The Misery Sweepstakes

“You may be dying, but you should hear what’s happening to me.”

“Well, enough about me, what do you think about me?”

People don’t really say that kind of thing, do they?  Actually, yes, they often do.

Maybe not in so many words.  But, if you listen to the shape of many conversations, you will often find that someone threw out a lifeline, looked for hope, searched for a friend, or tried to get to the bottom of something that was troubling them, and all they got in return was competition for the Misery Sweepstakes: “You think you’ve got it bad, I…”

Far too many conversations are not really conversations at all.  They are alternating soliloquies —each person poised to say what they were going to say, regardless of what was just said.  Among people swapping stories about grandchildren, airline travel, or the fish that got away that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But when the subject is serious or someone is desperate, that’s another matter.

When someone is in pain, listening to others, drawing them out, and walking with them through life’s messiness and puzzles is a spiritual discipline and a gift.  And it is usually a gift to both parties.

Yes, it requires setting aside our own concerns for a moment.  It requires that we trust our own fears to God’s care while we stand along side someone else who might be afraid.  And, frankly, it requires denying ourselves.  (I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before.)  But when we do, others are helped and so are we.

Out of that gift of listening, caring, asking questions, and sitting with one another’s pain arises spiritual wisdom and a sense of God’s presence.  The results are not always dramatic.  Lightening doesn’t always strike.  Angels don’t always sing.  But none of that needs to happen for us to give that gift.

And it always beats winning the misery sweepstakes.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.