A helpful perspective on relationships and priorities
I really, really want to make a difference in the world, and I really, really hate saying that.
I hate the way that it makes me sound like a hyper-idealistic, just-out-of-college twenty-something, with a lot of big ideas. So much energy and so little experience. I probably hate that because all those things are true. I am fresh out of college. I have lots of ideas. I don’t have a whole lot of experience, but I have a lot of energy and motivation to make a difference somewhere around the world.
I doubt I’m alone here. I think I’m part of a generation that has really high hopes for what the world should be like, and a really strong sensitivity towards all the ways that it falls short. It seems like every time I go online, somebody’s promoting a cause, outraged over some injustice, or sharing pictures from their volunteer trips to Southeast Asia.
Back in high school, I remember when a few of my classmates got really invested in the cause to put an end to the use of child soldiers in Africa. Civil wars in Darfur and Uganda were getting out of hand, and I remember seeing documentaries, photographs, and even first hand stories, feeling so energized. Feeling uncomfortable just sitting still. I wanted to do something.
Not much has changed. Now every time I check for updated statistics about all the refugees escaping Syria, or all the victims of conflict in the Middle East, I can’t help but feel the urge to go and do something.
I’m quite positive that a lot of this energy comes from an unhealthy savior complex, but I think a lot of it also comes from genuine compassion. I’ve decided that I would rather jump into action and allow myself to be humbled through experiences and time, instead of sitting on the sidelines.
All that energy served me well while I was in South Africa to work with orphans, or campaigning for North Korean human rights. But now? Living in Bakersfield? It’s a little bit harder for me to actively pour myself into a cause. It took me months of searching before I found an opportunity that seemed to be right.
This explains why I spent a good part of this morning attending a mentoring seminar at a nearby church.
The seminar was a training session for a bunch of us in town who wanted to become mentors to young people with a difficult background. It was hosted by this guy Sean. Sean was a pretty fun guy, and I already thought I liked him because he carefully matched his Mariners cap with a pair of teal Nikes. Sean mentioned that he had a pretty difficult background. He made some mistakes that led to him having to serve jail time and missing out on years of his kids’ lives. Some mentors helped him get back on his feet after that and so he was now dedicated to making sure other people got that opportunity.
I thought Sean was a pretty neat guy, but I hadn’t slept well the night before, so I had a hard time staying focused. As an instructor, Sean loved to use visual aids. While he was talking, I found it easier to just space out and watch what he was drawing.
“Many of the kids you’ll be working with have suffered from abuse. In many cases, people who have been abused are much more likely to become abusive in relationships. That’s why we call it the cycle of abuse.”
Sean drew a diagram of a cycle on the whiteboard to explain his point. A spiral connecting points that represented people in a family, from one generation to the next.
He went on to talk about conversations you could have as a mentor.
“Try and focus on goals and motivation. Experience, action, information, and reflection are all important parts of developing ourselves.”
He drew those four words on the whiteboard and arrows connecting them all. I really wanted to stay focused, but it was hard to keep my mind from wandering. And then, he drew circles.
Sean drew six concentric circles, forming a bullseye.
“Now, let’s talk about the relationships people have, because many of the kids you’ll work with might have some serious relationship issues to work through.”
He labeled the innermost circle. Spiritual.
“This is your most intimate relationship. You and God, and all those big ideas you have about why you’re alive and whether or not you’re a good person probably affect your relationship with yourself. Where you get your identity from.”
He then went to the circle surrounding that one. Family, he wrote down.
“Just outside of that, family is most important,” he explained. “Look, lots of people in your life are going to come and go, but you commit to your family for life. You’ve got to make sure those relationships are safe and secure and solid.”
He labeled the following circle Friendships.
“I’ll bet you can even split this layer in two. It’s pretty broad and more ambiguous. There will be those friends who stick with you through different seasons of life, and then there are those who are around for a season. On the periphery you have your more casual acquaintances, the people you are friendly with but don’t know too deeply. Okay, now we’re moving past intimacy and acquaintance and towards the zone of participation.”
Community was the next circle.
“You all probably belong to several groups. Your workplace. Your church. Maybe you’re a member of toastmasters or a fantasy football league or a school board or something. All of these are communities. You aren’t exactly friends or even acquaintances with everybody else who’s a part of it, but you have a relationship with the group as a whole. These groups can play huge roles in our lives. Think of how important it was for you to fit in somewhere back in high school.”
“I’ll call this next circle Local” he instructed, as he labeled the second most outer ring. “You’ve got your city, your neighborhood. You’re a part of it, and you want to do your part to make it better. In turn, where you live affects you. Think of how different life is going to be for a kid from the hood versus a kid from the suburbs.”
Sean moved on to the last circle. Global.
“Your country. The world. Ultimately, we’re part of the human race and we’re designed to make a contribution to it. I’m sure you hear of things every day on the news that make you angry or give you hope or both. It’s a relationship all the same.”
This was a really simple diagram, especially in comparison to the ones he was drawing earlier. Despite that, this one caught my attention. I started to think about my change-the-world attitude, and how the unhealthy side of it often resulted from me trying to build my spiritual health and identity by doing big things in the world.
Sean didn’t say it, but seeing all the relationships a person has in their life made me realize that my focus was inside out in a lot of ways.
“You can think of this like a diagnostic tool,” he told us. “You can look at the relationships in your mentee’s life– or, your own life, and you can see where there might be some issues, some areas for growth and for challenge.”
I was already in the middle of that.
About a year and a half ago, my change-the-world energy led me to the Justice Conference in Portland. I heard so many good ideas thrown around at that conference from different people I admire, and there was one definition of justice that really stuck with me: justice was simply everybody and everything in proper relationship. Governments and citizens. People and the planet. Humans of different ethnicities and each other.
Or in the context of what Sean was talking about, a kid and his school. A man and his family. Me and myself and God.
Looking at Sean’s drawing of the circles, I started to realize how easy it was for me to overrate those outer layers. I wanted to have a positive influence and to make a positive impact in the world– all good desires, but ones that shouldn’t come at the expense of my innermost layers. My identity. My relationship with people like my parents or Deanna or my friends who’ve been there for a while.
I know I have a dangerous tendency to try and form my identity based on the good I’m able to contribute to the world at large. It’s dangerous, because it inverts these circles. Instead of having an identity secure in Love that flows outwards, to those around me and subsequently the world, I often forget and try and do things in the reverse order.
Impact and influence are good things for sure, but I think it’s easy to get caught up in the big stages and public performance and easy to neglect those closest to you, those most impacted by your everyday actions.
After all, haven’t we heard the stories of people who have excelled on a public platform and messed things up pretty badly at home? I can’t say I know a whole lot about Steve Jobs, but I do know he’s changed the world in a pretty drastic way. At the same time, if some of the things I’ve heard about him are true, he did this all at the cost of his relationship with some of the people closest to him.
Even if I’m wrong about him, there are still plenty of stories of the motivational speaker who can seem to only get things right when on stage, of the great humanitarian who’s actually pretty unkind once you get to know him, of the brilliant leader whose kids never get to see him.
Working in special needs classrooms has allowed me to see how kids unravel when they don’t have a loving presence in their lives. One of the biggest things I’ve come to believe is true over the past year is that no matter who you are, there’s nothing better you can do for another person than to be a consistent and faithful presence in his or her life. After all, we all need to be Loved, and it’s something not all of us have.
Seeing that has totally changed my mind on how to have an impact on the world.
After all, if I never do anything to help resolve the crisis in Syria, if I never help rescue a child soldier, or if the campaigning I’ve done for North Korean human rights is just a drop in a bucket, there are many, many others who are also contributing to these causes. That’s not a call for apathy, just a dose of humility.
At a global level, I’m replaceable. At home, I’m not.
To my parents, I’m their only child. I’m the only one for Deanna. For most of my close friends, I play a role nobody else can fill. It’s in those inner circles where I’m irreplaceable.
I took Sean’s well illustrated lecture as a call to action. A call to focus on the relationships that God has put right in front of me and to be as faithful as I can possibly be to them.
That said, I don’t want to lose the good side of my change-the-world energy. I still want to cultivate compassion and do things that help people. Both those who are immediately around me, and those much further away.
I believe it’s possible to start by focusing on your closest circles and to end up having an impact felt on the other side of the world.
Even just saying that makes me think of a moment earlier in the week.
“You actually have a prep period for an hour right now,” I was told while subbing at a middle school.
This was one of the pleasant surprises I get as a sub sometimes. I never know my teacher’s schedules beforehand, really, so whenever I’m informed of something like that, it’s always a little bit exciting.
I went over to the teacher’s lounge, which was quite empty at nine in the morning, because nobody else really has a prep period right off the bat. I took a spot on one of the long leather couches, and pulled out the book I’d been reading. You always want to have the book you’re reading on you, just in case something like that happens.
I had my book out, and I’d been reading for a little while when I got some company in the teacher’s lounge– the only other people in the school who would have that morning hour free. A couple of cafeteria workers.
They were talking about Typhoon Haiyan, which had just devastated parts of the Philippines a week ago.
“I want him to learn,” one of them said in reference to her son. “That’s why I decided to give to help the Filipinos. We don’t have a whole lot to give, but I wanted him to see an example from me. Because one day, that could be us.”
Compassion is a lifestyle. That’s something I’m going to remember. And a lunch lady on an ordinary day of work played a big role in my paradigm shift from seeing compassion as being for a good cause to being for people.
I have been blessed with many people in my life who have given me powerful models of generosity. I know some who have been wise with their finances and have put themselves into positions of having many resources to help others with. I also know some who have rejected much material wealth to be generous relationally, with their careers or gifts. But I’m also thankful for very simple models, like the lunch lady, who reminded me that when compassion is your lifestyle, it shines brightly on what might just seem like an ordinary day.
Ultimately, this lady just wanted to set a good example for her son, but I’ll bet there are some families in the Philippines who will be real thankful she did.
Start close. Go far. You’ll end up surprising yourself if you do things in the right order.