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Thursday, July 22, 2010

When it’s Not Funny

It is painful to be chosen last.  You know the scene. Out on the playground children gather round to choose up sides.  The best players are chosen first.  Finally the last few are chosen.  In baseball I was always chosen last.  When I was finally chosen, I was always assigned right field where few balls were hit.  But being chosen last, or, worse, not chosen at all, is not limited to sports.  It might apply to almost any situation—selecting members for a team project in science class or choosing who’s not going on a ride around town as the car fills up.  Because it can happen in so many different ways, I believe that at one time or another everyone has experienced this pain of being left out.  They have usually experienced it already while they were very young.  And in most cases, they don’t forget it.  At least one incident is “pictured” or modeled in the brain as an enduring reminder.

I believe that God uses these “left out” experiences and the pain they cause in a very important way.  One of the basic tenets of the Christian faith is to “love your neighbor.”  We are to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  Those are fine sayings but they mean very little if we somehow don’t feel them powerfully in the gut.  We will not feel them in the gut unless we have empathy.  Empathy “is the identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives” (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992).  But where does empathy come from?  I think it in large part it comes from being hurt on the playground by being left out while we were young.  Such incidents plant a seed deep within our minds that is called forth when we see something similar happening to someone else.

Empathy does not only accompany Christian golden rule behavior but is an essential basis for patriotic behavior as well.  A central tenet of our republic is “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  But what does it mean, “all men are created equal.”  It is obvious that all are not of the same size, health, intelligence, sports ability, etc.  Furthermore, the wording suggests much more is meant than just a narrow political equality.  The most important meaning of the "equal" phrase is that all men (& women) should have empathy for one another.  It is a declaration of and a call to empathy.  Men and women are equal in that all can experience life, liberty, and happiness.  They can experience joy or pain, most especially the pain associated with being chosen last—the pain of injustice even when it is just—when the best players are chosen first.  Empathy impels us to temper justice with mercy because we realize that pain is unavoidable.

This raises a question.  How does one explain mean behavior?  Rather than showing compassion & mercy, some will ridicule, taunt, and tease the inept player.  This may not be all a bad thing.  Surely it is important for everyone to develop something of a tough hide.  We need to learn how to accept criticism gracefully and understand we can’t be good at everything.  It’s a sign of maturity to be able to laugh at one’s own shortcomings.  But we are all aware of the difference between kidding and ridiculing.  Kind kidding has mercy in it and is an attempt to ease embarrassment by a friendly acknowledgement of the obvious.  Mean ridiculing has a desire to hurt in it, a desire to put down and dominate not only in this little game, but also in everything always.  You’re not only a lousy player, you’re a lousy person.  The compassionate at heart remembers their own pain in similar situations and seeks to ease the pain through friendly humor.  Those lacking compassion remember their own pain in similar situations and seek to make others feel their pain through ridicule.  It’s an attempt to “get even” and disown their own pain rather than share a healing experience.

But why do some people attempt to “get even” for their painful experiences and others seek to heal?  I don’t think we know the answer unless we turn to religion.  And of course, it cannot be the “rules,” laws, or tenets of Christianity.  They can only point the way.  They cannot take us there.  It’s a matter of the heart & gut, not only the mind and understanding.  My answer is that it is only by the grace of God alone that we are compassionate.  Only he can make us unselfish enough to be compassionate.  We must ask and pray that He leads us unto righteousness; that when we see pain in the eyes, voice, or demeanor of another, that we seek to heal their pain and ours (both ours from empathy and from memory), rather than seek to get even and make them feel our pain through verbal aggression.  Again this should never be thought to preclude the kidding that we all enjoy and that shows we trust and like one another.  Nature has made us very adept at picking up on others’ attitudes.  Ridicule, meanness, and cruelty are evident to us when we see it.  We have to force a laugh.  We know it’s not really funny.

So it may be true in a way that Christians never laugh.  They never laugh at the attempts to destroy another human being whether it goes under the name of disrespect or “just kidding.”

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