I was definitely not going to enjoy it now. St. John’s had been my home for the last 4 years and Sophia’s for the last 11. I’ve said goodbye many times in my life. I’ve moved around 10 times. It never gets easier. But today announcing that we were leaving our church was one of the harder goodbyes I’ve had to say since I became a Christian.

St. John’s has been a home away from home this side of eternity. And it was a good home for 4 years. It wasn’t perfect just as no hotel or roadside inn is. There are some doors that need mending. And sometimes the roof would leak. You didn’t always like those you ate dinner with. And you would sometimes wonder whether the inn down the road had a better bed and breakfast. We are a weird bunch. And yet we were still together.

Our lives had intertwined for a brief period. Yet we find ourselves coming away from St John’s bearing the marks of every person we have met. Like soldiers who have gone through a war together and survived, we served together for a common cause: to see the city of Parramatta transformed by the hope of the risen Christ. Sometimes in those few short years it seemed to me like every day was the same. And yet looking back, I can see glimpses of God at work in our city, in maturing our growth groups and in drawing people of all colors and ages to him. There was no big battle. There was only the quiet hum drum of St John’s on Hunter St. We met countless toddlers, youths and university students and elderly folk who had come to meet Jesus.

But what ultimately bound us together was not what we did. We were soldiers who had survived. The resurrection of our souls brought this weird eclectic bunch together and continues to do so today, tomorrow and in eternity. I know we’ll be united again some day because we’ve been raised to new life with our Creator. And that day will make today a momentary pause; just a gentle breeze that passes through life. It would as though we had never said goodbye.

Here and now we’re separated by time and space, near yet far. I may see someone from St. John’s on the street again someday. And if I do I hope it’ll be like old times. And we might say ‘hi’ and ‘how’re you doing?’ And some I know I will never see again at least in this lifetime. So for now it’s not so much goodbye, but ‘till we meet again’, when we will see one another through clearer mirrors than we have ever known.