Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Trouble with Other People Who are Not Like Me

Downtown Monroe

In the days of my greater immaturity I sang in a college choir. I am a baritone, and I can hold a tune. I can stay on pitch. But X, who sang in the baritone section next to me, could not. And I grew to despise him for it. Not only was X tone deaf, he could sing louder than anyone in the choir. X's tone deafness tended to overwhelm the choir. He was an eighth of a tone flat, all the time. Just slightly off pitch. To be slightly off pitch in a choir, and loudly so, is a great sin, for it works to drag everyone else down to its distonal level.

To make matters worse X always had a smile on his face. I can see his broad smile now, 43 years later. X was upbeat, chipper, as he miserably sang. This angered me even more. X did not see how this was affecting me. My only relief was to share my grief with other people, to spread my pain far and wide. I was everyone, and everyone talked about X. "X is ruining our choir." "X can't sing." "Just what does X think he is doing?" "X makes my life miserable."

"My life would be better if X were not in my life."

But that last statement, of course, is false. My trouble with X brought out the trouble with me. I, not X (or Y or Z or...) am my greatest problem. Unless I come to see the truth of that I will be forever miserable.

C.S. Lewis, in a beautiful little piece many years ago called "The Trouble with X," wrote:

"Even if you became a millionaire, your husband would still be a bully, or your wife would still nag, or your son would still drink, or you'd still have to have your mother-in-law live with you.

It is a great step forward to realize that this is so; to face up to the fact that even if all external things went right, real happiness would still depend on the character of the people you have to live with--and that you can't alter their characters. And now comes the point. When you have seen this you have, for the first time, had a glimpse of what it must be like for God. For of course, this is (in one way) just what God Himself is up against. He has provided a rich, beautiful world for people to live in. He has given them intelligence to show them how it ought to be used. He has contrived that the things they need for their biological life (food, drink, rest, sleep, exercise) should be positively delightful to them. And, having done all this, He then sees all His plans spoiled--just as our little plans are spoiled--by the crookedness of the people themselves. All the things He has given them to be happy with they turn into occasions for quarreling and jealousy, and excess and hoarding, and tomfoolery..." (C.S. Lewis, The Trouble with X)

But God's view is different from my view, or from your view. "He sees one more person of the same kind--the one you never do see. I mean, of course, yourself. That is the next great step in wisdom--to realize that you also are just that sort of person. You also have a fatal flaw in your character. All the hopes and plans of others have again and again shipwrecked on your character just as your hopes and plans have shipwrecked on theirs."

God sees me. To God, I am X. And surely I am X to some people. "It is important to realize that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives others the same feeling of despair which their flaws give you. And it is almost certainly something you don't know about."

There is a second way God is different from me. While I don't love X, God does. God  "loves the people in spite of their faults. He goes on loving. He does not let go. Don't say, "It's all very well for Him. He hasn't got to live with them." He has. He is inside them as well as outside them. He is with them far more intimately and closely and incessantly that we can ever be. Every vile thought within their minds (and ours), every moment of spite, envy, arrogance, greed, and self-conceit comes right up against His patient and longing love, and grieves His Spirit more than it grieves ours."

Today, when I think of my attitude towards X, I am saddened. X was no dummy. Surely X knew I couldn't stand him. The thought of X knowing that and still smiling as he sang with all his atonal heart sickens me. Who am I, before God, to treat anyone that way? And who are you to do the same? Lewis writes:

"Be sure that there is something inside you which, unless it is altered, will put it out of God's power to prevent your being eternally miserable. While that something remains, there can be no Heaven for you, just as there can be no sweet smells for a man with a cold in the nose, and no music for a man who is deaf. It's not a question of God "sending" us to Hell. In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be Hell unless it is nipped in the bud. The matter is serious: let us put ourselves in His hands at once--this very day, this hour."