Friday, August 29, 2008

On Being An Example

I am cautious about giving advice. I avoid doing so if I can. There is another thing I do that may seem similar to giving advice at first glance: sharing my experiences, including examples of times I dealt with or failed to deal with problems in my life.

The difference between giving advice and being an example can be profound. Advice implies that I have the answers, and my listener just needs to do what I say if they want to prosper. However, as an example, I am free to be a good example or a bad example. In fact, I may not be sure which I am. consequently, I seldom claim to have many answers. I hope that examples from my life will help others to find the answers they need.

Ironically, it seems that people most easily relate to the times when I am a bad example. I remember a two day software class I took a few months back. I struggled and felt lost much of the time. Then, during a pretty intense portion of our class, the instructor lost his way. He just could not seem to solve a problem that presented itself. He called in another instructor as backup, but then they were both baffled. I suddenly felt my spirits lift. If those guys could get lost, then it was perfectly understandable that I, the student, might expect some problems. I was greatly encouraged.

So when I share my experiences, both successes and failures. I try very hard to avoid taking a lot of credit for the successes and to avoid making excuses for my failures. I don't think others are nearly as interested in why I succeeded or failed as they are in the simple fact that I too struggle. Some times things work out o.k. Sometimes not so o.k.

Next month I travel to Latvia on a short term missions trip. I am part of a small group who will be teaching pastors about mental illness. At its simplest, mental illness is when people are troubled by emotions or delusions that cause great difficulties in simply living their lives. One of our group is a psychologist and can give many example of folks she has served as a clinician. Another of the group is a former pastor who has a son with serious mental health problems. I believe my primary job is to stand in front of the pastors as an example of a person who has struggled with mental health problems for decades. I can share things that did not work for me. I can share some successes I have had in finding means for maintaining a fruitful Christian life.

If I were an example of someone who is fighting cancer, I could show x-rays. CAT scans, or lab tests that would clearly indicate the extent of the problem. I don't have those resources as a person fighting mental illness. The diagnosis of my illness is largely determined from my own descriptions of how I feel and what I think. Part of my road to improved health has been changing how I think about many things. However, other important parts include changing my situation at times and changing my brain chemistry with psychoactive drugs. There are no simple answers about what works for me. I certainly am not qualified to tell others what will work for them.

Perhaps a reader may be wondering what contribution there is in simpling sharing my experiences as an example. Wouldn't the time be better spent offering more information about the causes of and treatments for mental illness? I too would have thought so some years ago. But I have been given the opportunity to share my story many times. I see faces light up as folks realize that my struggles have been difficult. They are not sadists, they are simply relieved to know that they or someone they love is not alone in their struggle. Examples of times when I failed to deal well with my problems seemed to be cherished as much or more than examples of how I was able to have some success. The more honest and transparent I can be, the more impact I can have. All I really need to do to encourage others is to be honest about who I am and what I have experienced. At times I slip into thinking that I am there as a great success story to be emulated. Fortunately, reality has ways of asserting itself and restoring the humility I need to do a good job of being an example. I thank God for any humility that I have been able to develop with his help. I pray that God will use me to encourage others.
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