This post is also the lead article from the weekly newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.
John Landis’ Trading Places is one of those films I can go back to over and over and over again. I am familiar enough with the film that, if I come across it on television, I can pick up wherever the action is and spend five minutes watching a scene or two and still get enough of Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy to convey to me the sentiment of the whole movie. Two men from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds have their fortunes reversed and discover how quickly their lives can change yet how similar their struggles really are. It reminds me that no matter how different our circumstances might seem we all share the same problems.
Recently, I had one of those days that makes your head spin. I met with one person who is struggling to live with an alcoholic spouse. Later on, I visited with a colleague whose spouse is suffering from debilitating depression. A few hours later, someone shared with me the challenge of dealing with siblings after a parent’s death. Finally, another person opened up about an infuriating in-law who holds the whole family hostage. The truly remarkable thing, however, is that my words to all four of them were almost exactly the same.
“You need to find peace for yourself and stop worrying about other people,” I said to each of them. By the time those words were passing my lips for the fourth time, I could not help but chuckle a little bit. “I’m sorry for laughing,” I explained. “It’s not your problem that I’m laughing at. It’s the fact that I’ve had this same conversation several times today.” If anybody else heard me saying the same thing over and over, she or he might think I was a broken record or a charlatan peddling the same snake oil to every customer no matter what the ailment. Even I am surprised at how universal that counsel can be: take care of yourself and let others worry about themselves.
This Sunday we will hear the story of Jesus healing the man who was blind from birth (John 9:1-41). It is a long and complicated story that offers multiple interpretations, but one of those that has jumped out at me offers a teaching on this very subject. The religious authorities questioned the authenticity of Jesus’ healing power, and they refused to believe that the man really had been blind from birth. So what did they do? They called in his parents to ask them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” The parents’ response is a gentle reminder to me of the importance of letting others—even our own children—take care of themselves: “Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
John lets us know that they had their own problems to deal with. They were afraid of being banished from the synagogue if they gave too much credit to Jesus. So what did they do? They told the authorities to ask their son, who would speak for himself. They did not cover up for him. They did not take the blame. They did not play dumb or make excuses. They simply said, “He is of age; ask him.”
When someone close to us is acting erratically and disrupting us and others around us, it is tempting to try to fix the problem on our own. In fact, letting go of our need to involve ourselves in his or her problems can feel like passing the buck or turning our back on someone we love. “What will happen?” we ask ourselves in panic. “They need us,” we convince ourselves. “They can’t make it without our help.” Really? Sometimes the best thing we can do is take care of ourselves. Sometimes the only way that person will return to sanity is if we refuse to get caught up in the drama he or she creates.
No matter what is going on around us, our responsibility is to find peace for ourselves. The crises of others may suggest to us that such self-focused behavior is selfish, but self-care is not self-centered. We cannot be a bridge to peace for someone else if we are wrapped up in that person’s chaos. For the love of others, we must seek our own peace. No matter what the problem is—no matter what our circumstances—the answer is the same for all of us.