I've been thinking more about how we frame the events in our lives. This started with a sermon I preached for our Wednesday evening praise service last night. It was on the story of the vineyard workers - all of whom were paid the same wages even though some only worked an hour while others worked the entire day. The thing is, if the workers who had worked all day had been paid their wages without knowing that others were being paid the same for less work, they wouldn't have been unhappy. They were only unhappy as they compared their lot to others. This is the experience of most of us, I think. When we look at those worse off, we feel our blessings. When we look at those we believe to be better off, we feel life is "unfair." It really depends on where we stand and what we choose to look at or focus on, and how we then "frame" our experience.
I told this story last evening: when we lived in California, my daughter attended Head-Royce school. Head-Royce is an outstanding, private school where the kids are not only taught extremely well in all subjects, but where strong and important values of caring for the world, the community and each other are taught. The kids are taught that they have resources, are privileged and should, therefore, use those resources and that privilege to better the world. Head-Royce is also extremely expensive to attend. This year's tuition for a high school kid is $33,525 for the year. We could not have afforded to send her there but for the school's commitment to serve people of all types, including all economic classes and they gave Jasmyn almost a complete free ride (for which I continue to be extremely grateful!) based on our family's income. We felt incredibly blessed, incredibly blessed by the quality of the education she was receiving there and by the amazing staff and faculty that were part of her life for those few years.
However...as I'm sure you can imagine, most of the children attending came from extremely wealthy families. Keep in mind that a family would usually send all of their children to the school - can you imagine a yearly tuition of over $100,000 to send three children to school? Well, obviously many can. Since that is far and above my annual salary, it doesn't really compute with me. And while I stood in the place of gratitude that she was included in this community, there came a day when Jasmyn came home from school and said, "Why don't I have a huge, castle-like house to live in? Why don't I have my own pony? Why aren't we going skiing in France over winter's break? Why don't I have my own play castle in the backyard, complete with kitchenette and bathroom? Why don't we have a nanny? Why are my clothes hand-me-downs? ...etc., etc., etc..." And I realized that while I was able to compare our situation to those in our neighborhood, in our town, in our community, Jasmyn was only able to compare herself to those in her daily community, which was these other families at school.
I think about the challenging situation that our family went through. So many people, then and now, say to me "You are amazing for continuing with the joy and energy that you still do! It is incredible that you continue to walk and laugh and move forward and have your being intact in this way, that your faith is still so strong and that you are able to still dream and vision and...." Well, okay. They are comparing me to what they have gone through, or what they think "most people" in the United States don't experience. But I tend to compare myself differently. I still have all three of my children and they are all healthy, brilliant, beautiful, compassionate, good kids. I have a beautiful house and neighborhood to live in. I have work that is meaningful and enjoyable. I am surrounded by a community, near and far, of absolutely wonderful, deep, faithful, loyal, honest, true and loving friends and family. I have enough to eat. Our standard of living has not been decreased by all we experienced. And I have my faith - a faith in a God who is tangible and present and loving, all the time. There are people who really suffer - people who live through wars, who suffer hunger, who have no work and don't know how they will care for their families, people who've lost children to horrible events. My life is not like that. I am blessed.
It's all about how we choose to see, what we choose to focus on, and how we frame things. I could focus on what we went through that was horrible. Or I can focus on the amazing gifts that came from that time - strength, a deeper connection with God and with many other people, a sense of my own abilities in times of crisis to persevere, a deepened empathy with others who do suffer, experiences that I can write about that hopefully will help other people, and the list continues.
My children sometimes say, "It's not fair...she got a bigger piece of pie than me." Yes, we can focus on the fact that our piece of pie is smaller than someone else's. We can also focus on the gift, the grace, that we have pie at all. I also hear, "It's not fair! I work hard and don't get nearly the reward of those other people who don't work nearly as hard as I do". Yes, we can focus on that. Or we can focus on the fact that we do have work and that the work we have brings in an income to support us.
I have found myself re-framing my life experiences repeatedly. How will I tell my story? How will I describe the events in my life? Will I talk about them as tragedies that I have endured? Or will I talk about how close God was through the challenges in my life? And how wonderful people were who stood with me, who listened, how gave me hugs and comfort - many of whom still continue to do that? Will I focus on the friends I lost through the tragedies? Or will I give thanks to God for the time we had together, and accept that some friendships only last a season or for a reason, while others last a life-time and that the ones that don't last still had value and contributed to my life? Will I talk about myself as a victim? Or will I talk about how I grew and was given gifts of understanding, insight, friends, faith, God's presence, that I probably would not have otherwise experienced and that now have made me stronger, better, more whole, more connected?
It's not that we don't have feelings. Feelings happen and they just are. We experience grief, we experience loss, we experience being tired or overworked or overwhelmed, especially when difficult challenges arise. But we can impact those feelings, or at least how long they last, by what we choose to see, to give our attention to, to make the focus of our lives.
How do you tell your stories? How do you allow those stories to define who you are? We have a lot of choice about that. Thanks be to God!