“It is better to be alone than in bad company.”
― George Washington
Good stories have villains. Enemies. Antagonists.
Good stories have a protagonist. A champion. One hated by the villain. One constantly under besiege of the evil.
Which are you? Do you know?
“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
― Winston Churchill
In my insomnia, I’ve recently been binge-watching the Masterpiece Theater series, Poldark. It’s a classic story set in old England where there is a very clear hero and an even more clear enemy. The villain, George, is a despicable character intent on doing whatever he can to disturb the life of the hero, Captain Poldark. He’s a vexing sort of fellow, but I’m sure from his perspective he’s constantly being persecuted by the good guy. Truth is, he likely sees himself as a good guy despite his conniving, evil actions.
As I’ve been watching the story unfold over the course of a few seasons the hero continues to show himself a man of strong conviction and character. He’s unwavering. Unyielding. He bends to no one. He’s a man of integrity willing to fight whatever fight must be fought.
Lots of tension. Lots of uncomfortable moments. Much like your life. And mine.
Enemies. Opposing sides.
People without compassion opposing people driven by compassion.
Evil people behaving poorly. Good people behaving with valor and honor. Mostly.
But even the good show signs of great weakness under the strain of life. Mortals behaving like humans who aren’t able to always hold it together.
Love. Romance. Sentimentality. Passion.
Hatred. Bitterness. Jealousy. Resentment.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
― Abraham Lincoln
Character. That’s what we’re talking about. The development, possession, and growth of character. The courage to do the right thing in spite of it all.
“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I don’t claim to have expert insights on such matters. Mostly, I have curiosities, wonderings and ponderings.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
― Helen Keller
I think Helen had it right. Character isn’t built by luxury, opulence, ease or entitlement.
I’m curious mostly about the beginnings of character. The spark that begins. Or the lack of spark.
When I was a boy I loved creatures. Lizards, horned toads, frogs, turtles. Those were among favorites.
One of the most appalling behaviors I witnessed as a boy were kids who mistreated these creatures. I was always very careful with them and wasn’t very interested in removing them from their home, the place where I found them. I handled them with care so as not to harm them.
A turtle was found in a nearby creek. As he crawled along the driveway an older boy appeared with a BB gun. He began to shoot the turtle in the head. I was horrified. And angry. He laughed. And kept shooting eventually killing the poor turtle. As you may imagine the boy was a bully of a kid. Despicable. And I’ve never forgiven him.
Today, I have a grandson who loves these creatures. He’s fond of capturing them and carting them off. But around my house I’ve got a rule. No lizards (we have many) are to be removed. And when he captures them, they’re to be returned to the general vicinity where he found them. His parents have no idea – until now – of my deep-seated ideas and how long I’ve held them.
It’s a small thing. Or is it?
Where does it come from? I’ve often wondered.
Why was the older boy able to be so cruel to a helpless turtle? And why did he gain such pleasure in it while it caused me such great pain?
I was in grade school when I learned to discriminate. To be picky about the people I choose to be around. I know it happened in first grade, if not before. Certain kids were obviously ill-behaved and trouble-makers. Fearful of being dragged into trouble myself, I quickly saw these kids as potential threats to my own safety and well-being. I was highly motivated to avoid the wrath of my mother. 😉 Willow trees provided switches that served as most effective deterrents to any mischief that may have tempted me.
Was it upbringing? Was it something given to us at birth?
Why do I think some people are bad company, but others gravitate toward those same people?
Is it that whole “birds of a feather” thing?
What personality or character traits make you judge somebody as bad company?
How do you manage bad people?
I told you that I have lots more curiosity than answers. Logically I know that some people, for whatever reason, have psychological “disorders.” I’m fascinated by them and know enough to know we don’t fully understand why. Murderers are often convicted with compelling evidence against them, including DNA, yet show no signs of remorse. Many, if not most, refuse to even acknowledge guilt. Others among us are quick to fall on a sword and apologize for things they’re not even guilty of. Those extreme differences are bewildering to me.
Perhaps even more fascinating to me are people who appear (or try) to be one thing, but in reality, are something different. Experts say Ted Bundy was such a character. Appearing clean up, handsome, attractive, caring – but he was a serial killer. Thankfully, I’ve not in the bad company of a serial killer. That I know of.
I have, however, been in plenty of bad company – people with whom I do not feel safe. People prone to dangerous behavior. People prone to have a negative impact on my life.
Company. Influence. Support.
These themes have grown more important to me over the years. The last decade has been a personal journey of self-discovery, figuring things out and in so many ways a monumental success. In other ways, it’s easily been the most difficult decade of my life. But I’m optimistic and hopeful. Still. Why not?
I reached a point where I simply refused to give time and space to bad company. I’ve always done it, but I’ve grown increasingly more intentional about it over the past 15 years or so. I’m purposefully shut out bad people from my life. And you know what? You don’t have to be alone. The title of today’s show isn’t a statement about the only options available. It’s just a statement that as bad as it is to be lonely, it’s worse to be in bad company. Thankfully, there’s a much better alternative…
Make sure the people who surround you are people who can help you become better and people willing to let you help them become better. And I’ve realized there’s one central thing that depicts bad company in my book. People with little or no compassion. People so self-centered they’re not bothered by their betrayal of others. They’re unfazed by the harm they cause others because what they want is just more important to them. Nothing else matters to them except what they want. These are the people who have always comprised “bad company” for me. Like that older boy killing the turtle. No compassion.
I’ve been ruminating about this for some time. The other night at church I gave a sermon I entitled, A Certain Samaritan Answers The Question, “Who Is My Neighbor?”
You can read the story in the Bible for yourself in Luke 10:25-37. It’s the parable most known as the story of the good Samaritan. Here’s the long and short of it. A man is traveling on a highway when robbers take advantage of him. They rob him, beat him, strip him and leave him to die. One man comes by and ignores him. He sees the wounded man is in dire need, but he walks by the other side. Another man passes by and does the exact same thing – walks by on the other side. Then a Samaritan walks by. It’s important to the story that he’s a Samaritan because a Jewish lawyer is the one who asked Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?’ He was hoping to trap Jesus. The Jews hated Samaritans. They even called them “dogs.” So for Jesus to illustrate the answer by using a Samaritan was especially noteworthy.
Well, the Samaritan has one quality the others lacked. The Lord said so in verse 33:
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion
The difference in the story between good company and bad company was compassion. The good Samaritan, as we’ve come to call him, had compassion. The others didn’t. Compassion made the difference. It still makes the difference.
I wish I could tell people how they can increase or obtain compassion, but I’m not sure I can. I rather suspect that bad company are mostly people disinterested in it or people who have fooled themselves into thinking compassion is something it’s not – like judgment. Harsh, critical judgment. Telling people what to do. Should’ing people.
My experience is that bad company is rooted in selfishness and arrogance. People who make bad company think they’re smarter than all the rest of us. They wonder how we get about without their guidance and wisdom. And that’s the irony of it all.
As we’re working to lean more and more toward wisdom, bad company is convinced that if we’d just bow to their will – we too could live more wisely. Mostly because we’d make their lives richer, fuller and more conceited.
The parable of the good Samaritan is a sad story not because of the actions he took, but because of the inaction of the other two men who saw the opportunity and ignored it. They couldn’t be bothered. There just wasn’t anything in it for them. #Selfishness
What’s the lesson here? What are we to learn from this?
For starters, everybody has trouble. Everybody is the wounded man lying by the side of the road half dead. Nobody is free of care, worry, struggle or trial. Nobody.
Next, whatever bravado or courageous face people wear doesn’t depict the truth. More often than not it’s a mask hiding the real person – the person fretful, worried and anxious about many things.
And since the common plight of us all consists of wounds, pain and suffering we ought to be more compassionate toward each other. And forgiving. And less judgmental.
But as I’ve often said – Judgment is easy. Compassion is hard.
Comparison is also easy. We look around and instantly gravitate toward those who seem to have it better. Like the two men in the story who Jesus said passed by on the other side, we can be oblivious to those less fortunate. While we fixate on those more fortunate.
Sometimes I write prayers. Just for my benefit. Yes, I’ll say them aloud, but there are times when it just feels best to write it down and get it in black and white. I did that this week. For the umpteenth time.
I tend to focus the start of a prayer on gratitude. I don’t think there’s any secret formula to prayer, but it just feels right to me to first express thanks. I’m not going to share my prayer with you because that just doesn’t seem right, but I will share on snippet of it. One important item that I think about quite often. And have for many years.
We are approaching 8 billion people on the planet. Estimates are that over 1 billion people live on dirt floors. If you’re not living on dirt floors then congratulations, you’re special. You’re blessed.
I wrote that in my prayer. I confess I’ve written than many times. Almost 2 billion people don’t have sanitary living conditions. Do you? Then you’re blessed.
We’re approaching 2 billion people who live in poverty, suffering many facets of poverty not just low income. That is, they lack education, clean living conditions and sufficient food. Do you? Then you’re blessed.
I think about the husband and father who last night lay awake fretful that his child lay dying due to starvation and he’s helpless to do anything about it. He lives in a wartorn, impoverished place where food is scarce or non-existent. He goes to bed at night fretful, asking himself, “What can I do?” He gets up and that nagging question is still lingering without any good answer. He’s hopeless. And helpless.
I’m not him. But I can’t help but feel both blessed and compassionate. I’m thankful I don’t face his realities, but I’m sad that he does. By his standards of living, I’m living in opulence and bliss. I’m not sure what to do for him. I don’t even know his name. Or where he lives. I just know there are hundreds of millions of hims out there. Languishing in despair.
While I sit here inside The Yellow Studio talking into a microphone that likely costs more than he’ll earn in a year. Within 10 feet of me is running water. An indoor toilet. Across the house is a fully stocked kitchen of enough food to likely feed him and his entire family for more than a month. Maybe two. And I sit here alone right now. Knowing bad company is worse than being alone, but wondering if I’m bad company. Am I?
It could likely be argued I am.
But are we bad company because we’re blessed? Or because we’re more blessed?
Not if we believe what the Lord was teaching in that story of the good Samaritan. It’s got nothing to do with need or want. It’s got nothing to do with abundance or wealth. It has everything to do with the heart – our mind. It has to do with our ability and willingness to be compassionate.
Empathy is understanding. It’s a great thing and I’m blessed with an abundant measure of it. But empathy doesn’t do anything necessarily. Except help a person get it.
Compassion is the horsepower driven by empathy because compassion acts. Compassion does something. And yes, I know, compassion does what it can, but knows some things can’t be done.
A person lays dying. I’m compassionate in attempting (poorly I might add) to console the living, but I’m powerless to do much of anything. What little I do may help. It may not. I’m not sure. In such moments I try to think of them, not me – and do what I feel may best serve them. I don’t know what better thing to do. My inability is huge in that moment.
I have many huge moments like that. Moments of inability. Moments that are simply too big for me – or my compassion. Like the father living in on dirt floors. With starving children.
I’d like to think I’d be good company for him. I rather think I would be. I’m not sure what exactly that would look like, but from the comfort of The Yellow Studio I think of him. I think of others like him. I pray. I look inside to leverage his plight to make myself better. All in an attempt to work on making sure that I am good company – and in my efforts to become even better company as time rolls on.