the penance of penitence

thinking

I closed my most recent blog post (February 21, 2017: to bear or not to bear) with these words – Lent is my life…My life is Lent – by which I meant that the penitential character of this annual pre-Easter season resounds within my soul, boring down to the core of my viscera. Since then, I’ve been given, called by some inner urging to ponder why. Today, reflecting on some aspects of my life that I believe I have known and some new insights, which arose as I pushed, punished myself through at least one sleepless night to discern something, anything new, I write…

I was raised in a household encompassed about by the expanse and limitations of American history (true, of course, for any person or family, though each and all, by necessity, I think, need define the nature and range of each)…

lolita-william-c-1940

My father, William John Abernathy, discouraged by a society and his family, each and both constrained by racism, to pursue his dream of becoming a mathematician (as he was possessed of a highly analytical mind), for the sake of providing for his family, settled for being a postal clerk. Moreover, his father, my paternal grandfather, Pedro Silva, was Cuban; that identification, evidenced outwardly in my father’s dark complexion and straight black hair added to his exclusion from circles white and black. My father lived a frustrated, melancholy, and angry life; his essential and volatile ire fueled by his alcoholism (also a symptom of his essential ire). He also was a deeply religious man, given to daily Bible study and prayer (his pietism and alcoholism being, for me, two contrary dimensions of existence that were difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, as a child, to comprehend; though, as an adult, I can conceive and, in my own life, perceive a similar discomfiting coalescence of contradictory elements of human ontology)…

My mother, Clara Lolita Roberts, raised in an austere Baptist household, a schoolteacher by vocation and by avocation, under the strict tutelage of her mother, my grandmother, Audia Hoard Roberts, always to be a saint-on-earth-in-training, was, in her quiet and reserved, but no less demonstrative way, a puritanical disciplinarian.

To these two folk, I was born. Each, in his and her abiding care and near constant reminders that I be upright in my behavior, my doing (though, in my view, much less, indeed, seemingly little concerned for who  I was, my being) held for me a certain awe, in reverence and in fear.

My father, raised a Methodist, and my mother, believing the adage that “a family that prays together stays together”, determined that the Episcopal Church, with its ordered liturgy built on a biblical foundation, was a fair, middle-way compromise.[1] All Saints’, St. Louis, was our parish home; during my youth, a vibrant community and the largest African American Episcopal Church west of the Mississippi River. There, I was tutored in The Book of Common Prayer 1928, through which I was steeped in the annual custom of a 70-not-40-day Lenten season beginning not on Ash Wednesday, but including the three prior Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima,[2] by which, my parents having instilled in me that I was defined by my good-doing (which never would amount to enough that I might become good), I found an oddly discomfiting solace, indeed, likeness. Penitence was my life. My life was penitence.

soren-aabye-kierkegaard-unfinished-sketch-by-his-cousin-niels-christian-kierkegaard-c-1840

As I reflect, long possessed of (by!) a brooding spirit, it is little surprise to me that I, seeking to see and to know myself as a self, gravitated toward the discipline of existentialism with its central concern for the meaning of existence and its core questions of identity (Who am I?) and destiny (Where am I going?). It surprises me less that, in my ongoing pilgrimage toward my understanding of life and myself, one of my chosen companions, verily, champions is Søren Kierkegaard;[3] philosopher, poet, theologian, considered the Father of Existentialism (and, along with Hamlet, a melancholy Dane!) whose life’s vocation was his apprehension of individual truth and whose life’s journey was that of always becoming a Christian.

I am a follower of Jesus through the story of his life and ministry, death and resurrection. A story made my own, revealed to me and incarnate in me through the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. A story I daily strive and fail to live fully, for which I am grateful for the grace of the correction and the consolation of penitence.

 

Illustration: Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, unfinished sketch by his cousin, Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840

Footnotes:

[1] Earlier and during my parent’s era, The Episcopal Church, historically the church of many of America’s “founding fathers”, also for some middle class (both aspiring and having arrived) black folk was “a destination church” (long before that term became popular to describe a religious community’s raison d’être to fill a particular cultural/societal or theological/liturgical niche).

[2] Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, derived from the Latin meaning “seventieth”, “sixtieth”, and “fiftieth”, respectively, were the names given to the Sundays coming seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter Day. Because of this, for most, esoteric knowledge, I recall handily winning an elementary school Spelling Bee when the final word was Quinquagesima!

[3] Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

to bear or not to bear?

Lent. The Christian 40-day season of preparation for Easter. It’s chief character and call, penitential self-reflection and spiritual renewal. A primary image, wilderness.

jesus-tempted-in-the-wilderness-jesus-tente-dans-le-desert-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Jesus, after his baptism, was thrust by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan[1] (or, interpreted existentially, to wrestle with his own inner tensions between sharing power with others or seeking it for himself, sacrificing himself for others or seeking to serve himself).

Following Jesus, Lent, then, is an annual opportunity to reenter the inner desert of one’s soul, where, in its stark barrenness, one may see again one’s self clearly so to emerge with a renewed sense of self and of life’s purpose.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, this year falls on March 1. However, I feel as though I’ve been in my personal Lenten season for quite a while. It’s been and continues to be a time of intense wrestling with myself in thought and feeling, intent and action…

Some of it in relation to externals. A big part being the current roiling temperament of support-and-resist-Trump people and parties[2] and what I perceive as the resultant sorrowful broken relationships among families and friends, associates and acquaintances and the seeming woeful incapacity of folk on all sides to speak with clarity, listen with charity, and reason fairly with those with whom they disagree and the dreadful rise in anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and racist hate crimes and civil rights violations…

Most of my wrestling, however, is with me…

Some years ago, at a weekend retreat focusing on team building and personal self-awareness, participants were invited to take part in a small-group activity, The Animal Game. The scenario: You are in a group of different animals gathering at a watering hole. You watch the other animals, their appearance, their manner. The task: Name and describe the animal you perceive each person to be.[3]

Of all the descriptions of me, I remember only one. It was spot-on in accuracy. A member of my group said, “Paul, you are a circus bear.” Surprised and uncertain as to the meaning, I could feel my eyebrows rise above my hairline. He continued, “You are bright and glib, attractive and entertaining, and inviting. People want to draw near to you, but they need to remember you have claws. If they get too close, you’ll swat them.”

graffitie-put-on-your-happy-face-the-boyds-collection

How true. Then and now…

In public, I tend to wear a wide-eyed, brightly smiling countenance of accessibility and availability to others. This persona is true. For as long as I have strength, verily, breath, I am a Christian minister who has pledged his life and labor in the service to, for, and with others. Nevertheless, those who know me well have beheld my private self (veiled in the still powerful, in some measure, not so healthy elements of my familial formative years). The alway self-questioning Paul who wonders whether I am loved, respected, and valued as a person and who often enough worries that I am not (that I cannot be!), and who, therefore, is cautious of being too well known, for those drawing near will see and dislike who I fear (believe?) is the “real” unlovable, unrespectable, and unvalued me.

All this comes up for me, for recently I lashed out, “swatted” some friends for failing, as I viewed it, to give me the care I desired. In this instance, as oft is the case (because of which Pontheolla always advises me to wait and to think through what I’m feeling before I react, for almost always, I, intemperately, don’t pause and give loud air to my hurt!), my friends, given their über-busy lives with myriad stresses and strains, hadn’t had a chance to respond. In this and all other instances when this pattern prevails, I am thrown back on myself to ponder anew my faulty inner psycho-wiring, to reexamine my flawed internal emotional workings.

To bear or not to bear the bear within? My internal, eternal question. Suffice it to say, Lent, for me, is no annual 40-day interval, but rather a lifelong sojourn in the wilderness of my soul…

Lent is my life…

My life is Lent.

 

Illustration: Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Photograph: Graffitie…Put on your happy face, The Bearstone Collection®; a collectible, capturing well my circus bear persona, I purchased some years ago

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.1-11

[2] Though, on this score, I believe that for some time this American political distemper has been brewing, then boiling, now bubbling over in the election of Donald Trump. For as a student of history, I also believe that nothing, whether predictable or unprecedented, happens in the course of the proverbial “overnight”, but rather always is years in the making. Thus, I further believe, those who could not anticipate, even conceive of Mr. Trump’s election were not giving due attention to the growing seeds of conservative and disestablishment discontent in our national political soil.

[3] An underlying socio-psycho-political aspect of this “game” involved the self-question: Will I choose to be (will I risk being!) transparently honest in my assessments of others or will I, if, when my judgments may be deemed (heard) as harsh, not wanting to cause dismay to others or fearing the reprisals of others, choose to speak less candidly?

a word spoken cannot be unspoken

thinking

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

The effect of an uttered word is long-lived and, as the proverbial ripples, the consequence of a stone cast into a pond, ever-widening, non-ending.[1]

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

An advisement that we take care, very great care with the words we share. I am reminded of the admonishment of the Apostle James: The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…No one can tame the tongue; a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.[2]

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I think of that now generations-old observation of children, in my experience and hearing, often spoken in public settings as an apology to others for unruly behavior: “S/he’s bad” and in private directed at the child as a word of reprimand, “You’re bad.” In either case, what is missed, I think, is the effort to discipline by conveying to our children the desired or required behavior rather than almost necessarily teaching our children that we believe them to be inherently disorderly.[3]

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I – and this is long look back in the day (and dating myself and giving insight into my adolescent curiosity!) – think of that boundary-breaking, rabble-rousing comedian and social activist and critic Lenny Bruce.[4] In one of his famous (infamous?) routines, Bruce laced the air with a repeated torrent of denigrating epithets about every identifiable ethnic and racial group. His aim? To delegitimize those words by their overuse, rendering them ineffectual elements in the arsenal of the wounding weaponry of racism and nativism. A brilliant, even noble effort, I think, but one that…did…not…work. The words remain; their use rising with society’s anxiety with the progress toward universal equality and inclusivity.

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I think of America’s recently (finally!) completed presidential campaign that saturated, sullied the communal climate with all manner of invective. In this, I especially consider our 45th President-Elect, Donald Trump, whose mastery of the act (the art?) of insult – among them, through the Republican primaries, “Low Energy Jeb” (Bush), “Lyin’ Ted” (Cruz) and “Little Marco” (Rubio), and then, during the general election, “Crooked Hillary” (Clinton) – honored neither civility nor veracity. On January 20, 2017, Inauguration Day, Mr. Trump, among numerous national roles, will become our Commander-in-Chief, perhaps, too, our Defamer-in-Chief and surely our Tweeter-in-Chief.

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I also think of Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s previous presidential candidate, who made especial effort to denounce Mr. Trump (though whose endorsement he craved and received during his 2012 run at the White House). During a March 3, 2016, speech, Mr. Romney described Mr. Trump variously as “a con man, a fake…a phony…(possessing) neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.” On November 19, 2016, Mr. Romney was asked by Mr. Trump to meet and consider a potential role in the Trump administration. Oh, to have been the unnoticed and observant fly on the wall! Given Mr. Trump’s consistently exhibited grudge-bearing animus, I wonder how that conversation unfolded. Perhaps, too, Mr. Trump’s invitation demonstrates his less-expressed capacity for pardon. One can hope. Yet whichever – both ever – the case…

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

Now, I surmise the same is true for positive words of acclamation and affirmation. They, as words, once spoken cannot be unspoken. Still, there is, I think, a repeatedly demonstrable reality that we humans tend to remember and ruminate more on the negative than the positive.[5]

Nevertheless, as a Christian, in this Advent season of preparation for the annual Christmas celebration, there is one occasion in which a word spoken cannot be unspoken that enlightens my mind, lightens my heart, emboldens my soul, enlivens my spirit…

As John the Evangelist wrote: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.[6]

The Word, the divine logos, took human flesh in Jesus, entering the realm of time and space, standing on the stage of human history. And John’s wondrous statement, a cascade of words about the Word linked by the word “and”, testifies that God’s life-giving power is unconquerable, that God’s light-bearing presence is inextinguishable, that no matter how ebbs the tide, no matter how dim the day, God’s life and light prevail. For the Word spoken cannot be unspoken. Thank God!

 

Footnotes:

[1] I believe this to be true also of words emailed, texted, tweeted, or otherwise set aloft in the universe of cyber-communication, despite the capacity of electronic deletion!

[2] The Epistle of James 3.5-6a, 8-10a

[3] If “badness” is a genetic predisposition or a learned behavior and fault must be assessed, in the name of justice, wouldn’t that be ours to claim, specifically, as the principal adults in the child’s life and, generally, as society at large? Would it not be fairer to say, “We’re bad”? I think so.

[4] Leonard Alfred Schneider (1925-1966)

[5] Perhaps it is our innate psychology that thinks more about the bad and feels more about the good that makes the former longer lasting in the realms of our recollections and reflections and the latter more ephemeral.

[6] Gospel of John 1.1-5, 14a

“what’s love got to do with it?” everything! – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 8 (saving the best and surely not the least for last!)

In the realm of human relationships, of all the healthy, helpful characteristics and qualities, attitudes and actions, verily, as I mentioned before, powers, as in abilities or capacities to do something, even more, proficiencies to do something well, love is supreme.

In the English language there is one word for love – love – which is used in numerous ways, meaning myriad things: emotional affection, erotic or sexual attraction, social or familial attachment, and personal investment, and in each form, pertaining to individual, mutual, and communal expressions.[1]

The Greek language has four words, storgé, philia, eros, and agape.[2]

I focus on agape love, unconditional benevolence, often defined as characteristic of God’s being and doing and upon which the Apostle Paul based his great paean in praise of God, 1 Corinthians 13. For, I believe, it is agape love – in its power of selfless, active kindness unlimited by degrees of partiality, unrestrained by the boundaries of personal opinion, even the barriers of prejudice, and unrestricted by any personal notions of merit or deserving – that is the Spirit-breathing, meaning-giving foundation for all other loves. It is agape love – in its proficiency, that is, well-doing of patience, kindness, rejoicing in truth, and bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring all things and its not-well-doing of envy, arrogance, rudeness, irritability, resentment, and relishing in wrong[3] – that covers the sin[4] of our human (thus, always inherently preference-and-prejudice-driven) giving-and-withholding, taking-and-refusing of our personal affections and attractions, attachments and investments.

Now, God knows, I know that I am human, therefore flawed. My ability to act in agape love is boundless, for it is God’s continuous gift bestowed by God’s Spirit. However, my willingness to act in agape love is subject to and limited by the highs and lows of my emotional disposition, the light and shadow of my attitudinal outlook, my physical condition of rest or fatigue, health or illness, my preferential likes and dislikes of time and place, situation and person.

Nevertheless, what I know about agape love, again, is that it is a power and a proficiency to act. And as is true of any power, its use involves choice, my choice, irrespective of my emotional, attitudinal, and physical state, to be patient and kind, to rejoice in truth, to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things and not to be envious, arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful, and to relish wrong.

Do I always choose, against my human, lesser self, to act in agape love? No. Even so, I never can say it is because I can’t. For my faith in God Spirit’s tells me I always have the power. And my hope in God trusts that God’s love will cover my multitude of sins!

 

Footnotes:

[1] Regarding “love” (or, frankly, for any other word), I long have advocated that folks, when seeking to communicate and to avoid misunderstanding, define their terms. For I have come to believe that we dare not assume any two people, no matter how similar in environment and worldview, do or can mean precisely the same thing when employing the same words.

[2] English novelist and poet, academic and theologian, C. S. (Clive Staples) Lewis (1898-1963), in his book, The Four Loves (1958), explored the nature of these loves from a Christian and philosophical perspective.

[3] Here I review the Apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13.4-7 descriptions of what agape love always does and never does.

[4] Here, I think of 1 Peter 4.8, “Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” and Proverbs 10.12, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” I do not mean to suggest that love overlooks or disregards the limitations, the sins of our preferences and prejudices toward others. Rather agape love calls, indeed, empowers us to acknowledge our preferences and prejudices, and then to cover them, shielding, protecting others and ourselves from the negativity of our biases.

my defenses: my protection or my prison – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 7

Yesterday, I considered myself done, at least for the moment, in reflecting on human behavior. Yet, as oft happens with me, I had the proverbial second thought. Something else came to mind…

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Years ago, I had the privilege of working with a wonderful therapist, who (at times, working me over, pummeling, sometimes gently, sometimes not, my defense mechanisms into submission) helped me continue my journey toward that psychic land of a larger, more authentic me.

At the end of one of our weekly sessions, she asked me what I had learned about myself. I looked at her, my eyes wide with incredulity. I couldn’t believe that she wanted the always loquacious me to (try to) compress my ever-expanding-thoughts-and-exploding-feelings into the limitations of the final five minutes of our standard 50-minute-hour. “OK,” she laughed, nodding knowingly, “when we meet next week, first thing, tell me.”

I had seven days to prepare; the same time frame in which I composed weekly sermons. I could do it, but, with that much time, my native skepticism arose. Would my response be what I thought she wanted to hear (chameleonic behavior being one of my trusty default positions)[1] or a word of heartfelt honesty? Or a bit of both? And, if that, then how much of each? Indeed, even if that, would I know how much of each? After days of wrestling, like Jacob with the angel (perhaps, for me, with the devil!), I decided to be truthful or, truth be told, as truthful as I knew how to be.

At our appointed time, we met. I said (I know this, for I read from notes I had scribbled in a journal that still sits tucked away on the end of the bottom shelf of my bookcase): “I have learned that I’m good, very good at two things. Repression. I bury painful thoughts and feelings, believing I can make myself unaware of them. But they arise in my dreams, sometimes nightmares. Sometimes the symbols are difficult to decipher, but, given how I react in the dream, I know what they represent. And rationalization. I justify my behavior, especially the worst of it (for example, when I disregard another person’s feelings) by citing acceptable reasons (for example, what I’m doing at the time is more important because it involves the greater good of serving more people). In doing this, I disavow my real motivations, which usually are selfish.”

Resting her pensive chin on her folded hands, she said, “Good.”

Good? (I thought, but didn’t dare say) That’s it? Good? No accolades? No praise? No brownie-and-a-gold-star prize for perspicacity?

Reading my thoughts, she said softly, “Paul, you don’t need my approval. Even if I gave it, what would it matter? This is about you. And what you’ve named for yourself are defenses we all have. Now, are you ready and willing to let them go?”

What? Now, I did speak. “Let go of my defenses and be defenseless? No!”

Even softer, she said, “Paul, you’re one of the most well-defended people I know. What I suggest is that you assess when your defenses, which we all need, no longer serve as protection, but have become your prison.”

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That conversation on a Tuesday afternoon over twenty years ago, gave me an enduring image and an abiding awareness, both of which continue to guide me to my healthier self.

The image. Protective armor that serves, verily, that suits me well as I remain a given size. As I continue to grow in the depth of my knowledge of myself, the world around me, others, and God, and, concomitantly, in the breadth of my personality, that defensive armor, becoming, being too small, constrains, suffocates, imprisons me.

The awareness. That a healthy, helpful behavior is the power – the ability and willingness – to respond to life’s fluctuating circumstances and fickle chance not rigidly following my old-once-effective-patterns-and-habits, but rather with flexibility in accord with my ever-evolving understandings of who I am and how life is.

Through the light of this consciousness, I saw and see that I am (and I daresay we are) alway in the simultaneous process of being who we are and becoming who we will be. This realization also gave and gives to me new meaning to the words of my namesake, the Apostle Paul: “…as for knowledge, it will come to an end…when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”[2] In one sense, Paul, speaking of “the complete”, alludes to that future time, truly out of time, when God’s eternal kingdom of righteousness is fully realized. In another sense, I perceive in Paul’s observations of the movement from partial to complete, from childhood to adulthood the daily, existential cycles of growth in knowledge and awareness that are possible in this life in this world…if I choose to embark and remain on that journey.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See my previous post, October 18: “and…authenticity & toxicity” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 6 (and last), paragraph 2, where I wrote of “a chameleonic trap (of) adjusting what I do and say, even what I think to adapt to others’ expectations.”

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.8b, 10-12

“and…authenticity & toxicity” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 6 (and last)

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about self-differentiation, defining it as “knowing where others and I begin and end.” Being (most of the time!) a well-developed “self”, was…is for me one of the most difficult aspects of human living. For I arrived at adulthood through childhood and adolescence (I write this without any want or need to blame my folks, but rather with a firm hold on my responsibility for me) with a powerful and abiding yearning to be acknowledged and accepted.[1]

Whenever I’ve followed the leading of this longing, I’ve fallen into a chameleonic trap, adjusting what I do and say, even what I think to adapt to others’ expectations. (I say “trap”, for such people-pleasing conformism always proves too high a price to pay in misshaping and losing my self, my soul. Moreover, given that the person I’d presented myself to be was inauthentic, whatever acknowledgement and acceptance I gained was counterfeit.)

Now, whenever I’ve maintained a genuine respect for (that is, acknowledging and accepting) my need for acknowledgement and acceptance, I’m able to behave in a variety of healthy ways. I can hold in balance my dependence on others and their dependence on me, truly, our mutual interdependence. I can face criticism without defensiveness, conflict without retaliatory offensiveness, and rejection without self-pitying sadness.

This brings me to toxic people or, truth be told, people when they are (when I am) toxic. For the balance of self-differentiation is simply and profoundly that. A balance that I do not believe any of us, being marvelously and maddeningly consistent in our human inconsistency, always achieves or constantly maintains.

Speaking always and only for myself, when satisfying my hunger for acknowledgement and acceptance is my topmost aim and especially if…when I don’t get the response I seek, I’m subject to exhibit manifold unhealthy and unhelpful behaviors. Though I don’t intend to universalize my experience, there are two chief attitudes and actions I’ve seen in myself and others that I now identify as toxic: being unpredictable and unapologetic.

Unpredictable. I’m smiling, chatty, and engaging, then the next day or hour or moment, dour, quiet, and withdrawn. You, concerned, ask, “What’s wrong, Paul?” I shrug and sigh, “Oh, nothing.” Will you take the relational bait and pursue? If so, I’ve got you hooked wondering, worried about what you may have done to provoke such a change and perhaps wishing you could fix it.

At times like this, one my dearest friends, truly, brothers, the late, great Tim Veney, knew best, that is, healthily and helpfully, what to do. Walk away, leaving me to deal with me and telling me, always with a kindly smile, “Come back when the real Paul returns.”

Unapologetic. You try to engage me, reasonably describing your observations of my suddenly sullen discontent. I’ll lie, “No, I’m not. I don’t know what you’re talking about” or I’ll deflect, refusing to name and claim my feelings, “Hmmm, methinks you’re the one with the issue. Are you upset about something that you’re not saying? If I had a problem, I’d tell you” or I’ll exaggerate, “You always try to make it about me” or “You never really try to understand me” or I’ll recriminate, “Do you remember last week when you were acting like you’ve accused me of behaving?” or I’ll judge, “When you’re like this, I’m much kinder to you than you are to me.”

When I’m in my toxic rut, my beloved wife, Pontheolla, like Tim, well knows and faithfully practices healthy and helpful, sanity-saving responses. Sometimes, she does it with a look, all at once, understanding and firm and sometimes with a word, “Paul, I will not engage you now. When you’re ready to talk, I’m here.” Either or both ways, the effect is calming and disarming and sooner than later I return to my best…well, my better self.

There are myriad toxic behaviors, but the two aforementioned shall suffice. Moreover, this is my final word (for now) on human behavior. So, I’ll end where I started…

I began this series (October 12: “and” – a personal reflection on human behavior) with an opening word about a certain presidential candidate. As I reflect, he professes to be unpredictable and unapologetic. Hmmm

 

Footnote:

[1] I mentioned my need for acknowledgement and acceptance in my October 13 post: “and…most of the time!” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 2. It took me quite the while to discern how and why I am this way. For years now, I’ve seen it clearly. The roots trace back to my formative years and upbringing. I perceive my hungering need to be acknowledged and accepted as a combination of the sometimes spoken and largely unspoken and perhaps unintended lessons of my household and, equally, how I reacted to my foundational, familial environment. Given the latter, again, I have no desire or need to blame my folks (Lord, have mercy, I confess that I’ve done enough of that for a lifetime!). I also need not or ever blame anyone or anything else, for, until I die or become too decrepit or disabled to remain a sentient, semi-autonomous, ethical actor in the world, I’ll be the only me for whom I’m – and no one else is – responsible!

“you and I…from blame to responsibility” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 5

A companion development of my moving from selfishness (now, less of the time) to selflessness (now, more of the time) involved my taking responsibility for my thoughts and feelings, my intentions and actions, in a word, for my responses to life. During much of my adolescent and (though I hate to admit it, honesty compels the confession) through my early adult years, I was fond (well, not fond, but, at the least, favored) blaming others.

During my periodic fits of self-pity about my shortcomings and failures, my parents were a prime target of my attempts to negate my accountability. Words of rebuke silently resounded in my mind (for rarely would I speak aloud, save in the privacy of my solitude): “You made me this way…” “If you hadn’t done (this or that negative thing), I wouldn’t have turned out this way” or “If you had done (this or that positive thing), I would be better!”

When that didn’t serve to alleviate my guilt for what I’d done that I ought not have done and what I’d not done that I ought to have done (and my shame for being one who did things he ought not and didn’t do things he ought), I always could aim my blame at that ubiquitous and uncontrollable trio of circumstance, chance, and change.

When that didn’t work, there always was God (whose omnipresent eternality made for an ever-available scapegoat!). In moments of greatest grief, I’d cry: If God is all-powerful, then God, allowing evil, can’t be good and if God is good, desiring the welfare of all, then God, unwilling or unable to restrain evil, can’t be God.[1] (Yet, in railing at the heavens for the existence of evil, thus, raising theodicy’s age-old question and critique, at least I was focusing less on my personal worries and woes and more on the world’s sufferings amidst natural calamities of earthquake and tempest, plague and famine and the human-manufactured horrors of war, racism, and the like.)

Over (looking back, Lord, have mercy, it took a long) time, I now daily exercise a useful, faithful ability (behavioral muscle!). In the words of the trite phrase, I “know where others and I begin and end.” In the light of this self-differentiation, I readily can distinguish my responsibilities (and my abilities and liabilities) from those of others. Hence, I am less susceptible to falling prey to the dual temptations of the threat of tyranny in becoming an object, a victim of the unhealthy, unhelpful behaviors of others and the sense of superiority in taking charge of the happiness of others.

More to come…

 

Footnote:

[1] A paraphrase of the observation of the character Nickles in Archibald MacLeish’s modern retelling of the biblical Book of Job, J.B.: A Play in Verse (1958).