‘We’re too weak to save ourselves:’ Building a better future from a broken past.
Last week, I had coffee with Jill. The conversation moved to the painful life experiences which shape us. “There was this one boy,” she said, “who pushed me in the hallway and called me fat.” I was a little surprised. My friend has endured far more devastating hardships, but what happened in middle school stands out in her mind. If we’re ever going to address what’s broken with our culture, we need to get to the heart of the brutal pain that so often drives us.
During my conversation with Jill, I realized that the magnitude of the formative events in our lives isn’t an objective measure that others typically observe. For her, what that boy did shook the foundations of her self-worth and identity for years. The boy may have never given the encounter a second thought. The damage is even deeper when it’s people close to us.
So many of us have wounds left by parents and family. I’ve been a father for more than a decade, and I can already see where I’ve failed. The familiar face of pain sometimes darkens my sons’ faces because of my words and actions. My wife and I always let them know they can speak with us, but sometimes I know they hold back.
When I ask them how they’re doing, the answer is usually the same: “Good.”
I know why, because I’ve been there before. Giving voice to the pain makes it feel more real.
I remember playing in a football game when an opponent’s helmet dislocated my shoulder. My arm wasn’t functioning, and it felt like it was on fire. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to admit the vulnerability. I didn’t want to concede that I couldn’t play. It was just a game, I was injured, and it took a coach noticing my dangling arm to take me out.
The stakes in our daily lives are so much higher.
I literally can’t get taken out of the game. I’ve got to set an example for my boys, the mortgage isn’t going to pay itself, and I have a lot of people depending on me. In a bit of irony, I want my family and friends to lean on me, but I don’t want to lean back.
A reckoning happened to me the other day. I’d helped my parents go through my deceased brother’s belongings stored in their attic for the last 19 years. I held it together as best I could at my parents’ house. I did not expect that I’d recall the feelings as raw as the day we put him in the ground.
At home the next day, I was speaking with my wife in the laundry room, and I let my guard down for a minute. “It just hurts so bad,” I said, “and I don’t know if it’s ever going to stop.” The floodgates broke. She just hugged me as I wept. Honestly, I felt stupid. I felt weak. It’s entirely uncomfortable writing it in a column for people I don’t know to read about it.
But that vulnerability is the root of empathy. It’s what allows me to connect with Jill’s experience getting pushed in a hallway. My pain allows me to comprehend hers even though our lives don’t follow the same track.
That’s how we build from what’s broken. There is no government policy, no media project, or business achievement that, alone, will direct our culture in a better direction. But when we ground all of our endeavors in elevating our shared humanity, we might have a chance.
I previously thought that idea was fluffy nonsense that belonged on a motivational poster in an office somewhere. “Shared humanity” sounds delightfully ambiguous, but it’s really quite specific: The person in front of you has immeasurable worth. As a Christian, my calling is even more direct. Each person is made in the image of God, loved deeply, and never beyond divine redemption.
When our actions and words find an anchor in common experience, often shared pain, we can engage others with uncommon dignity. And that’s where we find the strength to shape the future.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
As a younger man, I couldn’t understand that idea. The weak old man can’t rescue the damsel in distress. The hero of the story certainly isn’t content with insults, beatings, or chaos. The broken man can’t save the world. I always wanted to be strong enough on my own to really make a difference. What an exhausting and lonely life that would be had I succeeded.
The truth is that we’re too weak to save the world ourselves, but together, shaped by the pain and lessons in our lives, we are able to change it in ways we can’t even imagine alone.
Cameron Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The Triptych Foundation promotes a virtuous society through investments in socially impactful media and business. He was recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the United States House of Representatives. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published on Al.com – Click HERE to see the original article.