by Bronwyn Lea
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
I was telling a story—an everyday story about my husband being a hero in a home remodel muddle—when I remembered who was listening: a friend who had suddenly lost her husband not too long ago. All of a sudden I felt flooded by guilt. Would my story, prominently featuring my very-much-alive spouse, hurt to hear? Would it rub salt in the wounds of her loss? Would it be gloating over what I have when she would so dearly love to have the same?
I’ve wondered this often as women share stories of infant and pregnancy loss, while I post pictures of my healthy children wearing silly dress-up costumes. Someone shares about the anniversary of losing a parent, and I wonder how a casual story of the good advice my mom gave me last week might have landed. I’m asked how things are going at home, and while the truth is that my day today is filled with the (admittedly stressful) details of navigating contractors and budgets; I pull back before answering because I know housing insecurity is a real thing, and didn’t we just pray in our small group for the budget crisis that family nearby is in?
Of course I’ve been the friend who’s jealous of someone else’s life, too. There have been seasons I’ve desperately wanted the marriage, the salary, the sleeping-through-the-night baby, and the passport privileges others have. So how do we deal with those moments? When someone else has what we want? Or we have what they want?
A few months ago, while teaching the tenth commandment to middle schoolers in Sunday School, I extended all ten fingers with palms raised up and explained: “the tenth commandment is do not covet, which means jealously wanting something someone else has… just like these grabby hands.” (Exodus 20:17) The 11-year olds all nodded solemnly as they listened. Adultery and murder don’t feel like real temptations right now, but they’ve all wanted the game, the life, the perks of someone else. We all have hearts with grabby hands.
My widowed friend, sensing me pull back mid story, noticed my pause and spoke right into the moment. “Oh, I love it when people tell stories about loving their husbands,” she said. “It makes me happy to remember the happiest times with my Tom.” What was hard, she explained, was when people complained or just plain took their husbands for granted. “It makes me want to take them by the shoulders and remind them to appreciate what they have right now, because you never know when it will be gone.” She was right: when reminded of things I have when others have not: gratitude is what’s called for. Not guilt. Nor silence, which sometimes just magnifies the echo in the chasm between the have I know I have, and the have-not she knows is hers.
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us everything for our enjoyment,” writes Paul to young Timothy (1 Tim 6:17). There are many ways of being rich, I’m reminded. Rich in opportunities. Rich in relationships. Rich in talents. We are rich in so many ways we might not even notice until we start to listen to the stories of those who are in pain over the lack and loss of these things.
When I have what others may want, I’m called to gratitude rather than guilt. I’m called to gratitude and humility – acknowledging the gift in what I have – for to say nothing at all comes across as entitlement and stings with privilege. Saying “I’m grateful to be able to have children,” acknowledges the person grieving infertility in a way that my awkward, guilty silence does not. Catching myself mid-complaint over the minutiae of an overloaded calendar when talking with my retired, empty-nester friend reminds me that this over-full life represents an abundance of gifts.
In the months after I’ve said “I’m sorry for your loss,” to my friend who’s grieving her husband, I’m reminded to say “I’m thankful” when thinking of mine. There will come a day when there’s no more loss or crying or sadness; a day when no-one will want for anything… but until that day, we’re learning to give thanks for the good we have together.
Bronwyn Lea is the author of Beyond Awkward Side Hugs: Living as Christian Brothers and Sisters in a Sex-Crazed World. She is a stay-at-home (for the pandemic) pastor, editor for Propel Sophia, grateful wife of Jeremy, and speaker. Sign up for her monthly-ish newsletter here, and connect online on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.