Thursday, January 26, 2012

#7 Life is Reflective -- Choose Your Source

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that those who are merciful will receive mercy (Mt 5:7), those who judge will be judged (Mt 7:1-2), and that we should treat others as we wish to be treated (Mt 7:12). These principles are often seen as L-shaped, i.e. God -- either in this life or the one to come -- will treat us (the vertical leg) as we have treated others (the horizontal leg). However, it doesn't take much sociological research to see that there is much truth in these statements on a strictly horizontal and immediate level. You can hear it in our language:

"I wonder how she would feel if people treated her that way!"

"It's time to give him a taste of his own medicine."

"You gotta fight fire with fire."

"He started it!'

"Don't hand it out if you can't take it."

"Now there's an example of the pot calling the kettle black."

It seems we are born with a natural instinct to treat people the way we perceive them to be treating others, particularly on the negative side of life. Those who criticize others are easy to see in a critical light. Those who are unforgiving aren't easy to forgive. Those who speak harshly to us stir up a hardness within us that makes us want to respond in equally harsh terms. It's not easy to be generous with people who hoard everything that comes their way.

Not only do we tend to reflect people's behavior back to them, we also tend to justify our own behavior. It's easy to see the attacks that come my way as unprovoked and undeserved. In contrast, my attacks on others are matters of self-defense or intended to let them know how it feels to be attacked so they don't do it anymore.

Into this back-and-forth clash of negative reflectivity come Jesus' teachings to reflect not the negative behavior of those around us but the love and grace, mercy and forgiveness of our heavenly Father. It's the positive side of reflectivity that is L-shaped; and God is the initiator. As God forgives us, we are to forgive others. As God is generous with us, we are to be generous with others. As God sees past what is ugly within us, we look past what is ugly in others. As God values us, we look for value in others. Rather than a mirror reflecting the negative behavior of others back to them, we reflect the love of God. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). As others have put it, we are moons -- cold dark rocks until we start reflecting the sun's light for all to see.

It is easy and natural to reflect the negative attitudes of those around me back to them, to be no more generous or accepting or forgiving than they are. It takes a deliberate choice to pass on to others the grace and mercy I receive from God. It helps to include on my list of ten things to remember a reminder to choose carefully my source for reflectivity.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

#6 -- Someday I will dance

The sixth thing on my list of Ten Things to Remember actually comes from a reminder to myself I wrote years ago. In its entirety, I don't think any commentary is needed.

Someday I will dance unhindered.
I will glide across the great expanse of heaven
with bright sparks of freedom and joy in my eyes,
leaping and whirling in perfect rhythm with the music.

With that gracefulness and freedom
waiting in the great beyond,
I can afford to rein in my exuberance for today,
matching my steps to those around me
no matter how slow or clumsy.

Because someday ...
I will put on my dancing shoes and dance.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

#5 -- Humiliation has yet to prove fatal

The fifth thing to remember on my list of ten has the morning newspaper for a memory hook. In this case, the newspaper is over my bowed head as I try to cover up my embarrassment. I am sure my life is over, that I am literally going to die of embarrassment. But as I wait for death to come the moments drag on ... and on ... and on... and it starts to occur to me that humiliation is not actually life-threatening, that I will almost surely live to see another day. So I take the newspaper off my head and add this insight to my list of ten things to remember, hoping that by remembering sooner rather than later, I can avoid the agony of waiting futilely for death to rescue me from my shame.

My earliest memory of shame happens to also be perhaps my earliest memory of being in church. My memories don't go back far into my preschool years and in this case I am old enough to know at least some of the words of the song being sung. As I sing along with enthusiasm, I am suddenly aware that the song is a "special," not a congregational, that I am the only one in the congregation singing. Oh, the shame! I bury my face in my mother's lap and cry piteously. I don't want anyone there to see me ever again. I just want to escape somehow. And amidst many, many moments that slip past me during that time of my life, it's that moment of shame and embarrassment that imprints itself in my mind and persists for these many years. Still, I survived the moment and went on to sing with gusto again.

I've grown up a little since that time. Now when I accidentally sing when I should be silent (in whatever form that takes), it is generally only mildly embarrassing to me. I make a mental note to find a way to avoid doing it again and move on. Usually. Sometimes I hide for a while, still waiting to die of embarrassment. But death consistently fails to rescue me and I eventually return to the game.

Someone has suggested that we wouldn't be nearly so concerned about what people think of us if we knew how little they do. It's a helpful thought, although it's offset in my mind by the realization of how many formative moments in my life have come from people who had no clue how powerful their words were and knocked me down without noticing. I don't want to be that kind of person. Still, it helps in times of shame to realize that most of the people I think are staring at me are actually too preoccupied with their own stuff to focus in on my embarrassment. There are a few perks to living in a world populated by self-centered humans. Even those heaping scorn on my head or pointing out my flaws will eventually get bored and move on. It's not as though I'm not even more broken than they know. One of life's many underrated blessings is the fact that no one gets to observe every stupid thing we do. The odd person who has nothing better to do than enjoy what they can see of my many slips in life is pretty desperate for entertainment.

And so, in moments when shame and humiliation flood my soul and make me look for a hole to crawl into, I try to instead fix my focus on life on the other side of that moment, to remember that such moments inevitably pass by and the only casualty is my pride, which always manages to recover and come back around to trip me up again. With this in mind, I can even consider the idea of throwing my stubborn pride to the lions when it's the only thing standing between me and more effective living. What freedom there is in realizing that humiliation has yet to prove fatal.