IT’S HARD BEING A HUMAN BEING
First published April 30, 2016 in The Gallup Independent as a "Religious Perspectives" column. Some minor changes have been made.
It was about 6 pm, and we had two more hours to go. I stood in the hallway with one of my students and another teacher. It was the mid-evening break at our afternoon and evening high school. The young man said, “Yeah, I worked all day scraping tar and gravel off a roof. When I get home, I want to read a story to my son, but I’m already so tired.” His face was weathered dark, with a light beige mask around his eyes where sunglasses had screened his skin. He went on, “I’m trying to help my family in Mexico and support my own little family. And I want to graduate.” Saul wasn’t complaining, just telling it like it was.
I put my hand on his shoulder and said only, “It’s hard being a human being.” I said it so often to my students. Sometimes I added, “And it’s even harder being a teenager.”
When my daughter was a junior in high school, we signed up to host an international exchange student from Norway. We were excited, in part because Norway is a Scandinavian country, and we would be able to exchange our family’s Danish with her Norwegian. A few weeks into her stay, I felt overwhelmed. I was working full-time, writing my first published book, and being a single parent to two teenaged girls. It was parenting someone else’s child that was the big challenge. I was uncomfortable setting limits with someone who had clearly been raised very differently from how I was raising my daughter.
I started considering backing out, but I felt guilty, like I was abandoning a youngster who was a stranger in the land. I talked it through with a friend, and she gave me the best possible advice, “Make it easy for yourself,” she said. “You have enough hard stuff on your plate.” The coordinator of the exchange program found another place for Susanne, who handled the change with such great maturity that we are still friends.
In a recent discussion with someone who grew up in the same church as I did, the friend asked, “Do you believe that anything is a sin?” I felt that it wasn’t just a question. She seemed to imply that I was much too easy on myself, not holding myself to God’s standards. I replied that we are all broken and in need of grace. Then I went on to say that Jesus very seldom talked about sin. Almost the only time he did was when the people around him were gleefully or viciously pointing out the sin of others. His message to them was, “Stop it. Stop burdening people with your petty rules. Stop pointing out the sins of others. If you need to focus on sin, focus on your own.” It’s hard enough being a human being.
Jesus’s overarching message was one of compassion for the human condition. It was one of invitation and inclusion, “Come to me you who labor and are heavy laden.” It’s hard being a human being. “I will give you rest. My yoke is easy. My burden is light.” Don’t make things any harder for yourself than they already are. In fact, make it easy for yourself.
Desmond Tutu, retired archbishop of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize wrote, “We have made strange images of God. And one of them is of a God who is waiting to clobber us. And we don't seem to understand the image of a God who says, ‘I created you because I loved you. And you don't have to do anything to win my love.’” That strange image of God was the one I grew up with—a God focused on what was wrong with me, ready to punish me if I didn’t keep certain rules, live up to certain standards.
It’s the image many of us grew up with. I think the main reason the politicians of his day wanted to be rid of Jesus was because of his message of compassion and ease and inclusion. If people started thinking they could go a little easier on themselves, those rulers would lose a lot of their power, which depended on people having to do things their way.
The thirteenth century Sufi poet Rumi said much the same thing. He wrote, “Come. Come, whoever you are! Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, Come. This is not a caravan of despair. It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken your vow a thousand times, still Come, and yet again Come!” It’s hard being a human being. Make it easy on yourself.