This quote from C.S. Lewis helped inspire this blog:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. – C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Some of my worst days have come when I’ve forgotten this truth, in one of two different ways. Often, I have forgotten my worth and believed false ideas from others or from inside my own head. Just as often, though, I’ve forgotten that others are also extraordinary and treated them below their status of children of God. I’ve found that I need to remind myself on a regular basis of both sides of this truth: I’m no “ordinary person,” and neither is anyone else.
Forgetting What You’re Worth
When I was struggling with fundraising in my work with InterVarsity, I had a very difficult time remembering that my worth wasn’t measured in how many dollars I managed to raise that week. I never put it in quite those terms, of course, because then it would have been too easy to see through the illusion. Instead, I tortured myself with constant anxiety expressed in a series of “if only”s: if only I made more calls, if only I improved my presentation, if only I had a better system, if only I could find money from somewhere else.
Up until then, I hadn’t dealt with much rejection or vocational struggle in my life. Perhaps if I’d had a telemarketing job in college or done door-to-door sales at some point, I would have developed the ability to ignore rejection and move on to the next challenge sooner. Perhaps – but I’m sure that the struggle would have been just as difficult for me to process. Fortunately, by facing this struggle in the context of InterVarsity, surrounded by many wise and loving people, I had the opportunity to learn that my success in fundraising – or any part of life – had nothing to do with my ultimate identity and worth.
This wisdom has helped me face struggles with my work outside of InterVarsity. Once, when I was dealing with an extremely difficult relationship with a (now former) supervisor, I joked with my wife that she had picked the wrong person to deal with, because I knew that her opinion of me had no power over me.
Neither our failures nor our successes define us.
Forgetting What Others Are Worth
At other times, though, I have no problem thinking highly of myself – but I treat other people like trash. This frequently happens in moments when I’m receiving extremely poor customer service, get angry with the company that I’m dealing with, and take out my frustration on the person that I just happen to be speaking with. In truth, he likely has no more control over the situation than I do. If he did, he’d probably fix my problem and we’d move on with our day. We’re both victims of a system poorly designed by someone else (likely a committee of someone elses).
In those moments, what if I remembered the infinite worth of the person on the other end of the phone or other side of the counter – and treated him accordingly? My problem probably wouldn’t be resolved any sooner. How would the customer service agent feel about himself, though? Instead of yet another person yelling at him, what if I left him with some kind of encouraging word or simply an expression of appreciation for the hard work he was doing?
Reminding Yourself of The Truth
Why is it so hard to remember my own worth and the worth of others? It would be easy to blame it on outside forces. I’m having a bad day. That person was rude to me. No one is returning my calls. In reality, though, I encounter those same stimuli every day, but respond to them in dramatically different ways.
A couple of years ago, I saw a cognitive behavioral therapist for several months. He was fond of using traffic as an example. One day, traffic is backed-up, and we barely even notice. The next day, traffic is backed-up, and we scream and shout until we’re furious with everything around us. What was different? The traffic was the same. It was me who interpreted it differently and reacted in a different way.
Central to cognitive behavioral therapy is training yourself to think and respond appropriately to different situations. This has long struck me as very similar to the essay “Men Without Chests” in C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. In Lewis’s symbolism, we think with our heads and react with our guts; our chests, then, enable us to connect our thoughts to our reactions and respond virtuously to the challenges all around us.
To remember our worth and the worth of others, we need regular, frequent reminders. For myself, I’ve discovered the need to cultivate the habit of regularly taking time to reflect on my day and life, read Scripture and spiritual writings to reorient myself to true ideas, and pray for others (putting their worth foremost in my mind). When I neglect this practice, I begin thinking false thoughts about myself and treating others in unkind ways. It may sound paradoxical, but my thoughts need active cultivation and direction in order to keep them in order. Left to their own devices, my thoughts wander and begin to deceive me into thinking – simultaneously – that I’m better and worse than everyone else.
Photo credit: Chris Collins via Flickr
- Once, a telemarketer called me for a donation to some kind of police or fire charity. In a former position, I ran a charity ethics program, so I knew that, first of all, the charity was receiving an extremely small percentage of any donations given through this telemarketing company. Further, the “charity” itself spent a pittance on actual charity. Most of the money it did receive was spent on administrative salaries, and its few services were being done far more capably by dozens of other, more effective organizations. Instead of getting angry at the fundraiser, though, I tried to convince him to quit his job, explaining the extremely poor ethics of the company he was working for. I’m not sure if I helped him any. ↩