One of my pet peeves is listening to rich, privileged people complain about their ‘difficult’ lives.
I’m talking about people who take 3 or 4 overseas holidays a year complaining about how tired they are, and how they never get a break, when most of the world could never even dream of the luxury of going to an entirely different country just to relax.
I’m talking about people who live in palatial houses moaning that they don’t have enough space when the majority of the world will never actually ‘own’ a home unless they build it with their own two hands out of rudimentary materials, on land which strictly belongs to someone else.
I’m talking about young adults who attend the best educational institutions in the world but do nothing but gripe about having to be there, while the underprivileged of the world look on in open jealousy at the life opportunities it will afford these ingrates (of which I was one not too long ago by the way).
This kind of complaining can only be done by people who have never bothered to take a look around them at the world they are living in. It’s as if, even though they have been given so much, they are afraid of acknowledging how good things really are. They have to constantly compare themselves with the few who are further up the chain of privilege, and then cultivate a permanent feeling of dissatisfaction.
I mean it’s a rare thing today to find people who would say that they have ‘enough’.
But this comparative complaining is only one aspect.
The other is the seeming luxury the rich have to create problems and drama out of absolutely nothing.
We all instinctively know that good stories are ones in which the protagonist has to overcome hardship, or push through adversity, but if you have everything you need then it seems you need to create drama ‘ex nihilo’ in order to get the feeling that your story is a good one.
And so we do.
Check this song out from comedian Bill Bailey:
I’m so sick of hearing the rich and privileged play this game; pretending their lives are so tough, especially within earshot of those with so little. In my country it is still common for people to have a domestic worker who slaves away cleaning house for a pittance; and I cannot tell you the number of times I have watched spoilt westerners complaining about their lot whilst the maid stands at the sink trying to work out how she will afford the taxi home, or food for the family on her pathetic wage!
It pisses me off!
Now some of you will suggest I’m being harsh, and that I don’t understand that ‘rich’ problems are problems too. That may be true on the surface, but the stakes are very different. Often when the rich hit problems they may have to downsize the house, or sell a car; but when the poor hit issues, lives are at stake.
The other tell tale sign is that you have to ‘choose to create space’ in our lives for a lot of our 1st world problems.
You won’t find single parents supporting 3 kids, with as many jobs, complaining about their job satisfying them creatively, because their kids futures are at stake.
You won’t find much of a need for depression counseling in those tribes untouched by western ‘civilization’, who struggle everyday to find enough food to feed themselves.
They just don’t have the space in their lives.
In other parts of the world people don’t have the luxury of dealing with ‘privileged issues’ because they are busy dealing with real life and death problems. So as ‘all encompassing’ as our 1st world pressures may feel, we have to admit that many of them are a luxury, and it’s our job to get a broad enough picture of the world that many of them fall into context at the bottom of the ‘importance pile’.
We desperately need a little perspective.
And the church is no different on this issue. We feel a similar need to create drama, perhaps even more so.
A friend of mine, also named Shaun, came to Seminary to preach in Chapel one day. He had graduated the previous year, but had been asked to return and speak in our weekly meeting. I still remember that message because it struck me as odd at the time. Amidst whatever else he said, he made the prophetic point that the church’s upcoming issue will be an ‘obsession with our own pain’. He suggested that we would wallow in it and our ‘often imagined or inflated’ crises would blind us from the job at hand.
It’s only with hindsight that I realized he was absolutely right.
My experience of Pastoring was often a frustrating one, because I was sick of listening to people moan about their lot in life, when a little perspective would have cured it all. But I was never allowed to give it, because we live with the trendy lie today that every felt gripe deserves credence. I mean, I have a degree in Psychology, but I would probably make a terrible counsellor in the minds of many because I would be telling people to ‘grow up and get some perspective’ on a regular basis. I really think some people just need a kick in the pants. Verifying their felt pain into eternity keeps them constantly looking inwards, and oblivious to the world out there.
I think my advice would often be to go and live with people who have nothing, feed someone who is starving, clothe someone who is naked. It’s the best therapy. When I worked in the church I quickly realized that the soup kitchens I ran were far more beneficial for me and my growth than for those on the street. It pulled my pathetic gripes into sharp perspective, and many of them just fell away. Taking youth groups on mission trips had the same effect, and it always amazed me as I watched teens getting stuck in to help those with so little, and then forgetting to be self conscious and self obsessed, at least for a little while.
Maybe Matthew 25: 31-46 is speaking as much about us being saved from ourselves here and now?
Often when you dig through peoples pain, you find there is nothing under the layers but created reality.
There is no event.
No one said anything.
No one did anything.
It is all perceived.
To some it seems creating drama out of their lives gives them purpose and meaning. It becomes a drug.
It doesn’t mean there isn’t real 1st world pain out there, born of real hardship; it just means we have to learn the difference between a created, or accentuated issue, and a real one… because at some point we have to get on with our lives, and become about more than ourselves.
We have to unlearn our propensity to support each others victimhood, and learn to throw our energies at real problems.
I was sitting with a friend the other day and we were speaking about the church, and she made the comment that she believes one of the big problems today, and one of the main reasons people are leaving the mainline church, is because they don’t take people’s hurt seriously.
Needless to say, I couldn’t disagree more.
I think this obsession with felt pain is the reason church today is so insular. I mean with all these ‘desperately wounded’ people, no wonder we have no time for anyone else. Most of it comes from this understanding of church as a ‘hospital for the wounded’, usually because of a bad reading of passages like Luke 5:32 and Mark 2:17. The problem with this is that hospitals tend to be centers who demand that people come to them. But church, as I read scripture, is meant to go out and change the world, and that’s going to be hard to do if we’re all hiding away licking our wounds.
My friend may be right in her reasoning: perhaps that is the reason people are leaving; because they aren’t getting the attention they want… but then maybe they should. Maybe it’s ok. Maybe no amount of attention would be enough.
As I read the Gospels, Jesus wasn’t very precious with people, in fact sometimes He comes across as pretty harsh. He didn’t sit with the woman at the well in Luke 4 speaking about abuse, and marital difficulty, and he didn’t help her spin her story to justify her position as the victim. Instead he told her to get up, go back to the village, pull it together, and tell people what she’d found.
Of course it’s true that living in our modern world carries some unique stresses and strains with it, but we have to rise above them and not obsess over them.
The whole tone of Jesus’ verbal and non verbal message is to move beyond ourselves to the needs of others. How can we do that if we’re constantly creating new ways to paint ourselves as the victims in our own privileged lives?
Time for us to get up, go back to the village, pull it together and tell people what we’ve found!