Reacting to Another’s Harsh Judgment of Us

How do we respond when another judges us harshly or unfairly?  There are at least three possible responses.  First, we can say nothing, keeping our unhappiness and resentment toward the other person to ourselves.  Second, we can lash out at the other, attacking them for their unfairness or harshness.  Third, we can try, gently and without rancor, to explain to the other why their judgment was unjustified.

In the episode that prompts this post, I was the person making the harsh judgment.  The specifics are not important.  Suffice it to say that someone was doing some work for me and, in a moment of frustration and impatience, I sent the person an e-mail that expressed dissatisfaction with how things were going. 

In this particular case, lashing out at me was not a likely option.  But the person could have said nothing to me.  He could have sat feeling sorry for himself, silently thinking (or perhaps sharing with his friends or family) what a jerk I was and how unfairly he had been treated.  Instead, what he did was to write me a long e-mail.  He recognized that if my judgment were indeed that his performance had been faulty, he would accept that, but explained, thoughtfully and reasonably, why he did not think the judgment was justified.  There was no harshness in anything he said.  It was an honest attempt to assess the situation and see how we might move on from there.

The difference in the three approaches is obvious.  Silent resentment effectively ends the relationship, closing off any possibility for growth and reconciliation.  I sit in my judgment, he sits in his feeling that he has been treated unfairly, and the relationship can go nowhere.  Lashing out is always doomed to failure.  It only invites defensiveness.  Whatever wrong may have been committed by the person making the unfair or harsh judgment, the person will be unable to see it while under attack.

The third approach is the only one that allows growth.  In this case, I sat and read the e-mail in the same spirit in which it was written.  Because I wasn’t feeling attacked, I could hear what was being said.  And I could see where I had been harsh and unfair in my judgment and  could accept the correction.  This is an approach that allows healing, that fosters, rather than kills, relationship.

My dominant reaction is one of gratitude for the model provided by the person in my encounter.  And I pray for the grace to respond in the same loving manner the next time I feel that I have been misjudged.


Feeding the Hungry

Recently, Pope Benedict addressed the UN Food Summit.  I keep going back to a single line from his address.  He said that “hunger and malnutrition are unacceptable in a world that, in reality, possesses production levels, resources and sufficient knowledge to put an end to these dramas and their consequences.”

This isn’t about politics.  It is about how we each respond to the sufferings of our brothers and sisters.  The first question I think we each need to ask ourselves is: Do we – in the depths of our hearts – believe that hunger and malnutrition are “unacceptable” in the world in which we live today.  If the answer to that question is “yes,” then each of us needs to ask: What am I doing to contribute to feeding the hungry?  How am I helping to ensure that people have enough to eat?

There are different ways to answer those question.  There are different ways we can feed the hungry.  But I don’t think any of us can ignore the fact that millions of people are malnourished and that each day children die because they do not have enough to eat.

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food…..Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me…..What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:34-35, 40, 45)

(The full translation of Benedict’s address to the U.N. Food Summit is available on Zenit here.)

Ego and Taking Things Personally

I’m currently reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth.  One of the things Tolle talks about is the ego’s need to be right.  He distinguishes between a simple statement of fact and identification with a particular position.  Thus, to use his example, if I say “Light travels faster than sound,” I am making a factual statement.  Someone may disagree with it, and they would be incorrect in doing so.  But simply stating what I know to be true does not necessarily involve the ego. 

However, Tolle points out, identification with mind and a mental postiion can easily arise.  “If you find yourself saying, ‘Believe me, I know’ or ‘Why do yoiu never believe me?’ then the ego has already crept in.  It is hiding in the little word ‘me.’  A simple statement, ‘Light is faster than sound,’ although true, is now in the service of illusion, of ego.  It has become…personalized, turned into a mental position.  The ‘I’ feels diminished or offended becuase somebody doesn’t believe what ‘I’ said.”  What results is defensiveness, anger, agression.

Perhaps I react so strongly to reading this because I see the reaction often in myself.  It drives me crazy when I know I’m right about something and someone doesn’t accept “my rightness.” Indeed, I experienced this just last evening.  My husband and I were driving my daughter to a party at a friend’s house that we had never been to before.  He was driving and I had the mapquest directions and map.  We hit an intersection where it was obvious to me were supposed to turn right.  My husband was convinced we need to go straight, so he went straight, ignoring my instruction.  Ultimately I persuaded him that we were on the wrong road and we turned around and found our way to where we needed to drop my daughter off (exactly where I had said we should go). 

I sat silently, seething inside.  What was going through my mind was precisely, “You never think I’m right when it comes to directions.  I knew the way to go and you didn’t believe me.”  I felt, in Tolle’s words, “diminished…offended” that he didn’t believe what I said.

My reaction had nothing to do with the truth and everything to do with the ego.  And so I sat for a while feeling angry.  Fortunately, I could see what I was doing and was able to let go:  I looked ahead on the road and saw a brightly colored pair of boxer shorts directly in our path.  As we drove over them, I saw in a flash two options – continuing to fume silently or making some joking comment about running over the boxing shorts.  I chose the latter and left the defensiveness behind.


Love Your Enemies

Tough series of Gospels this week, in the teachings of Jesus from Chapter 5 of Matthew.  Today we are given the instruction to love our enemies.  Jesus points out, quite reasonably, that it doesn’t take a whole lot to love those who love us….”Do not the tax collectors do the same?”  So, says Jesus, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

 What Jesus really is instructing when he ends that passage by asking that we “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” is that we love the way God loves…the way God loves each of us….unconditionally and unselfishly.  As Jesus tells his disciples, God “makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” 

Loving like God is not something we can do on our own and certainly not something we can accomplish by the power of our will.  We can’t love others the way Jesus asks us to in this Gospel unless we ourselves experience God’s love for us.  Unless we ourselves can rest secure in God’s love, unless we know that God’s love dwells in us and that nothing we can do will cause us to lose that love, we cannot possibly be a source of that same love for others.  So the way to put this teaching of Jesus into practice is not to try to force ourselves into loving those who hate us, but by getting in touch with God’s love for us.  The more deeply we experience that love, the more we will be able to channel that love to all.

Thou Mastering Me God!

I just finished reading a novel about Hopkins’ writing of the Wreck of the Deutschland and about the events prompting his writing of it (described on the Recently Read page).  Apart from my enjoyment of the book, it served as an occasion for me to reread the poem itself.  It is a long poem, so I share here only the first verse, which offers a beautiful stand-alone morning meditation.  Read it and just sit for a while with the last line.

Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almsot unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee. 

As an aside, Hopkins determined to give up writing poetry when he entered the Jesuits, believing it to be too individualistic for a Jesuit.  It was this poem that broke his literary silence. 

What God Can Accomplish With Our Yes

In today’s Gospel, Jesus summonses his twelve disciples, gives them authority over unclean spirits and the ability to cure illness and disease, and sends them out in his name.  He instructs them to go to the lost sheep of Israel to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Matthew’s account names the disiples and the first thing that struck me in reflecting on this passage is who Jesus calls to go forth in his name.

When I’m called by God, sometimes I respond wholeheartedly, but other times I feel like Travis Bickle, the Robert DiNiro character in the old film, Taxi Driver, and want to say, “Me? You talking to me?”  I think, do you really want to rely on me for this, Lord.  Surely there are others better suited than I am.

At those time, I find this passage with the naming of the twelve more than a little comforting.  When you think about it, this was a pretty motley crew; these were hardly the cream of the crop of the neighborhood.  Fishermen.  Tax collectors.  Peter, who seems to blow it time and time again.  James and John, who remind my of my siblings and I as children, fighting over who got to sit in the front of the car on a trip where my mother was not occupying that seat; they seem to spend most of their time worrying about how close they will be to the front of the line when all was said and done.  Andrew, who takes off at the first sign of trouble.  

Pretty unimpressive bunch.  Except for one thing.  Jesus called and they said yes.  And that was enough for God.  Enough to God to use them.   God writes straight with crooked lines goes the expression.  Read the Acts of the Apostles and you get a sense of how much God accomplished with his Spirit working through these disciples.

And so I think, well, Lord, if you could work with them, perhaps you can work with me, with my failings and my limitations.  I take comfort in the fact that our yes is enough for God to work with.  I glance at the plaque on the wall at the entrance of my study that reads, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  And I sing in praise the line in Ephesians: “Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.”                          

Giving and Receiving

It was my privilege yesterday to be the presenter at a retreat day for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps in the Twin Cities area. The IVC provides opportunites for those who are aged 50 and older to engage in service activities for the poor and otherwise marginalized. IVC volunteers spend two days a week engaged in service (placements include criminal justice ministry, programs serving at-risk youth, programs for people with mental illness, advocacy for workers rights, and many others) and meet monthly to pray and reflect on their experiences. Yesterday was their end of year retreat day.

I built the day around several themes contained in Shaine Claiborne’s, The Irresistible Revolution, about which I’ve posted before (and which is described on the Recently Read page), which was the book the volunteers read and discussed together during the past year. The day consisted of several periods of input, individual prayer and small group sharing.

Many things strike me as I sit this morning reflecting on the day. I titled this post Giving and Receiving because one of the things I heard many times through the course of the day in different ways from the volunteers was their sense that they benefitted from the service they engaged in during the year at least as much as those to whom they ministered. And I heard in so many ways how grateful they were for the experience.

I think all of us who are engaged in ministry, whatever form that ministry takes, understand exactly what the IVC volunteers were expressing. Coincidentally, I attended an evening of reflection in my parish earlier this week on charity and justice and the people who described their volunteer activity that evening made the same point – we get so much more than we give.

It is in giving that we receive. And so give. Give generously. We can’t all afford to give two days a week of our time like the IVC volunteers do. But a few hours here or there can make a lot of difference – to those we serve and to ourselves.

A Tiny Whispering Sound

The first reading for mass today is a passage from the Book of Kings that I love. Elijah hears God tell him to stand on the mountain, “the Lord will be passing by.” Elijah goes and waits. First comes a stong and heavy wind, “but the Lord was not in the wind.” Next comes an earthquake, “but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” Then comes fire, “but the Lord was not in the first.” Finally, “there was a tiny whispering sound,” and there Elijah recognized the Lord.

We often want the wind, the earthquake and the fire. We want big signs that we can’t miss. Knock me off my horse the way you did to Saul, I plead. Just tell me, loudly and clearly, what you want.

But God comes in the quiet, and we need to be there listening. Psalm 46 instructs, “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 37 says, “Be still before the Lord and wait in patience.”

God comes in the quiet. And God comes often in the ways we least expect Him to. But God will come. If we set our heart on God, if we hold ourselves still and quiet, God will reveal Godself to us.

Multidimensionality of Discipleship

There is an unfortunate human tendency to think that we or our ideas define the ideal. By that I mean – not necessarily that we think we are perfect – but that we think our way, or our parameters are the way and the parameters. That is no less true in the spirituaul life than anywhere else.

There is a temptation to decide what the spiritual life should look like and what Christian vocation should look like, as though there were a single template from which all should be drawn.

It is good to remind ourselves that there are many ways to serve God, many ways to labor with Christ, and they don’t all look the same. In the words of one writer, we need to see the “beauty of diverse vocations and the multidimensionality of Christian discipleship.”

“For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them.” (Romans)

“And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers…” (Ephesians)

That has many implications. One of them is that discernment of our Christian vocation is a task each person must undertake individually. To be sure, one can and should seek advice from spiritual friends and advisers, but no one can tell another what his Christian discipleship should look like. We can help create an environment that allows others to discern their vocations, their paths, but we can’t do the discernment for them, nor can another do it for us.

Your Light Must Shine Before Others

I was reflecting on Jesus’ instruction in Matthew that “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” You are the light of the world, he tells his disciples, and a light is not meant to be hidden under a bushel basket.

We are sent out to proclaim God’s Word through our word and deed, and to do that effectively, we must put ourselves out there in a way that will be heard. We our meant to shine our light before others. But, we do so for the glory of God, not for our own glory.

Our motivation is key. The same act can be done for the glory of God or for self-aggrandizement. And so we always need to examine: am I promoting myself, or am I promoting God.

On the other hand, we can be overly cautious and hide our light out of fear of looking proud and self-promoting. Teresa of Avila tells of a young nun – a very talented woman – who resolved to become more humble. She decided that whenever a clever thought occurred to her during the Carmelites’ recreation period, she would remain silent. Teresa did not approve, commenting: “it is bad enough to be stupid by nature, without trying to be stupid by grace.”

We are given gifts to use for God’s work. Hiding our light is just as bad as using it for our own glory rather than for the glory of God.