Friday, December 16, 2016

Hello, Unexpected, My Old Friend

There is only one kind of shock worse than the totally unexpected: the expected for which one has refused to prepare. 
-Mary Renault, The Charioteer

ZACCARIAS WAS in settled, comfortable place when he was suddenly faced with the unexpected (1).

What do we do when the unexpected storms into our lives? Here are a few things that have helped me.

1. Don’t Over-Think It
I try not to over-think or over-interpret what has happened [wife laughs]. Sometimes this fast-forward thinking is why God brings the unexpected in the first place. We are walking, consumed  in the dark fog in our thoughts: “He said that; she said that; he did that," over and over and we fuel our thoughts and they get worse and worse and worse. Then, “Pop!” the unexpected comes in as, seemingly, the only way to pry us out.

2. Replace Fear with Gratitude
Replace fear and insecurity with confidence and gratitude for all the life experience that God has given me. Sometimes, when the unexpected scares us, the fear is the result of deep insecurities we faced at the beginning of a relationship or a career. This may be a certain type of project at work, one you immediately react to with fear, anxiety and insecurity.

Certain things, strangely, scare us no matter how many times we face them and come through successfully. 

The epistle says “Give thanks in all circumstances”(2). When we fail to thank God in all the million little successes, we fail to acknowledge the growth in our abilities. So, unexpected events, encounters, or challenges are scarier than they should be.

Kevin, surprised by the expected.
3. Was it Really Unexpected?
Also, one might ask herself, "If I really look back on my life, and the way things have been going: Was this event really unexpected? Did I do things to bring the unexpected and unwelcome event into my life, even in a small way? Did I contribute to the slow deterioration of a relationship that is now on the brink? Am I contributing to the slow ruin of something good that I/we had? Is it possible that God is really sending me this warning signal to highlight something that maybe shouldn't be so unexpected?

4. Clinging 
Is it also possible that the unexpected is so troubling because I cling to the story of my life, as I've written it? Every event that does not correspond to that narrative is a source of pain. Jeff Edmonds writes,
This is the disadvantage of memory: it imposes a burden upon you. It makes you draw an arrow. We remember, for example, being young and powerful and we dream of returning to that state. But is this an arrow that is possible to draw? Or is it simply melancholic nostalgia for a past that cannot be recreated. If the past is too powerful, too good, it can make us reject the future and create a melancholic temperament that mourns the loss of that idyllic past (3). 
5. Offer the Anxiety
Another thing we can is to offer our fright to God, to stand before Him, pull the anxiety out from our heart and place it front of Him, saying "Here it is: I am panicking!" See what insight you might receive in that quiet quiet time. Insight can be a very comforting thing. And God can I give us that insight if we stop, slow down and take both feet out from the normal river of stimulation. 

6. Pulled from the Cocoon
Sometimes we are locked in a cocoon of self-centered behavior and self centered looking and God wants to pull us out. Think of the very subtle difference between Zaccarias' and Mary's responses to Gabriel. Because, you know, both of them express a sort of a questioning, an astonishment. But there was a very subtle, and yet key,difference: Mary says “How shall this be?” But, Zaccarias says “How shall I know this?” Mary was focused on the miracle in her life. Zaccarias was focused on the “I.” The big "I" was at the center of his question, the center of his problems, and the center of his thinking.

7. Ever-Weakening Waves
By continually facing us with the unexpected, like waves that seem to keep hitting us hard, eventually God succeeds in teaching us that the idea is to change and strengthen the inside and not worry so much about controlling outside events. As Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”(4) Eventually, if we are wise, we become stronger and stronger and the waves become smaller and weaker, or at least that's how they seem, because we are grounded in God.

(1) (Luke 1:1-25)
(2) 1 Thes. 5:18
(3) Drawing the Arrow, Some Reflections on our Historicity
(4) Luke 17:21

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Our Many Faces: Judging, Gossip and Slander

YOU KNOW WHY I like sports fans? I mean, the super die-hard, deeply-absorbed ones? Because, when they "gossip," it's about trades, batting averages, free agents and wild card races. Most of them don't care what you do for a living or what you did last summer.
Take my friend Dave, a.k.a. "Ouza." Dave likes the Giants, a lot. He also likes the Mets. Everything else is only marginally interesting. Everyone likes Dave. Dave doesn't want to hear about who's dating whom or what a rotten guy someone is, no less express an opinion about it. Dave just wants to watch the game. So, please stop talking.
I did not ask Ouza's permission to use this photo. He won't care.

What is slander, anyway? St. Anthony proposes, "It's anything you wouldn't dare say in front of the person whom we are complaining about.” Pretty clear. They're not here. They won't see the text message (at least not immediately). Would I say it? Would I hit "send?" 

Gossip, suggests St. John Chrysostom, should offend me. Why? Well, he puts it like this: "If a person stirred up a cesspool as you were walking past, wouldn't you berate him?" Put another way, if you were standing near a muddy puddle and someone drove straight into the puddle, wouldn't it bother you? If so, he continues, then why not also be offended at the person detailing another person's bad deeds? "The exposure of an offensive life," he notes, "offends and disturbs the soul of those who hear of it."

And, if we can't discourage others, let's at least not pitch in our two cents. St. Isaac of Syria writes, "If you are not a peacemaker, at least do not be a troublemaker. If you cannot close the mouth of a man who disparages his companion, at least refrain from joining him in this.”
Besides, what's the real attraction of gossip? St. Seraphim of Sarov has an idea: "We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves." He continues,
When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others.
We need assurance that other people's lives are scrambled, too. He proposes a better way:
Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.
We might even take our eagerness for gossip as a gentle ping, signalling that we need to stop and look inside. 
And, for Heaven's sake, find yourself a hobby or something.  

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Price of Shady

Walk in the light. (1)

FOLLOWING THE LAST ELECTION cycle (yikes!), one thing repeatedly hit me: These people must be pretty nervous

I mean, if the accusations --  e.g., destroying evidence or doing horrible things to people long ago in far away corners -- are even remotely true, I am not sure how these people ever get a good night's sleep. 

It all brought back the following lines from a novel: "And it flashed across his mind: 'What fools people are who leave the straight path. A clear conscience -- that's all one needs in life. With that you can face the world!' He felt suddenly very much alive -- very strong..." (2)

It seems to me that truly honest people are truly free people, too. They're ashamed neither of who are or what they've done. An honest guy isn't forever looking over his shoulder.

I once got some funny job-interview 
advice from a nerd: "Don't pretend you're interested in something just so the interviewer will like you." In his case, it was football. "They always ask follow-up questions," he lamented, "and then it gets awkward."


When you lie about who you are, you have to build up a false persona. You've got to remember an entire backstory. Who needs that? I think it's why Mark Twain (reportedly) said "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."(3)

Often what's called being "defensive" has its roots in being dishonest, or in having done something shady. "There is no greater illusion than fear," wrote Lao Tsu,"no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself." (4). 

We're most at peace when we're most authentic and honest, when we're totally cool with others knowing what we're up to. Marcus Aurelius takes it a step further: "[Only] ...think about things which if suddenly asked, 'What are you thinking about right now?', with perfect openness you can immediately answer This or That...So that from your words it should be plain that everything in you is simple and benevolent. (5)

Seneca points out that, even when you get away with something, you really don't get away with it: 

A good conscience wishes to come forth and be seen of men; wickedness fears the very shadows. That the guilty may haply remain hidden is possible, that he should be sure of remaining hidden is not is no advantage to wrong-doers to remain hidden since they have not the assurance of remaining so. ...[C]rimes can be well guarded; free from anxiety they cannot be.
He continues, 
[T]he first and worst penalty of sin is to have committed sin; and crime...can never go unpunished, since the punishment of crime lies in the crime itself: constant fear, constant terror, and distrust in one's own security...bad deeds are lashed by the whip of conscience, and that conscience is tortured to the greatest degree because unending anxiety drives and whips it on. Good luck frees many from punishment, but none from fear. (6)

Put another way: You can get away with something, but you can't really get away from it. 

(1) 1 John 1:7.
(2) Christie, Agatha. The Labors of Hercules.
(3) Source Unknown.
(4) Tao Te Ching, par. 46.
(5) Meditations, Book 3.
(6) Letters to Lucilius, Letter 97, pars. 12-16.