As I worked my way through the south side streets I could hear the sound of sirens seemingly surrounding me. I biked on, through the dimly lit streets, back towards campus, back towards the light.
Not a long while before I had been sitting at a dining room table, enjoying a conversation when a gunshot had shattered the night air outside. The homeowner was barely shaken by this common occurrence; it was something that he had, out of sheer necessity, grown accustomed to. I was on the far other side of the spectrum: unable to grasp the magnitude simply because I was so unfamiliar with it. Sooner or later I knew that I would have to go outside, get on my bike, and return home. Although I attempted to cover it up, a childish fear overcame me. The thought of biking 10 blocks, at 10 pm at night, through this part of town, was scary. I know that this is such a part of life on the south-side, and yet I didn’t know. I didn’t know how my life fit in here. I was scared.
Needless to say, I made it home safely, if not a bit shaken.
As I sat there in the circle of mostly familiar faces I fought a mental battle between two opposing points of view. On one hand there was the sheer joy of hearing the stories, strengths and struggles of these authentic brothers and sisters. A deep joy, as I was reminded that I am not an island, I am not alone. I was strengthened anew by this re-realization that we are all experiencing some aspect of this complexity called life. Not all were going through hard things, but all were going through something. It was a chance to realign my thoughts with the reality that this movie is not about me. I am not the main plot, a subplot, or even a bit-part; no, I am only a blurry extra, standing far off in the crowd, with my back turned towards the camera no less.
On the other hand, though, there was that crushing thought of utter insignificance. I let that wimpy whisper rear up its ugly head, and treated its words like a presidential decree: your petty life and petty pain pale in comparison to these around you.
There is a world of difference between acknowledging your rightful place and believing that your part does not matter or worse, does not exist. Thus I struggled. I wanted to engage with those in the room, but something deeper was trying to convince me that my engagement was unwanted, unnecessary, and that I had nothing to offer of value. I felt insignificant.
A guy walked into class with an extremely heavy burden. See, one unique thing about the program that I am in is that I get to interact with a wide variety of non-traditional students. My classes never consist of only “college-students” but also community members, real Chicagoans with stories all their own and all different. There was that one lady who was rescued from domestic abuse, and that lady who came from a family of 17, and there was that struggling musician who was sold-out for the Gospel, and there was that lady who was going back to school after 20 years because she was called to be a missionary, and there was that south side hair-dresser who worked so hard to make ends meet, and that Chicago city cop who told us of that one drug bust and the foot race that ensued, and there was that former drug dealer who got completely turned around by Christ’s love, and, and, and, etc.
So, this guy walked into class with a heavy burden. He works as a violence interrupter in a brutality wrought Chicago neighborhood. By his own admission he does not like his work to be talked about, he doesn’t want it to get idealized or idolized. I will honor that. But I will say that his words were overwhelming as he revealed bits and pieces of his week of horror. Stories of the pain and suffering that consume so many families.
It was hard to know what to say or how to respond. I was overwhelmed.
I cannot give an answer for why some people experience pains that I do not/will never have to. But this I am sure of: whether I am facing the realities of the south-side, or fellowshipping with faithful brothers and sisters, or hearing the stories of authentic Chicagoans as I sit in class, my story is my story. Feeling scared, insignificant, or overwhelmed is not altogether bad, getting depressed because of those feelings is.
See, we are given the exact amount of suffering and pain that we are supposed to go through. We do not need to feel compelled to compare ourselves and our struggles to those of the people around us. Yes, bear one another’s burdens in love, but do not be disheartened when you feel as though your life does not match up. Your success, your suffering, and your story have immense value and importance. Do not be deceived, rather, let any sense of powerlessness and shame drive you to your knees, over and over again.
Floccinaucinihilipilification of yourself is wrong, viewing your life as part of something bigger is not.