When our sons can’t find the toy or the book that they are looking for, we’ve learned that the most productive thing to do is to start cleaning up the mess. When we clean up, we inevitably find the thing we were looking for.
The mess is where things go to hide.
In our church and world, there is plenty of mess. And by mess, I do not mean conflict. Conflict can be healthy and will always be with us.
The mess I mean is what happens when we do not practice empathy on the “other side” of the conflict, choosing instead to whip up the indignation of “our side” against the other. This failure of empathy creates a mess: layers of wrecked communication, triggered egos, activated amygdalas. This mess confuses the important issue at hand and barricades us more deeply on our illusory moral high ground.
Too often, the mess is where we go to hide, and almost always unconsciously. Hide from our own vocation, our own capacity for connection, commitment, and contribution.
It is far easier to focus on someone else’s mess than to do the hard work we are meant to do.
Holiness, I think, consists in realizing that we are not better than anyone else and all need grace in a profound way. This humility frees us to begin to clean up the mess and find the love we were seeking in the first place.
What if we understood presumption to be the opposite of hope?
The presumption that only “we” have anything of worth to say. That if it is not our truth, then it is a lie. That truly listening to those people is not worth my time. That fatalism is the only honest way to face the facts.
Presumption is one way to buffer ourselves from the weight of reality which, considered with clear perception, is quite heavy.
*Here is the whole sentence, from paragraph 168: “Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat or deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.”
At the start of class, he walked silently to the board. He slowly drew two parallel horizontal lines, and then connected them into a rectangle with two vertical lines. (By this time, we were all quiet, watching.) He then asked us a question: “What do you see?”
Every answer tried to describe what he had drawn. A box? A TV? A picture frame?
After some time, his response to us was: “Why are you all only talking about these four lines? My question to you was ‘what do you see?’ You could have chosen anything in this whole room, yet you are all fixated here.”
He was right. He had never told us to describe or even look at the rectangle.
The point of the exercise has stuck with me: we allowed what he drew on the board to corral our thinking, to limit our vision and conversation. And this led to the even more important question: how, outside of the class, do we unreflectively allow our vision to be limited?
If we allow [insert dominant cultural narrative] or [insert news outlet] or [insert social media platform] or [insert cultural turf battle] to frame our thoughts, it will surely limit how we see and think and live.
Relying on outside sources of information is, of course, inescapable, but it is always worth it to consider how a given source corrals the conversation and might get us stuck in an unproductive pattern.
Every day, we can choose to get unstuck by choosing a wider frame and starting a new conversation.
When I was learning to program, each exercise was done in pairs. One person had hands on the keyboard, while the other person narrated what to type next based on their vision of how to solve the problem at hand.
This is hard. Like, extremely hard. For a bunch of big reasons. Chief among these reasons is the analysis each person does of the other. I do not understand where this is heading. Does this person have any idea what they are doing?
But, of course, learning to confront the analysis that breaks down communication was a major objective of the exercise. To help us with this objective, the school organized an “intro to improv comedy” class for us.
The parts of the improv session that were actually funny happened when we were able to tune into another person and respond generously and whimsically. The point was to follow another’s lead without hyper-analysis. Indeed, we were to replace analysis with cognitive empathy and lightheartedness.
As we consider the present (and future) of our church and world, it is worth it to realize that we make the road by walking. Much of this road will be improvisation. Let’s tune into each other and respond with generosity and lightheartedness.
My first job was in a bakery. When it opened, my boss (the head baker) only baked and sold one type of bread, Honey Whole Wheat. The franchise that he was part of mandated this constraint which, I think, lasted the whole first year. The idea was that he should focus on the fundamentals of baking before expanding the business and branching out with more complex recipes.
What is the Honey Whole Wheat of the spiritual life? That fundamental practice that is the foundation for everything else?
It may be the capacity to sit, in silence, with our own interiority. To be present to our own thoughts and feelings and witnessing them clearly without layering on narrative.
This is the place where love, where artful living can begin, and may, in fact, be the Honey Whole Wheat of being human.
I love the current pediatrician office that cares for our sons. The doctors are fine, but what really is exemplary is the front desk staff. They are attentive amid (occasional) chaos, curious even when fatigued, and actually solve a remarkable number of problems without bringing families into the office to see a doctor. In an important way, the folks answering the phones are leading the practice.
I’ve heard that, while playing in an orchestra, one might “lead from any chair.” That is, whether I am the conductor, violin soloist, second oboe, or the guy playing that huge drum, I am able, through my actions, to lead.