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Like many of you, I think that my life is more complicated than I want it to be. And life complications are often my fault. I have either created complications for myself or else I don’t do anything to eliminate those imposed upon me.
One area of my life that I can honestly say is relatively peaceful is my work. I’ve found simplicity in my relationship with all of you – who are, as we believe at the Gathering, my bosses. In preparing this message, I thought about what makes my work feel mostly simple and therefore mostly peaceful. I have my roles and responsibilities but the simplicity of my work life is due, mostly, to the people in this church – to you – to those whom I fortunately found who are the “right” people to be around.
My work is kept simple because I am surrounded by right people who engage me emotionally and intellectually without being demanding. I am surrounded by right people who want to join me in my work – helping when possible, willing to say no when necessary. All of you as right people mostly encourage me in ways that make me want to be better. You offer praise when it is deserved and a gentle word of advice when that too is deserved. I am uplifted when I’m around you – no matter who that person is. I really like you – and I like being around you. You make me happy. You mostly add to my energy levels. You mostly offer me a feeling of being respected and cared for. You are not constantly in my life. I’m physically away for periods of time. But reunions are always good, comfortable and easy. My work life feels simple, uncomplicated and peaceful because of you.
What I describe is what most of us want with all of our relationships – at home, at work, at play. We want peace. We want calm. We don’t want drama.
And while having the right people in our lives is only one aspect to finding a peaceful and more simple life, it is one area that all of us can make happen. For simplicity sake, we need the right people around us – people who are positive, upbeat, loving, encouraging, funny, caring, generous, sharing, open, trusting, humble and loyal. To eliminate at least one complicating element from life, we need the courage to remove people who are not “right” for us – people who are toxic and who, more often than not, tear us down, discourage, gossip, demean, envy, hurt, demand, and are negative about us. Life is too short to put up with such people. Life is too short for them to put up with me if I am such a toxic person. Not only do we need right people surrounding us, we need to be the kind of right person who surrounds others. It works both ways.
In that way, having the right people around is not a selfish need. In reality it is a generous way of living – a way to simplify life so that it can be better used unselfishly in serving, loving, and caring. Indeed, if we seek to have the right people around us but are not ourselves the kind of right person for them to be around, the relationship will not work. Its a symbiotic way of relationship – a mostly equal exchange of energy such that we give in ways that effortlessly comes back to us. Love begets love. Positive people attract positive people. Empathy and generosity inspires the same.
Dan Buettner is a contemporary author who has gathered a wide following. As a National Geographic magazine writer, he seeks out and writes about areas of the world where large numbers of people live to be 100 or older. He calls such areas of the world “Blue Zones.” His TED talk on the subject has been viewed by over 2 million people. He was recently the keynote speaker at President Bill Clinton’s health and aging symposium. In studying one common aspect of Blue Zones around the world – in areas like Denmark, Singapore, Sardinia Italy, Okinawa Japan and, surprisingly, San Luis Obisbo, California, one trait stood out. The majority of people in these Blue Zones self describe as being very happy. The crucial and common key to their happiness, he found, was that the majority of them were surrounded by a small, close and deeply loving group of family and friends – so called right people.
It seems that reducing stress, particularly with our interpersonal relationships, not only simplifies our lives but also produces positive physical benefits. People live longer. Buettner found that in the United States, people who rate themselves as extremely happy in life spend at least seven hours a day socializing within a network of right people – those who support and love them. For Americans, having modest financial security offers a three-fold increase in one’s level of happiness. But having supportive and caring friendships increases one’s life happiness by an even greater amount. And being happy with one’s work and career, his research finds, is determined by whether a person has at least one very close friend in the workplace.
Choosing a job solely because one’s friend will work with you is not a common criteria Americans use. But in Denmark, a place where due to high taxes a garbage collector brings home about the same income as a lawyer, people choose their work not because of salary but by what will make them happy. And many Danes therefore choose jobs where their friends work. It is not surprising, Buettner claims, that Denmark is a Blue Zone – an area where people are not only exceedingly happy but where they also tend to live very long lives – many well beyond 100.
Just this past Wednesday, the New York Times published details of a landmark program taking place in one high school located in the South Side of Chicago – one of the most racially divided and underprivileged communities in the nation. This program draws young black teenage males together into small groups and then strongly reinforces a form of future casting. Each young man determines what he wants to be in life and is then continually urged and supported by his peer group to keep that vision in sight. They are asked to wisely choose how they act in many situations – for instance, whether or not to punch someone or, even worse, pull out a gun in a conflict. Staying in school and studying harder are also reinforced by this type of support group. The idea is to use peers – other African-American teen males – as a way to bolster self-esteem and right decision making through beneficial group support led by male school teachers – to replace street gangs with school support groups. In other words, will these boys have the right people or toxic people around them?
One expert on choosing the right people to be around suggests that we each take an inventory of those already around us. We must ask ourselves: Are we able to be ourselves when we are with a particular person or group of people in our lives? Are we accepted, respected and understood? Is there an equal exchange of energy or are we emotionally and mentally drained by them? Are we listened to by a friend or partner or, is it mostly the other who talks about him or herself? Do those around us celebrate our success? Are they committed to our relationship? Do we feel good about ourselves in their company? Are we happy and positive when around them? Are we inspired and encouraged by them to be better people – do they cast visions for us in ways that capture our strengths? Are they loyal or do they tear us down behind our backs? If we cannot give positive answers for most of these questions, we are not in the company of the right people. We need a change.
Just as important as our inventory of people around us is their inventory of us as individuals. As I alluded to earlier, an inventory by others about us is a likely predictor of whether or not we already have the right people around. We must be a right person in order to have right people in our lives. The two go hand in hand. Show me a person with good, caring and inspiring friends and I will guarantee that person is equally good, caring and inspiring.
Qualities of toxic people, however, vary from person to person. Overall, however, they do not simplify your life. They complicate it. You do not feel better having been around them. You feel worse. Toxic people often have a grandiose air about them – they brag or boast about themselves and often have a high need for being the center of attention. They rarely admit when they are at fault. They put you down, are judgmental and critique aspects of your personhood – your personality, your body, your values or your intellect. They usually blame others for their problems and they refuse to apologize when they are wrong. They are envious and jealous of you and others. They are overly competitive. They are usually depressed and are almost always experiencing some form of self-perceived catastrophe. They talk more than they listen. They do not or cannot understand your needs and your concerns. They regularly remind you of your flaws and past mistakes. They are cool toward you when you succeed or get attention. They are vindictive. They kick you when you are down.
And such qualities are similar when applied to toxic churches and groups of people. There is no accountability for leaders in toxic churches. Members have little say in how things are done. There is no recognition for personal achievement or work. Toxic churches or groups are overly demanding of one’s time and resources. Leaders are authoritarian, intimidating and not approachable. All people are not welcome. Shame and guilt are encouraged instead of positive attitudes and inspirational growth. There is little or no sense of being fulfilled and enlightened.
What we find with toxic people that surround us is that we want to change who we hang out with but are often too afraid to do so. Toxic people and groups are emotionally controlling – saying the fault of discontent lies with us instead of at least partially within themselves. Such control can prevent us from moving on and letting go. We need, instead, courage.
My message last week of learning to let go applies to toxic people and groups. Yes, we should accept them as they are and not try to change them. Only they can do that. But we can let them know how we feel and we can apply the kind of reasonable boundaries that will protect us from hurt. “I love you and respect you as a person but when you judge me, when you demean and criticize me, I will choose to limit my time around you. I will choose to find, instead, people who support and inspire me.”
Setting up appropriate boundaries are not selfish acts. They are ways to protect ourselves in order that, as I said earlier, we are better able to flourish as individuals – to serve, give and love. Without protective boundaries to limit toxic people or groups around us, our lives lack peace. We are stressed by constant demands of our attention and time. We are stressed by put-downs and jealousy. We are stressed by a lack of support and understanding. Ultimately, we are unhappy.
Boundaries limit the access toxic persons have to us. Sadly, we may need to erect such boundaries for people we once considered friends, lovers, spouses, or family members. I do not believe boundaries should be used to punish others or that they should be implemented in a mean spirited manner. Indeed, we should forgive the other if we have been hurt and boundaries help enable forgiveness. We let go of the hurt while wisely protecting ourselves from being hurt again. The relationship can even be maintained on a limited level. But intimacy, close friendship, and deep connection cannot be sustained with toxic people. We can love but let go.
When we talk about building a loving community around us, we mean that we purposefully want to be around the right people. And we purposefully commit to working on being a right person for others to be around. Supportive and loving communities, I believe, ought to be relatively small. How many close friends do we each have the time in which to invest? Experts say we can generally only have between 2 to five close and intimate friends. How deep can our relationships be if we have too many? The same, I believe, holds true for churches. Megachurches offer wonderful programs and services with all of their resources. But, one must belong to a so-called small church within the big church – a small group, book club or serving team and that can then limit one’s sense of belonging to the larger church.
The advantage of a small church of right people is that the entire community can be people we know and who support us. It is small enough to enable that. I love that I can know the names of every member and regular attender here, that I can know a bit about their lives and their families, and that they can know the same of me. I never tire of seeing many of the same faces each Sunday – indeed, that helps build even greater intimacy.
I hope many of you feel as I do. That in here, we are appreciated and respected as a unique individuals. We are listened to. We are encouraged. We are uplifted. We are happy to be here. A toxic church offers none of that. I’ve been in some toxic churches. I know what they look and feel like.
But most of all, the wonderful quality about the Gathering is that right attitudes are expressed to everyone. We may occasionally get on each other’s nerves, but the atmosphere in here, the unspoken ethos in here, is that all are welcome, all are respected, all are listened to, all are cared for, all are important and valued – no matter what. We never claim to be perfect. I am far from it. But we do claim our desire to grow in becoming right people and right individuals who live out the ethos of which I just spoke. What we pray for, what we work towards, is that we will carry with us the right attitudes found in here out into into our other communities – into our homes, our workplaces, our other circles of friends. We want to find and build other right groups of people much like the Gathering. And outside these doors we want to be the same kind of right person that we are in here.
I pray this be so for me, as I pray it be so for you. I wish you all much peace and joy.