I am constantly surprised when in the course of living my adult life, lessons taught during my grammar school years provide profound insights and practical solutions to problems.
It’s interesting how the keys to mitigating complex struggles often rest in a return to simplicity. As I was reflecting on a particularly messy struggle I’ve been wading through with some dear friends, the words of every educator through the ages rang in my ears like a grade school choir, half singing and half screaming their admonition, “Keep your eyes on your own work.”
It’s easy to dismiss this simple piece of instruction as if it has no application beyond academic exercises. After all, isn’t the primary reason to keep one’s eyes on their own work to prevent cheating?
And having endured the experience of a teacher literally pulling a spelling test out from under my pencil because she caught me sneaking a peak at my neighbor’s paper to assure the quality of my work, I can confirm that cheating prevention is a key concern addressed. But might I suggest it is not the only concern?
As a college student, I served as a P.E. teacher at a small private school. One of my responsibilities was to supervise students during testing. I found myself regularly repeating the aforementioned refrain: “Keep your eyes on your own work.”
While my initial concern was cheating, a different issue came into view as I observed the class at work. Many times, the students whose eyes were wandering weren’t copying their neighbor’s work. Rather, they weren’t doing any work at all. They were so busy focusing on what everybody else was doing in the classroom that they were neglecting their own work altogether.
There is a strong temptation to compare and contrast our life experiences and expectations with those of others around us. We see the glint of success and blessing in the lives of those around us, all the while feeling the difficulty and drain of our own struggles and begin to wonder, “Why me?” and “What about them?”
This has only been compounded by the advent and proliferation of social media, but thinking back to life in the before time, the temptation has always existed. In fact, there is a prime example in the gospel of John in conversation between Jesus and Peter.
Before ascending to heaven, Jesus gave Peter a difficult assignment. John 21:18-19 reads, “Jesus said, ‘Very truly I tell you, when you were younger, you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then (Jesus) said to him, ‘Follow me.” Peter picked up what Jesus was laying down and understandably was less than excited about the assignment.”
We read his response in verse 20-21. It reads, “Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them… When Peter saw him, he asked, ‘Lord, what about him?’” Jesus’ response? “You must follow me.” Perhaps we might restate the words of Jesus as “Keep your eyes on your own work.”
We make a mistake when we fixate on the experiences and outcomes in the lives of others. We only see a small fragment of the reality of their experience. Our understanding of the struggles and successes in their lives is extremely limited.
But beyond all that, fixating on the lives of others does nothing to help us more faithfully live our own. Instead, our “what about them” mindset serves to distract us from what we can and should do in our own lives and results in discouragement, bitterness and frustration that does nothing to better our own situations or the world around us.
The truth is, life is hard for all of us. We all have our proverbial crosses to bear. It may not seem fair, but that shouldn’t be our primary concern. Our attention should be fixed on being faithful with the life God has given to us. Just like when we were in school, sometimes, it’s better for us to keep our eyes on our own work.
The Rev. Jeremy Myers is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Seymour. Read his blog at jeremysmyers.com. Send comments to [email protected].