The Hard Truth

'Sunrise over Flynn Reef 2' photo (c) 2006, Alpha - license:

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s in Ontario actually had to do with a local issue: they’re thinking of putting a wind turbine farm in Prince Edward County, right where millions of birds pass by to migrate. As a new bird watcher who spent last Sunday there, I was appalled and wrote about it. But I thought I’d throw out an older column that’s more generic for you all today!

A while ago I read a story about a man who was convicted of molesting a seven-year-old girl. At the sentencing, the judge, who was suitably outraged, accused the defendant of “ruining this girl’s life”. I appreciate the emotion. I’m not sure I agree with the stance.

This little girl is starting her life with huge strikes against her. She is going to have to fight hard to have healthy relationships, to form good attachments, even to feel good about herself. Her life will not be easy. But that is not the same thing as saying that it is ruined. Too often, I think, we look at people and see only the strikes against them, rather than the potential inside them.

But how do we encourage that potential? Some people are going to have much easier lives than others do, and we have two possible approaches to this disparity. We can sympathize and demand that society fix this injustice, or we can encourage and teach people to help themselves.

Perhaps these two approaches don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I’ve found that those who favour the sympathy approach often find the latter approach—trying to help people help themselves—somehow offensive, as if asking people to help themselves is judgmental. If someone is badly off, then it’s up to everybody else to fix it.

That may sound noble, but I don’t think it actually is, because nobody can determine the outcome of someone’s life for them. I am not saying that society should not play a part in helping people succeed; only that ultimately success is something you have to grab for yourself. Success is an internal, not an external, quality, bred from a sense of accomplishment. It is making the right moral choices, making responsible and mature decisions, and attaining a sense of purpose in our lives. Even if others help us, we have to do some of this work ourselves.

And if effort is necessary to success, then the most compassionate thing you can do for someone is to encourage them to make that effort, not steer them clear of their own responsibility. When we try to excuse people of very necessary work because we’re trying to preserve our sense that life can and should be fair, we’re thinking of ourselves, not them. But let’s remember that if their lives remain awful, we’re not the ones who suffer. They are. Intentions count for much less, it seems to me, than results.

Of course life isn’t fair. Some people will have to work four times as hard to accomplish anything in life than others will. I know single moms who have gone back to school at night to get that education they wished they had pursued when they were younger so that they can build a stable and better life for their children. Was it easy? No. Was it fair? No. Often the fathers of these children were living in relative luxury. But it still had to be done, and nobody could do it for these moms except themselves.

That’s why I believe teaching and mentoring and giving people the tools they need to improve their own lives is the mark of true charity. We won’t all be rich and life will not always be fair or easy or smooth. But I think knowing that all of us—regardless of our backgrounds, the hurt done to us, or the betrayal or abuse we have suffered—hold the keys to our future is hopeful, not judgmental. I would rather be told that my future is limitless and up to me, than to be told over and over again that my life is ruined and this isn’t fair. Wouldn’t you?

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  1. Well said Sheila!!!! I couldn’t agree more!!! Will be sharing this one on Facebook!
    Well done!!

    Toni Ryan recently posted…Prepared to Answer?My Profile

  2. I can’t help but go back to the old, old saying: “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Lots of wisdom there in a saying we often use tritely.
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  3. Anonymous says:

    This made me mad and made me cry at the same time. I agree with what you’re saying, but at the same time I can’t help but silently scream “Don’t you think I’m trying?!!!” I’ve been trying to “help myself” my whole life. In spite of being told for years by my father that I would never amount to anything, I pulled it together and accomplished all my career aspirations at a very young age. In spite of repeated exposure to pornography as a child and a warped sense of proper sexual behaviour, I found a great husband and have a wonderful (but far from perfect) marriage. In spite of a mother who constantly criticized and alienated her children, I think I’m doing a good job of loving mine – affirming them and correcting when necessary without crushing their spirits. I could go on about illnesses, deaths, and violence, but you get the point. I’ve “helped myself” – well, rather God is the one who has carried me – with tremendous effort on my part to hold on to Him.

    But guess what? I’m still broken. Inside my spirit, I’m still a little child hiding in the closet to find some peace. I know that complete healing can only come from God, and I know He can do it, but many days I just feel too broken to receive it.

    • Oh, I’m so sorry for your pain! But let me just say that it looks like God HAS brought you so far. You could have ended up in such a worse situation. And I don’t know that complete healing does happen on this side of heaven, and maybe that’s part of what God is teaching you. This isn’t your home; this is a very broken place. But you HAVE held on to God. He HAS carried you. And He will keep doing that. You’re making good choices; you’re doing the right thing. And God has shown His grace to you.

      What you experienced was not fair. And it did hurt you. But you aren’t letting it define you. You’re moving forward and that’s wonderful! You’re listening to God’s voice. That doesn’t mean that the pain is going to go away, but He is carrying you. And you’re right; it isn’t fair. Some of us have to cling much harder than others. But you’re clinging, and I’d just encourage you to keep forging ahead, because the burden will get lighter. It really will.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thank you for your response. It was encouraging. This has been in my head all week. I agree that God has brought me a long way and that I could be in a much worse place. Perhaps complete healing won’t happen for me and that’s ok. There is just a level of sexual intimacy that I feel that I’m missing out on with my husband. He’s a wonderful man and our marriage is good. There is no reason for me to have trouble responding to him, and yet I do. We have sex on average about 3 times a week so quantity is not a problem. I just have trouble being fully connected and engaged with him.

        Could I ask you something really personal? Please feel free to trash this comment if you don’t want to answer. I understand.

        When I heard you speak, you talked about how as a teenager, you were determined not to let people leave you anymore by being the prettiest, nicest, etc. When/how did that stop?

        In the Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex (a great book that really helped me, by the way), you said that when you were first married that you had forgiven your husband for breaking up with you while you were engaged before, but that your body had not. How did you get past the fear of abandonment on a sexual level to be able to freely respond to him?

  4. I agree totally with the author. My sister (10 mo my senior) was ritually sexually abused for years. Yes she had nightmares for years after, yes she wanted to grab little girls out their father’s arms when she would walk through the mall because of what she was sure was happening, yes she had to long work through forgiveness, no she never had children of her own, but NO NO NO was her life ruined. She is a story of God’s healing grace, a light in every room she graces and hope to all who have suffered abuse. God IS GREATER than our damned enemy. She is a living billboard of that reality.

  5. I get what you are saying and I agree to a certain extent, but I think that we have to recognize that the person is struggling and not expect them to just suck it up and get over it. For example, if you have a child who has recently gone through a traumatic experience, plus maybe just moved to a new school, it does more harm than good to expect that child to adjusted as easily as the others to the classroom routine. In fact, in doing so, you create at bigger problem where the child, on top of everything else, self identifies as bad.

    I think that both focusing on an issue AND ignoring an issue have negative results.

    We simply need more compassion in our world. Deciding that a life is just going to be ruined because of a traumatic incident is not compassionate. For example, I had a teacher of mine say in college that “if a boy is molested as a child, he will grow up to be a nut bar and a pedophile and if a girl is molested, you might as well put handcuffs and an orange jump suit on her right then.” Yes, I walked out of his class.

    At the same time, it isn’t compassionate to say, “look, that happened and I’m sure it was awful, but life’s tough, get over it and move on”. Life isn’t that simple, either….particularly so for children who don’t always express themselves the same way an adult would.

    When a child has been through a trauma, just love them and treat them like a normal kid as far as the good and fun stuff goes. You don’t have to bring up the trauma, but then at the same time, if they are acting out a bit, sure you redirect the behaviour, but keep in mind that the child might be coming from a very different place than other children.

    • Yes, Rachel, I agree. When I speak, what I do (which I can’t do in columns) is bring in Jesus. That’s really the key; your life is not over and there is healing available because Jesus is there. Unfortunately I can’t say that explicitly in the newspaper, and that’s what’s missing from this. But I do believe it’s true.

  6. I agree with you Sheila.

    I have found this to be true in mentoring, especially marriage mentoring. It’s one thing to help someone help themselves, quite another to try and live life for them.

    I have learned (still learning) how to back off and let people make and own their own decisions without band-aiding or over-mothering. Sound’s simple enough, even silly, the idea that one would struggle to allow another to live their own lives. but it’s in the small things of life – so often we continue giving the fish long after we should have taught someone to fish for themselves.

    I agree with you that sometimes we “over-help” and under-equip because we have our own internal issues. Personally, i had this strong desire to be needed. combined with a strong personality that thrived in solving problems, i often missed out on how damaging my actions could be to the other person. Only later, when i looked back and wondered why the person is not growing up would i realize that i never weaned them off.

    I have seen that people can rise up from ashes, literally. So long as they are equipped and encouraged, not pitied and labelled as victims. I am a testimony!

    Great post, as always

    great post, as always.
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  7. Oh Sheila, I wish you could meet my friend. She’s living proof of God’s transforming grace, and would agree whole-heartedly with what you’ve said.

    Cindy was molested by her father, while her mentally incompetent mother did nothing to protect her, from about the age of eight until she escaped her home after high school graduation. She married young and immediately sued her parents successfully for custody of her younger sister, and then had two children of her own.

    Has her life been difficult? Yes.
    Painful? Unbelievably.
    Has she needed extra measures of compassion and support? Absolutely.
    Could she do that on her own? No way.

    I saw a “skit” she did, once, for her church. It was her testimony. She played two characters – the Cindy she could have been – a victim, or the Cindy she wants to be (and is!). She pointed to 2 Corinthians 5:17, If anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation, and Philippians 4:13, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

    I’m sure it’s not easy. I’m sure she has painful memories that I can’t fathom. She has every “right” to be bitter, and sad, and pathetic. But she’s not. She IS a new creation. And God is using her tender heart in ministry – she manages our local crisis pregnancy center.

    That is God’s transforming grace. She is NOT a victim.


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