Several years ago, at a retreat, I witnessed an interesting exchange between two men. The first man was white, a clinical psychologist by profession, physically slight, short of stature, and rather timid by nature. The other man was black, an unemployed labourer, athletically endowed, tall, powerfully built, with a slight air of aggression about him.
These men, so different from each other, were in the same discussion group and the psychologist had just shared a story that was particularly humiliating for him. He had been at a party with his wife, dancing, when a very rude and somewhat inebriated man pushed them and then made a lewd remark to the psychologist’s wife. Reacting spontaneously, the psychologist pushed the man and told him to get away from his wife. The drunk, a physically huge and powerful man, already in a snarly mood, advanced menacingly towards the psychologist who, in turn, knowing he was no match for him physically, began to apologize to the drunk, telling him he was sorry for pushing him. He concluded the story this way: “There’s the great irony. The guy pushes my wife and insults her and I end up apologizing to him so I don’t get my nose busted. You’ve no idea how humiliating that is for a man!”
Then turning to our unemployed, black friend, he said: “I envy you, envy your muscles. There are so many times when I hate who I am because I am powerless in these kind of situations.”
The other man offered an interesting reply: “You envy me? Yes, it’s nice to have muscles in situations like that. In fact I welcome those kinds of situations. Circumstances like that I can handle! I’d love to punch a guy like that and I wouldn’t even care if he was stronger and busted my nose. That kind of pain I can handle, I’m used to it. What hurts me is words. I’ve no power there. My whole life – I’ve always been the excluded one, the one who doesn’t understand what’s going on. That’s where I hurt, the way everyone can use words and I can’t, the way people can put me down and I’m too helpless to do anything about it and I just have to stand there and take it. That hurts a lot more than getting your nose busted! I’ve had mine busted. It’s no big deal, a punch in the mouth, nothing more. That I can handle. But you’ve don’t know how much words can hurt. Not a day goes past when I’m not standing in front of someone who is putting me down in some way, even when they don’t want to. My wife does it to me all time and doesn’t even know it. I’m happy when I get a chance to fight someone physically because that’s about the only time I don’t feel ashamed.”
Then, turning to our psychologist, he said: “You shouldn’t be complaining. About 100% of the time you’re in control. I mean, how often does anyone try to punch you in the nose? Whereas I’m frustrated and ashamed all of the time. It’s hard not to want to hurt someone or hurt yourself. I envy you, what you can do with words. I’d trade my muscles for that!”
An interesting, and rare, exchange – two men sharing feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, and shame! I print up this little verbatim because, I believe, it contains a lesson for all of us. Simply put, there is no person on the planet – woman, man, or child – who doesn’t in one way or other daily face the shame of being inadequate, powerless, and humiliated before someone else, apologizing to someone who should be apologizing to them. So what do we do? We absorb, make do, and, through tears or bitterness, somehow cope with the feelings. Small wander we all struggle to maintain a healthy self-image and that hatred and violence are never far from the surface in our relationships. We all live not-so-quiet lives of desperation, daily feeling a lot of inadequacy, helplessness, and shame.
Painful as this all is, it’s a cloud with a biblical lining. A sense of our own powerlessness is one of those privileged places where grace and the kingdom can break through. When Jesus tells us that little children enter the kingdom of heaven naturally, he is not idealizing a child’s innocence (though it is beautiful) but is highlighting a child’s helplessness. A little child cannot even feed herself or go to the bathroom on her own. She needs help for everything. In the end, so do we.
Inadequacy, powerlessness, and humiliation, like death and taxes, await us all. Invariably we envy each other’s strengths and feel shame in our own particular inadequacies. The choice for bitterness is easy, but the far better choice, as Virginia Woolf says, is use these feelings to help adopt an attitude of compassion for others, knowing that life is hard for everyone, including those who can use words and those who can use muscles.