DH = Dear Husband
I remember talking once with a fellow student, during my university days, who was exasperated by her acne. She felt a bit silly about her distress even though it was real. “Hello Doctor,” she play-acted, with a combination of mock anguish and apology, “I know that there are people starving in different parts of the world . . . But I have pimples!” So often when one person frets about something, another person will say, “If you consider what some people are going through, it’s really not that big a deal.” And although that may be true, at best, it’s an annoying response. It’s a guilt trap that makes people suppress their complaint and that does nothing to acknowledge or heal it. So I commiserated with my friend in her pimpled distress.
A student’s burden
But there are times when the truth of bigger suffering blindsides me, and it simply annihilates my own complaint. Not by my will or effort –but by its own power. Yesterday, I was visiting my students at their work placements. Our school board is teamed up with a municipal organization that supports low income youth, and some of my students, as beneficiaries of this organization, are getting paid to do their work placements. It’s a great initiative. Since they are getting paid, these students are especially encouraged to take on the attitude of employees at their placements – to be punctual, reliable, and to accept instructions cheerfully.
Occasionally I have to address issues of tardiness or a slack attitude, and as I met with one student yesterday, I perceived signs indicating that I needed to spell out some boundaries. She seemed sullen. She had a specific complaint that came across as petty. To me, it looked like a case of laziness – a lack of self-discipline. I asked questions, and she gave me brief, half-hearted answers, avoiding eye-contact. Then she blurted out, “I’ve got a lot going on at home.” As I continued to listen, she looked me in the eye, her voice became stronger, and her story came spilling out. She was born in a war-torn country and as a young child, witnessed the murder of her mother. After fleeing to Canada with her father and siblings, she took on family responsibilities at a very young age. She is house-keeper, cook, and care-giver. 100% of the money she earns from her work placement goes to support the family – and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Everybody has nice things and they have the good life,” she said, “but we don’t. We don’t always have the best meals and stuff, so I’m glad to help out.”
My assessment had been so thoroughly wrong. Lazy? This young woman works harder than anyone else I know. Bad attitude? I’m inspired by her unspoiled willingness to make things work for her family. Her young life has been one of monumental tragedy and struggle, but I hadn’t seen it. She hides it well. You can bet that I addressed her “complaint” differently after I became aware of her history and situation. I offered empathy and encouragement. She was grateful.
What have I been down about lately? The stressful learning curve involved in my summer school job (See post “Debt-Reductions and ‘Stretching’”); the stall in our debt-reduction due to a slow-down in DH’s business in the spring; the fact that we need to spend thousands on a new roof. I haven’t shamed myself into having a better perspective on these things. I haven’t said, “How can I believe I have it rough when my student deals with so much more?” The revelations of her story and the realization of my completely wrong judgement have combined as a double force to jolt me out of complaint. I can take on a learning curve. DH’s business is getting back on track, and our rate of debt-reduction will go up again – after we save up and pay for a new roof. No need to worry about us. We’re OK.
Gratitude, we are told, is essential for happiness. But it’s hard to muster up gratitude consciously– no matter how much we have to be grateful for. It seems to come of its own accord. Sometimes it wells up in rushes of joy. Sometimes it seeps in through rest and serenity. Yesterday, it came in shockwaves through the humbling testimony of one who manages to be grateful in the face of so much loss.
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