I have a problem. l don’t know when problems aren’t mine.
Maybe it’s my imagination, but it’s like the world — church, school, society, family — put a great deal of emphasis on how we should care about other people’s problems. Which isn’t a bad thing. We’re born selfish. At the start, we are our first concern, and it can take a lot of lessons and experience to see that we’re not the center of the Universe. We aren’t born knowing that other peoples problems may be bigger or more urgent then our own, or understanding what kind of influence we have on other people’s problems. We have to be taught to care for each other, to help each other out, to establish the give-and-take of a healthy society.
But there’s an opposite problem.
I’m an empathetic person by nature. This is different from sympathy. “Empathy” is where a person feels someone else’s feelings as if they were their own. “Sympathy” is an act and a choice: you choose to be sympathetic when you allow for someone else’s happiness or sadness, when you meet them where they are. Empathy is instinctual. It just is. As an instinct, it’s not necessarily good. If you’ve got a roomfull of little kids and one is crying, it’s the empathetic one who starts crying along with them. Which doesn’t help the situation.
Empathy can make sympathy easier or more natural. If you feel an echo of other people’s feelings, it’s not hard to meet them where they are and accommodate their feelings, because you’re there already. Sometimes I feel a little selfish, though, ’cause there’ve been times I’ve wanted to comfort someone partly because they’re bringing me down. Other times I’ve wanted to flee a room just because someone was upset and it felt like the air in there was thick with it.
You take that instinct, and you take this continuing chorus of “Care about other people! Make a difference! Save the world!” and it is not impossible to end up where I have, in an unhappy trap of “I have to fix everything.”
The bait is so tempting. Because I like to fix things. I like to make things right. I love the light of understanding when I help someone get something that was confusing them. I love seeing a thing that was broken be made whole again. I love making a worn or faded things bright again. I love taking a piece of dirty junk and cleaning it until it shines. I learned how to strip paint and polish brass because it was fun.
So I look around at a broken, messed-up world, and I want very much to fix it.
I want to fix the misunderstandings. I want to straighten out crossed wires. I want to fix bitterness and resentment and ignorance. I want to mend fences and plant trees and pull weeds and devise ingenious solutions to problems. It is just so cool when something starts out an unrecognizable mess and ends up cleaned and right-side-up, like it was supposed to be.
The world is way too big to be fixed by one person. Thing is, even if it weren’t, it still wouldn’t be mine to fix.
I tell you what, it’s hard to look at the world, so full of suffering and need and brokenness, and say, “Not my problem.” I feel echoes of other people’s pain, of their stress and anxiety and fear, and there are plenty of times that I can see the way clear in front of them and am torn to bits because they won’t take it. It kills me to say, “Not my problem.” But it isn’t.
What is my problem? The whole of the law and the prophets is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Everything else is unnecessary. Everything else can take a hike.
Reading the Bible further, my problem is whether I am wholly sacrificed to God, whether I seek him, and whether I yield to him. My problem is whether I am gracious and merciful, truthful and loving, whether I am generous and patient, encouraging and hospitable, whether I teach and admonish others, whether I am humble and forgiving. Which is a lot, but it’s a lot less than what it isn’t.
It isn’t my problem if someone else refuses my grace and mercy. It isn’t my problem whether other people are truthful and loving. It isn’t my problem if other people take my generosity for granted or ignore my patience. It isn’t my problem whether people believe my encouragement or appreciate my hospitality. If I could teach perfectly, my students still wouldn’t be perfect. If I could admonish perfectly, my friend still wouldn’t be perfect. If I am perfectly humble and forgiving, that doesn’t mean the world will reciprocate. And that is not my problem.
If I am accused of not being any of those good things, and the accusation is false, I am under no compulsion to prove otherwise. The Spirit convicts. Anything else is affirmation – or not.
It is my problem to do my job well. It is not my problem to do other people’s jobs for them. It is my problem to give feedback and suggestions to my supervisors. It is not my problem if they go another direction. If someone has cause to be worried about me or upset with me, that’s my problem. If they don’t have cause, then it’s not my problem. If someone thinks I should do something, or not do something, it’s my problem to decide whether they’re right. It’s not my problem to make them happy by yielding.
It is my problem to listen to the advice and concerns of others. It is my problem to listen to their stories, their hopes and fears, to be sympathetic and to offer help if I can. But I can’t solve their problems. Some advice isn’t good to take, some fears are unfounded, and some concerns are nothing to be concerned about. If a person is wrong to the point of delusion, nothing I can do will help them, and most of what I could do would just make it worse. Good thing it’s not my problem.
It is my problem to go where God leads me. It is not my problem to go where God doesn’t lead me. If he hasn’t said that something is my responsibility, then it’s not my responsibility.
I cannot fix the world. Good thing I shouldn’t try.
Empathy seems to be part of how I function. I don’t want to turn it off or block it out, because I’ve learned so much that way. I think it might be possible to reach the point where I can take up and put off other people’s feelings as needed, and I think part of that will be learning when to say, “Not my problem.”