What Defines Us

The news each day gives us a bothersome excursion into all the problems afflicting our community. We learn what is not going right in our nation’s capital. We are troubled by the failures in our institutions, the corruption, and the tragedies. We hear about the latest diseases, and the latest criminal behavior.

At work, we face a new pile of problems to resolve. Our children have their various crises that need our attention, whether a dentist’s visit or a problem with their homework, or something even more severe.

Friends assail us with their troubles, our family, immediate and more distant, demands our attention. Each day brings us new tribulations. As Eliphaz in the book of Job commented, “human beings are born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7)

Without end, it seems that everything is always a mess in the world, in our nation, in our institutions and in our lives. We seem never to get a break. There are always more problems than time, ability, or money will allow us to solve. Every day, we are told how much we should be ashamed and disgusted with everything and everyone.

But, if we stop to look around, if we peek over the stack of papers on our desks, if we peer beyond the news we watch or read, if we stand up and look around our living room and gaze past our bills, we might notice that the darkness is not really closing in. The percentage of time we spend each day on our problems might not be so high as it feels.

On average, an American spends about 8 hours out of the 24 each day just sleeping. Another 4 hours is then consumed watching television. Already, that takes up half our day—and half of our lives. We then are at work eight hours a day, but only five days a week; and we perhaps spend another half hour to an hour on the road in our cars each of those five days. Then there’s the time we spend eating three meals a day, the time we spend shopping—and all the time we spend surfing the internet, or playing Angry Birds on our cellphones. Some of us spend time reading books, visiting with friends and family just for the fun of it, going to church, and volunteering for various charitable causes. We might attend a sporting event, visit the gym to do some exercise, or maybe spend a weekend camping or hiking. We go to the movies or a concert every so often, or maybe visit a museum. And most days our cars are working, the plumbing is in one piece, and we are neither ill nor at a funeral. I suspect that most of our time is not consumed by emotional or physical pain—or even breaking a sweat.

But the small amount of trouble in our lives, or the small amount of trouble we hear about going on around us, too often becomes what defines our lives.

And there is a good reason for this: we are programmed by our very natures as living creatures to focus on what is amiss. We have an itch, we scratch; we’re uncomfortable, we shift our position in our seats. We’re tired, we sleep. Our bladders are full, we do what we need to solve the problem. We’re hungry, we eat. The problem, the mistake, is not to fix that which is wrong; our mistake is to define our lives, our families, our institutions, our nations by that which is wrong. Lives, families, and institutions are far more than what is not perfect in them.

But we can’t help it after all. We notice everything that is wrong: the black spot on a sea of white is what will catch our eye. We overlook all that is right in the world and our attention is seized by that which is out of place. In a sense, that is commendable. We need to fix what is out of place, to repair what is broken, to salve what is painful. But the mistake we make is to define our existence by what is wrong, to overlook and take for granted everything that is good. We miss so much joy in our fixation on the problems. We are wrong to define, to judge, to criticize and condemn our whole lives, families, and institutions on the basis that they are less than perfect.

We need to solve our problems without imagining we are failures because we have problems, because we have not yet achieved perfection, because we have not solved every fault. We need to solve our problems, but we must not think that we deserve no praise, that we cannot relax, that we cannot have some fun, that we cannot feel pride or satisfaction in who and what we are, because all our problems are not yet gone.

We need to solve our problems, but to focus only on problems, to only criticize, to only condemn, is to become a neurotic drudge, a self-righteous prude, an unpleasant and bothersome nag. We are no longer fun to be around. And it’s so unnecessary.

We need to solve our problems, but if all we see are our problems, then we are not really seeing our lives, our families, our institutions, or our nations at all. And we are no longer really living.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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