Ministers Column November 2011

I once read somewhere that it’s best to praise children, not for getting right answers, but for staying fo­cused and working hard.

This idea rings true for me as a statement about ministry and caring for others. So often in ministry, we find ourselves in situations where there are no right answers, but there is still important work to be done.  In the midst of grief, pain and loss, for example, there is often nothing that can be said to alleviate another’s suf­fering. There is often no answer to the question, why me? But the work of staying present and open to the one who is suffering is vital. Even without answers, there is work to be done.

I forget this wisdom sometimes. I fall into the trap of wanting to be the expert when an expert isn’t really needed; wanting to say the perfect thing in a difficult situation, when there’s really nothing that can be said; wanting to solve someone’s problems, when he or she isn’t actually looking for a solution. I fall into this trap sometimes.

Where does this come from, this tendency to forget that sometimes getting the right answer is not im­portant? I suppose it comes from an impulse towards perfection. I suppose it comes from a place of insecurity and wanting to be liked. I suppose it comes from being an adult child of an alcoholic. I suppose it comes from many sources.

Our theme for November is compassion. And while so much discourse on compassion is about how we empathize and sympathize with those around us who are in pain, I’m wondering here about what it means to be compassionate to ourselves. I’m wondering, because this impulse towards perfection, this wanting to be liked, this needing to have the right answer all the time doesn’t feel very compassionate towards myself. When I pause to pay attention to it, it feels rather overbearing and oppressive. And I wonder: if I’m being overbear­ing and oppressive towards myself, am I really able to offer compassion to others? I suspect the answer is “no.” I suspect that my ability to offer compassion outward into the world, is limited by the extent to which I offer compassion to myself.

So, in my initial reflections on compassion, I’m offering myself the following reminders. Perhaps they will be useful to you as well.

  1. I want to work hard, but not for the sake of perfection.
  2. I want to work hard to be present to life.
  3. I want to find and offer the right answers, but only when they’re needed. My presence is often more valuable than my answers.
  4. When I can’t find the right answers, I won’t be discouraged. I’ll just say, “I don’t have the answer, but I’m still here, I’m still present.”
  5. I want to be kind to others, and therefore I will be kind to myself.

Have a great November!

With love,  Rev. Josh