Scripture | 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1
As I was working on my sermon Friday, I heard word that Anthony Bourdain died. He took his own life, just a few days after Kate Spade had done the same. People were shocked; it didn’t make sense, these were two amazing people other people admired.
On the outside, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s lives looked perfect. They were enviable. But looks can be deceiving, and events like these cause us to look deeper.
In an article for Time, Belinda Luscombe reflects on exactly that: “The Dangers of Envying ‘Perfect’ Lives: How their deaths should cause us to reflect on what we seek.” As Luscombe describes,
Spade created what many women would consider the ideal way of living. Her world was filled with creativity, beauty, family and meaningful work. Having brought into being a fashion line alongside her husband, she sold it and was able to take years off to raise her daughter. She had a successful, creative, family-centric business that gave her time to be a parent. After she died, so many women spoke of how she made them feel seen; how her fun, quirky feminine handbags and style made them realize they were not alone.
Bourdain managed to be masculine without being swaggeringly macho. He was rugged and adventurous and knew how to use big knives, but he had his own literary imprint, Ecco books. Tall and handsome, he got to travel to exotic locales constantly and won awards, fame and wealth. And he ate so well. He was also seen as a rare male hero in the #MeToo movement, for championing Asia Argento’s claims against Harvey Weinstein and for siding with women over fellow chefs. What more could a person want?
[Belinda Luscombe, “Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and the Dangers of Envying ‘Perfect’ Lives: How their deaths should cause us to reflect on what we seek,” Time.com, June 8, 2018, http://time.com/author/belinda-luscombe/, accessed June 8, 2018.]
What more could a person want. At least on the outside, it looked that way. Their lives were to die for.
“So we do not lose heart,” Paul writes. “We do not lose heart.” If these towering giants of the Good Life couldn’t make it, how do ordinary people not lose heart?
But the “Good Life” we see is not the whole story. There’s so much more we don’t know.
One of the great gifts of ministry for me has been hearing the stories of other people’s lives, and knowing some of the struggles other people face. Because of my work I hear more often than most what’s going on inside other people’s hearts and minds and souls. I see the part that most people don’t get to see, because it’s so personal, and private, and hard to reveal. That inner world is a vulnerable place, and it’s not everybody else’s business to go there.
But from hearing those stories I have learned an invaluable lesson:
Never compare your insides to someone else’s outside.
I know I’ve said it to you before, but I’ll keep saying it: Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outside.
Most of the time we have no idea what other people are dealing with; all we know is the public face they present. And it’s absolutely their prerogative to share what they will and won’t; it’s not our business to know. But as Luscombe writes in her article about Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade,
Many lives are not as they appear. Happiness is not the end result of a sum of accomplishments. The person whose wealth/wardrobe/job/talent you wish you had has his or her own struggles, and they could at least equal our own.
Isn’t it strange how hard it is to remember that? I mean, we know that’s true, but it’s remarkably hard to remember. Our whole culture teaches us to focus on people’s outsides - things we can measure, evaluate, judge - their success, their beauty, their worth. It’s deeply ingrained in us. When we think about it, we know that what Luscombe says is right: happiness is not the end result of a sum of accomplishments. Still, we live as though there were a formula, an equation, and we compare one life to another and label them, success or failure, worthy or not. We measure, we evaluate, we judge.
But the very process of judging is fraught, and can lead us to a dark and ugly place. If we think others’ lives are superior, it leads to envy, jealousy, even shame. If we think our lives are superior, it leads us towards pride and arrogance. In either case, we’re practicing a form of disparagement, either of ourselves or others, or sometimes both. One life is less-than, and one life is more.
And that is a cruel place to live.
And it’s all because we’re focused on what we see on the outside; the lifestyle, the look; the skin, the clothes, the pounds; the bank statement, the investments, the job; even the success of the kids.
But what’s on the outside - our ‘outer nature’ Paul calls it – all of that wears away. And someday it will be gone. “Our outer nature is wasting away,” he writes. Sooner or later, it happens to us all.
“But we do not lose hope,” he says. Because the outside is not the source of our hope at all.
Shift your focus, he says; move from looking at the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. Look more deeply. Instead of looking at the outside, look within. Go deep within. That’s where the transformation happens.
Last week I mentioned that I was going to see a movie; several of you asked what it was. The movie is called simply, “The Rider.” It’s a fictionalized account of a real-life story, and most of the people in the movie are playing themselves. Most of what’s in the story really happened, or is happening in real-time as the story unfolds. It’s extraordinary.
The story centers on a Lakota-Sioux named Brady Jandreau. Twenty-year-old Brady lives on Pine Ridge reservation with his father and his little sister, who has Aspergers syndrome. He’s a rodeo rider, and he’s recovering from a devastating fall. “A bucking rodeo bronc cleaved a three-inch, knuckle-deep gash in [his] skull,” and Brady is never supposed to mount a horse again. His best friend, Lane Scott, is also a rodeo rider, even tougher and more daring than Brady; or he was, until a car accident left Lane permanently disabled, unable to walk or speak. [ Amy Nicholson, “Wild Horses: How ‘The Rider’ Became the Breakout Movie of 2018,” Rolling Stone, April 13, 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/the-rider-story-behind-years-best-movie-w519031; accessed June 8, 2018. ]
Their ‘outsides’ have completely crashed. Everything that made them heroes and successes is gone. Lane’s body is so broken he can only communicate through his face and eyes and with sign-language, which Brady learns so he can talk to his friend. Brady visits Lane faithfully, encouraging, cajoling, challenging. They watch videos together, of Lane, when he was the rising star of rodeo.
But even as Brady deals with his own struggle of his ‘outer nature’ - coming to terms with his life-altering limitations - he is nurturing the spirit, the ‘inner-nature’ of his best friend. These boys – these men – understand the power of the spirit. You can see it in one of the very first scenes, when some friends drag Brady to a campfire – his first outing after going home – they reminisce, they talk about the accidents, Brady’s and Lane’s, they drink, they swear – and they pray. They pray.
The journey of healing Brady makes? It’s extraordinary. His body will heal, but only to a point. His spirit? It takes on a weight of glory beyond all comparison.
Now, I want to give a word of caution. I am not saying that the ‘outer nature’ doesn’t matter, that our bodies don’t matter, that what people can see doesn’t matter. It matters. Of course it matters. Our bodies, our abilities, our beauty, our strengths, our weaknesses, how we live our lives – oh, yes, that matters. When any of that changes, or we lose part of ourselves, it’s enormously important. These are our lives.
But it’s not the whole truth. There is more than meets the eye. And the power to deal with what’s happening to us comes from a place we can’t even see.
I will never forget a story I read long ago. It was in a journal on Family Systems, and it was a study on the generational impact of Stalin’s purges. The researcher asked descendants of the victims of the purges this question: “Do you think there are any connections between the events your family experienced in the period of the purge at the end of the 1930s and the way your life developed for you?” Many families were devastated by these events, of course.
But not everyone.
One respondent, a 35-year-od engineer, answered this way:
Yes, there was an influence, not in the material sense but in the spiritual sense. It had an impact on my understanding of values in my life, close people, and the meaning of life. I have the feeling that I should tell people about my grandmother and giver her (memoirs) to people to read. I have a feeling that I should be worthy of her memory. When I come to a moral turning point or choice, then the very choice of my grandmother and her life help me to come to a moral decision. That has become very simple and natural for me. If I were to lose material possessions because of my decision, these losses would be incomparable with the material losses people in the camps underwent. They lost a lot, but they saved their spiritual sense of self-worth. They are a moral model for me… Many people do not know what spiritual joy means. A person who knows it already has understood that everything else is worthless in comparison. [ Katharine G. Baker and Julia B. Gippenreiter, “The Effects of Stalin’s Purges on Three Generations of Russian Families,” Family Systems: a Journal of Natural Systems Thinking in Psychiatry and the Sciences, Spring/Summer 1996, Vol. 3, No. 1, 27-28. ]
Again, please hear me carefully. I am not saying that if you struggle spiritually or emotionally or mentally you are bad or weak or somehow spiritually deficient. Just the opposite. Comparing our insides to what we think are other people’s insides is just as insidious – maybe more so – than comparing our outsides.
What I want to say is this: when we are struggling, we are in the company of saints. When we are struggling, we should not lose hope, because God’s Spirit is still working inside us. When you are struggling, do not look with envy at other people’s lives, because there is almost always so much more than you know.
When you are struggling, look for the ones who have gone before you, the ones who someone saved their spiritual sense of self-worth, and imagine what they would tell you.
Imagine their invitation to join them in spiritual joy.
Imagine them walking beside you, as you wrestle with the challenges of your own life, your own healing.
Look for the heroes who inspire you – and look deeply, not for the things that are seen, but for the things that are unseen.
The ones that are eternal, not made with hands, but made by God.
Your own life, your own Spirit, made by God, and loved.