It is an unusual baby who arrives on the mortal scene concerned foremost about the well being of others. Imagine a newborn saying (or acting as if to say): “Wow. I can see that all of you look very worn out. Mom, you look spent! What a struggle for you! Dad, you need a rest. Doctor, thank you for making my arrival so warm and safe. Why don’t I just relax a few hours while all of you get caught up. Let me know when you would like to visit. Maybe we can chat and have a snack in a few hours.”
As much as we are delighted with the arrival of newborns, they come with a rather different attitude. “Man! That was miserable! Do you know what I’ve just been through? And I’m not that crazy about the light and drafts here. Listen. Why don’t I scream and holler until you can figure out how to make me happy. Then maybe I’ll rest for a while. But I’ll let you know when I need something. And when I scream, I expect service.”
A clod of complaints
George Bernard Shaw’s words fit the newborn quite well: “A feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” The baby may be demanding and self-centered—but we make allowances for being a brand new human.
Unfortunately our attitude doesn’t change quickly or easily as we age. Many of us in adulthood are still struggling with the same attitude. “If I’m unhappy, I intend that everyone else be miserable as well. So, if you don’t want to be tortured, get busy taking care of my needs.”
A few people break the pattern. Something is different for them. They are different from the rest of us. You know them. There is the ward member who seems to take genuine interest in people who struggle. There is the neighbor who cares for an ailing parent or a disabled child without complaint. There are those who set aside their own burdens and disappointments so that they can serve patiently and endlessly. I have been blessed by the ministering and example of many such people.
Van Wyck Brooks describes people who have moved from being narrow and contracted to being expansive: “How delightful is the company of generous people, who overlook trifles and keep their minds instinctively fixed on whatever is good and positive in the world about them. People of small caliber are always carping. They are bent on showing their own superiority, their knowledge or prowess or good breeding. But magnanimous people have no vanity, they have no jealousy, and they feed on the true and the solid wherever they find it. And, what is more, they find it everywhere.” (A Chillmark Miscellany)
I would like to be one of those magnanimous people. How do we get from the clod of complaints to noble goodness?
Ladling from life
Life provides each of us an experiential stew filled not only with chunks of vegetables but abundant weeds and rocks. The hodgepodge includes the intriguing, the indigestible, the enriching, and the toxic. We all eat stew from life’s general pot. Yet some are stunted while others flourish. Why is it that some extract nourishment for their goodness while others get only poison for their minds and souls?
People who have been served a bitter bowl of stew and still flourished have become iconic. Elijah turned national disgrace into personal discovery and continuing service. Corrie ten Boom transformed Holocaust hate into embracing forgiveness. Viktor Frankl found meaning in the concentration camp. C. S. Lewis transformed a lonesome childhood into an embracing faith. Jesus metabolized the sins and pains of creation into the triumph of love.
There are those who have eaten from the same pot and yet are spiritually malnourished. Sigmund Freud showed the nature of his own soul when he wrote that, “I have found little that is good about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash.” A cynic would argue that Freud’s bitter assessment of humans is the result of his extensive experience with them. It seems even more likely that it is the result of his corrosive cynicism and atheism.
Throughout history there have been those who would destroy others to advance their own cause. Cain. herod. Hitler. McVeigh. bin Laden. It is chilling to discover that we all have a little Timothy McVeigh in us. We may not be willing to destroy a whole community, but we stingily disburse our good will. At times we may even wish harm on this person or that nation.
So how do we move away from our churlish childishness and become more like those expansive people we admire? What is the key to this mighty change?
I reflected on the question as I sat in church. I thought of the complex answers about biological dispositions and environmental shaping. I thought about all the things research recommends for moral development. How can all these ideas be summarized?
The answer came quite unexpectedly. The organ began to play and words ascended from the seekers. “I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me, confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me. I tremble to know that for me he was crucified. That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled, and died.”
I felt flooded with the simple truth that Jesus is the way for any who want to move from tired self-absorption to glorious contributing. Even for those who have never heard His name, His persistent invitation to gentleness and goodness is resident in their souls. The Light of Christ.
“Oh! It is wonderful! Wonderful to me.”