sensitivity

Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice: When “Sensitivity” Robs us of Holy Celebration

Recently a Facebook friend of mine announced her pregnancy online. Like many similar Facebook announcements, this one was accompanied by a picture of teensy baby shoes and a due date, but the thing that stood out was a comment she made after the announcement. She explained that following this announcement, she wouldn’t be posting pictures and pregnancy updates on Facebook out of sensitivity to friends who were struggling with infertility, miscarriage, or who were single but longing for a family.  rejoice

My initial reaction to this was, “That’s incredibly thoughtful.” There are many people for whom social media has become an overwhelming bombardment of people who all seem to have the things they most desperately desire. In particular, I have heard from women struggling to get pregnant or who have experienced miscarriages who find the pain of getting on Facebook and reading other people’s pregnancy announcements and updates unbearable at times.

At first I was touched by this woman’s sensitivity – that even in a moment of great personal joy she would be thinking of others. I thought, “I want to be a woman who loves others like that.” But then I started to wonder – how far do we take this kind of sensitivity? Will the pain of those struggling with infertility go away once that baby is born? Unfortunately, probably not. Will that mean this woman is then obligated not to post pictures of her newborn or of her children as they grow? Is there a point at which well-intentioned sensitivity to others robs us of the experience of holy celebration?

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I’m not criticizing this woman and her decision. In fact, I deeply respect her decision and admire her thoughtfulness. I don’t know her situation – she may have specific friends or family members in mind whom she is loving truly and well through these actions. The only reason I bring up her announcement is because it served as a catalyst for me to think about two different issues. First, what is the balance between celebration and sensitivity? And second, what is the role of social media and other public platforms in our celebrations?

Today I’m going to focus on that first question. I’ll address the second one in my next post.

A few months ago Christianity Today published an article by D.L. Mayfield about whether or not Christians should drink alcohol. Her major argument was that out of solidarity with those who struggle with alcoholism, Christians should abstain. Christians should follow the Apostle Paul’s direction in Romans 14:21 “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” She calls out a trend among young, hipster Christians to use alcohol as a symbol of our liberation from fundamentalist traditions and calls for greater compassion towards those trapped in alcoholism by refusing to celebrate something that holds many in bondage.

Some of her points really resonated with me, but I also felt myself pushing back a little. Not so much with the alcohol issue*, but with the way I’ve seen people adopt this attitude – compassion and sensitivity towards those who struggle with something – as a primary value in their lives. If sensitivity and compassion are our primary values then we have to abstain from celebrating anything that might cause someone else pain or discomfort. This would mean not posting a picture of a great meal because someone might be struggling with their weight (or in solidarity with the many people who don’t have enough food). Or not celebrating a promotion at work because someone might not have a job. Or not posting a picture of your first home because others can’t afford one. Or not celebrating getting your PhD because others failed out of college.

There will always be people struggling. There will always be someone who doesn’t have what you have. There will always be someone who is triggered or tempted by something that is an innocent pleasure for you. If you have a relationship with someone and part of loving them is being sensitive to their vulnerabilities, then by all means, show love and grace by avoiding alcohol or by not emailing them your ultrasound pictures, or not bringing up how well you did on your SATs. We are called to love others more than we love ourselves and this may be part of how we love well. But if your motivation is a general concern that you might maybe offend someone or that someone might be hurt that you are experiencing something great and they aren’t, then I think you are robbing yourself of holy celebration.

It’s true, the Bible says to “Mourn with those who mourn,” but FIRST it says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” (Rom. 12:15) I think there is something important about sharing our joy with others – about celebrating God’s goodness in community. I think there is a way for us to rejoice, to celebrate, with both joy and compassion.

I don’t have this figured out, but I think one important part of this is our attitude when we share good news. Are we rejoicing in the unmerited gifts of God, or are we boasting? Do we celebrate with gratitude or do we take for granted blessings that others may not be experiencing? I think it’s much more problematic when we ignore or even complain about the blessings we have than it is when we celebrate the gifts in our lives.

For example, I don’t think it’s wrong to rejoice in a pregnancy on Facebook, but it might be wrong to complain about morning sickness or about how huge your stomach is on Facebook when there are many women reading that who would give anything to be feeling those things. Or here’s an example from my own life. Once I was complaining to a single friend that the problem with us waiting to start a family was that there was no guarantee it would be easy when we felt ready and maybe by the time we were stable enough for kids I would be too old, etc. My friend very gently told me, “It really bothers me when you say things like that. I also want a family and worry about waiting too long, but I don’t have a husband like you do. If you are that worried about it, you could start trying at any time. I don’t even know for sure I’ll get the chance.” Ouch.

She was right and I was convicted of my insensitivity and ungratefulness. The problem in both of these examples is insensitivity, but it’s the result of taking for granted the blessings in our lives instead of viewing them as unearned, lavish gifts.

I’m still mulling this one over. How do we celebrate with compassion and love for those who aren’t celebrating? How do we enter into others’ pain and loss without denying ourselves these sacred celebrations? And on the other side of that, how do we rejoice with those who rejoice when we feel like mourning? I would love your thoughts.

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*I have close family members who are alcoholics. I admit that alcohol is a unique struggle in that, unlike greed or gluttony or a shopping addiction, alcohol has a large potential to physically hurt the alcoholic and other innocent people – drunk drivers, domestic abuse, neglect, etc. So while it isn’t “worse” than other sins or harmful behaviors, the consequences can be more serious and far-reaching. Additionally, the verse in Romans is talking about “not causing a brother to stumble”, not “not causing a brother to be uncomfortable or jealous” and I recognize the distinction.