Post 5

Reciprocity:
Some Relationships Are More Equal than Others

We always want that reciprocity with our friends. When they’ve helped us out, we welcome opportunities to do a kindness in return. If things get too lopsided — if you’ve helped me so much but I haven’t been able to give back — the debt grows. I suspect it’s usually worse on the receiver’s side. Sure, someone who gives and gives can begin to resent it, but because giving has its own unexpected joys, the giver can often be generous for quite a while.

Do good friends even keep tabs? They’ll sometimes say they don’t, but I think they do on some level. They are grateful for the good they’ve received from the other, and it can feel uncomfortable to be too much on the needy side of the equation.

So we use actions or words to balance things out. Words often seem so short of the mark, but at least they’re something. (Chesterton’s definition of a beggar is someone who has nothing to give in return except words of thanks.) Imagine if you were unable to do even that! I remember a friend blessed with kindnesses when her husband was extremely ill. Friends and neighbours helped in a lot of ways, but in her state at the time, it was next to impossible to keep track of the various favours and to thank the people the way she would have liked. It must be a drop of sorrow in all that gratitude to be unable to say “thank you” the way you normally would. But it occurs to me just now that her husband would feel this same thing even more keenly. With increasing disability, he needed more and more care. He had already lost his ability to return his wife’s kindness with his own helpfulness, but now, having lost his ability to speak, he could no longer even whisper the words, “Thank you!” How he would have yearned to do so!

It’s a different thing though with the parent-child relationship. A parent expects to be the giver, and gives even before the child knows he takes. The baby will take the very minerals from his mother’s bones, but she does not begrudge this, and as she continues to bear him and then raise him, she will joyfully sacrifice and empty herself. The father too will expend his energy selflessly for his son, for his daughter. At least, this is how it’s supposed to be, in the natural order. It’s the human reflection and imperfect imitation of the supernatural order.

God gives in infinite measure and we cannot even tabulate the ways. We cannot comprehend his generosity. We receive and then we receive again. We take and take, and he gives and gives. The physical world, the intellectual, the emotional, the spiritual — he provides for us in so many ways. Each day he gives us a new dawn, with a brand new painted sky, never before appearing that way, and meanwhile in some far-away ocean, a diver discovers a new kind of coral that nobody knew existed. The abundance, even on the natural plane, is mind-boggling.

So how fitting it is then that God tells us to call him ‘Father.’ He didn’t choose ‘Supreme Being,’ ‘Almighty Power,’ ‘Infinite Deity,’ or something like that. He puts on our lips, ‘Father,’ that word of relationship, a relationship where we acknowledge ourselves as little children. We are indebted, hopelessly and completely.

[March 2015]

Post 4

Seeing the Bad Side: Knowledge vs Behaviour

Today I was flipping through a rather dull publication and I came to a complete stop when I saw some really bad head shots. I don’t remember ever seeing such bad portraits. The photographer used a really tiny depth of field, and they were close-ups, so the nose was in sharp focus but just a few inches back, where the ears were, the photo was out of focus. Strange and unflattering. They even printed a close-up of the woman who had blinked, which is hard to believe in this digital age.

So I’m not sure what happened there.

A good photographer emphasizes the good features, and chooses the angles that show the person to best advantage. So part of the task is being able to compare and notice when things don’t look as good. There’s that funny mix of knowing what’s bad in knowing what’s good.

It can be a shock to realize how much good people actually know about evil. They seem so mild and they behave so tamely that they seem much more naïve, stupid and clueless than they really are. They bite their tongue instead of making that clever put-down.

G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are inspired by Father O’Connor. One time, Fr. O’Connor needed to enlighten Chesterton about an issue, and in order to do so, had to explain to Chesterton the practical and shocking nature of some morally abhorrent practices occurring in society at that time. Chesterton, intelligent and perceptive, and considering himself well-enough acquainted with immorality, was in for a shock. He writes in his autobiography, “It was a curious experience to find that this quiet and pleasant celibate had plumbed those abysses [of iniquity] far deeper than I. I had not imagined that the world could hold such horrors.

But a few moments after educating Chesterton, this same priest was criticized out of earshot by two young men, who, though they liked the priest a lot, dismissed him, saying that he “didn’t know about the real evil in the world.” One of these men said, “It’s a very beautiful thing to be innocent and ignorant; but I think it’s a much finer thing not to be afraid of knowledge.

Chesterton writes: “To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of which the priest had warned me, this comment came with such a colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a harsh laugh . . .” He writes, “That the Catholic Church knew more about good than I did was easy to believe. That she knew more about evil than I did seemed incredible.

The photographer showcases your best features, but he knows how to do otherwise. The soprano could give you a pop song, but she gives you a cantata instead. The artist paints arches and columns, but he could have given you a splattered mess. Choosing to do better doesn’t mean a lack of knowledge about what’s worse; it’s often part of the package. And that can be a good thing. When it comes to the sacrament of reconciliation, for instance, we never need to worry about shocking the priest – he’s heard it all before!

Post 3

Unprofitable Talents: Reflections on Hobbies

I understand that there was a time when the word ‘profession’ referred to just three types of work: doctor, lawyer and priest. These were distinguished from the trades. This lasted for a long time. (Even in 1990, law students were being asked to research and discuss why law was one of the few occupations referred to as a ‘profession.’) Then, one by one, other disciplines wanted to be referred to as professions. Of course, once it started, it didn’t stop, and the word ‘profession’ came to mean anything you did for a living. A professional came to be defined as someone whose day job was that line of work. A professional hair-dresser means someone who cuts and styles hair for a living. A professional actor implies that the person makes enough money as an actor that he can forgo other types of income.

So along with this comes the notion that if you are really good at something, then you should be able to do it professionally. And then of course, not far behind is the conclusion that if you’re not making money at it, then you must not be all that great at it in the first place. Money equals talent.

So money becomes the final arbiter. The more money you make at something, the better you probably are at it, is the assumption that we make, often without realizing it. The truth is, however, that in pretty much every line of work, there are way more talented people than the number of available positions. Only a small percentage of women work as full-time models, but meanwhile, in countless small forgotten towns and villages, women equally beautiful are busy fetching water or walking a dog. And the same goes for the other disciplines. Who is to say that the community-theatre actor isn’t in fact as talented as a Hollywood name? Even when it comes to the cardiac doctor working in Chicago and renowned through the medical world, we have to admit it’s an unequal playing field. The world has a lot of young people with brilliant minds and a lot of drive, but those first stepping stones to success and recognition weren’t there for them.

But I digress. I had intended to talk about hobbies.

Money as measurement means that we almost consider it ‘thrown-away talent’ or a ‘waste of talent’ when money does not rise up to bless our side endeavors. It’s considered a great compliment to say to someone that they could “do it professionally!” But the truth is, we should celebrate those many talents that we all have by pursuing them as hobbies in our leisure time, giving no thought to the money that they will bring us. In fact, money would taint and spoil these pursuits. That’s the point G.K. Chesterton makes.

In his autobiography, he has a chapter called, “The Man with the Golden Key.” The name of the chapter has a double meaning: it describes a 6-inch-tall prince, made of cardboard and wearing a crown, but it also describes his father, who made the prince.

Chesterton’s father was a house-agent living in Kensington, England. I think nowadays we’d call him a realtor? In his leisure time, however, he turned to his many other interests. Chesterton describes how at one point his father wrote a book:

The book was one my father had written and illustrated himself, merely for home consumption. It was typical of him that, in the Pugin period he had worked at Gothic illumination; but when he tried again, it was in another style of the dark Dutch renaissance, the grotesque scroll-work that suggests woodcarving more than stone-cutting. He was the sort of man who likes to try everything once. This was the only book he ever wrote; and he never bothered to publish it.

Chesterton’s father had a workshop, and the inventions that he made there “created for children the permanent anticipation of what is profoundly called a Surprise.

His versatility both as an experimentalist and a handy man, in all such matters, was amazing. His den or study was piled high with the stratified layers of about ten or twelve creative amusements; water-colour painting and modelling and photography and stained glass and fretwork and magic lanterns and mediaeval illumination.
. . . [I]n my own household, it was not a question of one hobby but a hundred hobbies, piled on top of each other . . .

And then Chesterton says that at one time there was talk of his father using his talents as the basis for a career, but practical considerations prevailed:

There had been some talk of his studying art professionally in his youth; but the family business was obviously safer; and his life followed the lines of a certain contented and ungrasping prudence . . . He never dreamed of turning any of these plastic talents to any mercenary account, or of using them for anything but his own private pleasure and ours.

He created worlds of wonder for his family, while meanwhile the outside world viewed him as “a very reliable and capable though rather unambitious business man.

Chesteron writes:

On the whole I am glad that he was never an artist. It might have stood in his way in becoming an amateur. It might have spoilt his career; his private career. He could have made a vulgar success of all the thousand things he did successfully.

Chesterton identifies it as an American trait that all hobbies get reframed in terms of profit:

When the American begins to suggest that ‘salesmanship can be an art,’ he means that an artist ought to put all his art into his salesmanship. The old-fashioned Englishman, like my father, sold houses for his living but filled his own house with his life.

 

A hobby is not a holiday . . . a hobby is not half a day but half a life-time. It would be truer to accuse the hobbyist of living a double life. And hobbies . . . have a character that runs parallel to practical professional effort . . . it is doing work . . . it is an exercising of the rest of the mind.

So it is not a matter for discouragement that we cannot turn every single ability into a lucrative thing. In fact, it’s a wonderful thing that you remain an amateur baker, an amateur gardener, an amateur home-organizer. With these talents, undamaged by profit and concerns of profit, you’ll have new ways of sharing yourself with your family and friends. The outside world will know you by your day-job, but your inner circle will know so much more.

Post 2

Mirror, Mirror: Reflections on Self-Perception

When we look at ourselves in the mirror over the sink, we think we’re seeing the truth, the ‘real deal’ – a moment of complete frankness and accuracy. The mirror is the analogy for self-knowledge. But the truth is we really don’t know ourselves even on the physical plane.

We see ourselves straight-on, looking squarely at our own reflection. We think that’s what others see, but it’s not. For one thing, we see ourselves left-right reversed. A photo will show us that we don’t part our hair on the side that we thought we did.

And unless we’re exactly the same height as another, we’ll almost never see eye to eye, the way we do with our reflection. We see short people from above (a flattering angle for women as it enlarges the eyes and shrinks the chin) and tall from below (the larger nose and chin isn’t a bad look, for a man). I recently read that when Michelangelo created David, he deliberately made the head and hands larger, because viewers of the raised statue would see it from below. If you ever study a photo of someone (especially a head-shot) and then see them in person, you’re struck by how much taller or shorter they are than you imagined.

Continuing this theme, others see all angles of us. They see the side of our head, and the back. We don’t see our own bodies from the side, but we observe others this way all the time and think nothing of it. And we don’t see our own bodies from the back, because God is merciful.

We also don’t observe ourselves talking or eating. We don’t even know how our own voice sounds. To hear ourselves on the answering machine – well – do I really sound like that? Do I really talk like that? It’s so . . . strange! We don’t observe ourselves being emotional either. We don’t know how we look scowling or annoyed. Maybe it’d be good to see that side of ourselves, as penance.

Seeing photos of ourselves is a bit surprising, (though not for those who love to take selfies) but at least we’re more used to it; it’s video that takes the cake for pure shock value. It’s an entirely weird out-of-body experience. Who is that person? We harshly assess our appearance, mannerisms, voice and behavior. Someone please make it stop!

And my analogy is that in the same way that our physical self-perception is so limited, so too is our spiritual self-perception. How grossly we misjudge ourselves! How incomplete and inaccurate is our self-examination! One matter, which we thought important, is a mere trifle; another matter, which we thought insignificant, makes all the difference. Meanwhile, everyone around us can plainly see what we can’t.

Post 1

Last Words: Reflections on Talking

Words flow from our lips like water. We say what we’re thinking, we say variations on what we’re thinking, or sometimes we speak without thinking very much at all. Because so much of what we say is said in the context of everyday life, we do not afterwards give it much thought either. And so we go — thinking, talking, moving along.

Then it happens. You discover that someone, someone with whom you’ve spoken, is gone. They’ve left this world and you didn’t expect it. Your mind races back to those last words you spoke to them. What did I say? Was I nice? Were my words ‘good enough’? Did I smile? Did I look them in the eye? Did I pay attention to them? And then we weigh our words — could I have said that in a better way?

And we have to forever live with whatever those words were, and how we may have said them. And though any sudden death will make us reflect on our last interactions with that person, death by suicide causes a freeze-frame effect like nothing else, and leaves the survivors to replay and replay the words they said and the words they didn’t say.

We usually speak as if we’re going to be able to continue the conversation, as if we’ll have another chance to correct the misunderstandings. And we also refrain from offering words from our heart. Those special words, “I love you,” “I miss you,” “Your friendship means so much to me,” or even, “I look forward to seeing you again,” are so rarely spoken. We hold such words in reserve, to preserve their specialness and to save them for that momentous moment.

But perhaps now is the momentous moment. Perhaps today is that special time. The conversation that we have with him, or with her, well – that could be the last conversation that we have with that soul. Those could be our last words.

[11 March 2015]