Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Price of Kindness

We like to praise virtues like kindness, gentleness, and understanding. We want to possess those traits and we want others to exhibit those traits. We instruct our children to walk those ancient paths. Most church services, in one place or another, will instruct us to live out those traits or encourage us to confess how we have failed in living those things out.

What we don't talk about enough is the cost that we have to pay in order to be kind, gentle, forgiving, and understanding.  There is a steep price, and the reason why the world sometimes seems starving for kindness and gentleness is because many people are not willing to pay the price. Kindness requires us to absorb pain.  The famine of kindness does not owe to lack of exhortation; it owes to our unwillingness to absorb pain. In order to be the kind of people we wish to be, we must absorb the pain of others and we must absorb our own pain and hurt.

Gentleness and kindness do not magically flow out of us; they are the spoils of battle. Every time someone approaches us with their pain, or hurts us, we have to choose what we will do with that pain. Will we strike back, inflicting their pain back on them, magnifying the pain, or we will do the hard work of absorbing it? Will we channel that pain into escapist pursuits, or will we confront what is inside ourselves?

No one told me how much intimate relationships and ministry have to do with absorbing pain. No one told me how success and happiness in this life are directly related to how I would handle pain. Not in trying to avoid pain, because good luck with that, but in how I would handle the pain that would inevitably and frequently come.

Angry people, who take out their anger on others, have not learned how to absorb pain. People who regularly engage in escapism have not learned how to absorb pain. I learned a few years ago that whenever I am regularly procrastinating from a project, it is because I am processing pain, and usually the fear of failure.

It seems that the easy and natural way to deal with pain is to inflict it on others or to channel it into escapist pursuits. I have a theory that the huge problem that our culture has with pornography is not because of voracious sexual appetites, but because people do not know how to absorb pain. Pornography addiction, in part, comes from pandemics of loneliness, depression, and relational brokenness.

If we want to truly be kind, gentle, and understanding people, we have to be willing to do the hard work of absorbing pain and finding healthy outlets for releasing our pain. Sometimes you have to punch a pillow a few times. More often you talk it through with a trusted friend or pay a therapist a visit. Always you pray. I am also convinced that Protestants would do well in emulating Catholics in the discipline of confession, not only releasing sins but the power that pain has over you.

Sometimes absorbing pain feels like an overpriced good, and we will handle it poorly. Then we will hope that others will pay the price for us.  The best relationships are not ones without pain, but ones where people are willing to pay the price of kindness and forgiveness for each other, again and again.

It is insufficient to say "be kind and gentle." We must pay the costs to be kind and gentle people. Truly kind people are those that have shown a willingness to pay the price, because they know that a kind and gentle response is worth it.