Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Limited Love

I'd like to pass along a short reading from the inescapable, delightful Henri Nouwen. It belongs to a wonderful book titled Spiritual Direction* and more specifically the chapter "Community Requires Forgiveness." I recommend a couple of slow, meditative readings of the passage:

"As people who have hearts that long for perfect love, we have to forgive one another for not being able to give or receive that perfect love in our everyday lives. Our many needs constantly interfere with our desire to be there for the other unconditionally. Our love is always limited by spoken or unspoken conditions. What needs to be forgiven? We need to forgive one another for not being God!"

There is a child-like simplicity to Nouwen's insight, bordering on obvious, that may be easy to gloss-over, but if I'm honest about my relationships with others, I think there are patterns of these misplaced expectations behind almost every sense of rejection and disappointment I experience. While we should strive to reveal God to one another in our words, actions, and silence, we should not be surprised when we offer "only limited expressions of an unlimited love" and in-turn experience the same.

The closer we grow in relationships, the more important it is to remind ourselves of our limited love. And though such a reminder may occasionally prevent us from projecting our needs or wounds on one another, perhaps all we can really hope for is an attitude or posture of forgiveness, welcoming these obstacles as an inevitability and inviting the opportunity for growth and healing.

* In case you're wondering, Spiritual Direction is a posthumous collection of Nouwen's sermons, journals, and other previously unpublished reflections compiled and edited into one cohesive book by Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

I Am Another Yourself

This past week my students discussed the Israel-Palestinian conflict, reading Joe Sacco's Palestine and some handouts from If Americans Knew to gain some nuance on the one-sided perspective they've probably gotten from the news most of their lives. After hearing about so many injustices and atrocities, one student wondered aloud: "How can people come to not see others as human?" What a question, one to sit with for a while. We might also turn that question around and ask: How can we come to see everyone as human?

When Jesus gives the Great Commandment, he quotes God's command to the Jews in Leviticus 19:18: "Love your neighbor as yourself." To clarify exactly what is meant by that, God adds in no uncertain terms: "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 19:33). Nothing is more important than loving as oneself. But the question remains, how do we do it?

We are responsible for the material needs of the neighbor/foreigner/other: food, security, legal rights, police protection, health care, wages, affordable housing, transportation, education, employment. But if we do not see others as human, it is no wonder that we do not treat them as humans. If we are going to treat others as humans, we have to see others as humans.

We need practices that will rewire our hearts and minds. For instance, we might adopt the traditional Mayan greeting "In Lak’ech," which means: "I am another yourself." Imagine saying that to everyone you come across in the day, instead of "How are you?" or "Good morning."

The more I read stories (like those in Palestine) of people whose lives are  in various ways very different and very similar to mine, the more convinced I become that the primary way to develop empathy is through hearing others' stories: reading a novel or a poem, watching a documentary, listening to an interview, having a conversation over coffee, etc.

To practice compassion, we must practice empathy. To practice empathy, we must practice imagination. To practice imagination, we must listen to the stories of others. We must imagine what it is like to live as another person, how that is similar to our experience and how it is different. My prayer is that we will grow in this equation: love :: compassion :: empathy :: imagination :: stories.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wisdom from Fr. Richard Rohr

I recently came across this video and thought I'd share. It contains portions of the evening talk with Fr. Richard Rohr that my wife and I were able to attend last fall. Although I haven't read his latest book, I was struck by this insight, which, excusing my youthful ignorance, seems to be a profound diagnosis of our culture...

VALENTE: According to Rohr, our society has plenty of elderly people, but lacks true "elders."

ROHR: Elder is a capacity of soul that allows you to patiently understand things...It is not chronological maturity. It's how you've dealt with the dark side and how successfully you've dealt with disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, failure, and rejection.

Watch Richard Rohr on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

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