I had conversations recently with two friends. They are long-time colleagues. One is a rabbi and the other a priest. They are seasoned clergy. Both think outside the box of sectarian religion and political affiliation. They’re reflective people.
We’d not seen each other for a while. We were catching up. Soon we were discussing the social and political scene in America today.
America’s moral decline soon came up.
We agreed that our social, political and moral codes are fraying. Those supporting the president are as angry and uncivil as those opposing him. The anger finds expression in hostile and mean-spirited exchanges and a pervasive feeling of uncertainty, if not helplessness and doom. We are stuck in a climate of malaise. That’s pretty much the state of affairs and we agreed it’s not going away any time soon. Given those realities, in the interim how might we live our inner lives and help others live theirs? Put differently, how can we stay sane and relevant in a world gone mad?
The rabbi suggested a spiritual exercise. In the short haul, he said, we are limited in what we can do to change things, except to hope and vote. He suggested that we write a letter to our own souls; take the matter up there, rather than engaging in the habitual no-win criticism and carping which I, for one, slip into so easily. What would emerge from such an exercise?
The idea of writing to my soul intrigued me. I began collecting my thoughts. It was a delicate exercise trying to assemble the data to write. A soul brooks no fudging.
Souls whisper. I have to listen carefully to hear. I can con my ego – which typically shouts – but never my soul.
As forthrightly as I could, in the interests of full disclosure, I prepared to write first that I didn’t like Trump one whit. When I see him on TV, the sight of him ties my stomach in a knot.
My soul whispered, “Merrill, don’t give me that, these are not your real thoughts; I know better. You call him a creep and a sleaze.” My soul, mischievously, goaded me: “I’ll bet the ‘Reverend’ would not like those sentiments made public. They’d make him look, well, not any different from the creep and sleaze he’s just scorned with such derisive language.
Listening to one’s soul isn’t always fun. I then had the thought that the meanness and contempt I feel for Trump was as reactive as many conservatives were when Obama was elected president. I’ll bet they said and thought a lot of ugly things, too.
While composing my letter, this first tangle with my soul highlighted what I have suspected is the real heart of the matter, not only in politics, but in how we deal with others; What am I to do with my knee-jerk responses of aversion? They can be vicious and waspish. Do I, as is common, build rationales to justify them, cling to my atavistic impulses and retaliate with all my righteousness blazing? Do I simply ignore them?
Ignoring powerful emotions never works. I know that. They only come out sideways.
As I consider writing my letter, I know that this internal struggle is timeless. It’s a part of being human. It’s about how discernment is different from reactive judgements and how I distinguish one from the other.
Reactive judgments often carry contempt – at least on this side of the veil – which is why God advises we leave the judging to him. Such judgements have incendiary qualities that stoke an inner seething. That’s when we wish only the worst for who or what we loathe. Such judgements will either mobilize energy or create malaise. When their energy is released, it rarely if ever ends well, or worse still, legitimizes my own craziness. I know this even before my soul confronts me. But, my soul also knows full well that there is also something deliciously seductive about feeling hateful, especially when the hate has been seasoned with a healthy dose of one’s personal sense of rectitude. It’s a rush, a high, and in an absence of anything more substantive, hate and resentment can offer a sense of purpose, a cause to champion. I can feel righteous and ready. It fills a spiritual vacuum.
Discernment is different. Discernment is nuanced. It is a form of discrimination (not prejudice) that reaches beyond outward appearances and sees to the heart of a matter, like an X-Ray goes beyond the surface to reveal what lies beneath. Discernment will not be driven by ignorance, in the way the ego is when making reactive judgements.
A Buddhist myth about an old monk makes the point.
He sits by a stream and watches the current go by. He listens to the gurgling water. He is at peace with himself and the world. He sees a scorpion. It’s floating on a leaf. The Monk knows that downstream the current gets turbulent and will flip the leaf over and surely drown the scorpion. The Monk reaches for the scorpion to take him safely to the shore. The scorpion stings him. In a few minutes, he does the same with another scorpion. It stings him. One of the monk’s disciples standing nearby sees him and rushes over to him. “Master, why do you reach for the scorpions, you know they will sting you?” The monk replies, “Yes, that’s just how they are.”
It’s an odd parable at first glance. Initially I thought the monk was foolish; after all he knows what will happen. I also thought that the monk might do better for all concerned to let the scorpions meet their fate downstream as they would not pose a danger to others.
A closer look at the myth is revealing. In the face of harm that might cause the monk pain if not death, he did not behave reactively. He was a kind and compassionate man. He had no illusions about what scorpions do. He did not react to them with revulsion, anger or fear. He responded with the kindness of his soul, transforming the moment dramatically. The moment was like Dr. King’s March on Washington. King was fully aware of the venom of his adversaries, but he turned a moment that could be potentially toxic into one of hope and promise. The event changed America. Dr. King did not, as with many frustrated Americans today, identify with his angry adversaries and behave like them. He did not lose his own soul under pressure.
Our challenge today is to be as wise as serpents, and as gentle as doves.
For those of us, however, who will hopefully continue to struggle with soul, ego, and specifically with personalities we can’t abide, George Eliot offered this kind but wistful lament: “It was a pity he couldn’a be hatched o’er again, and hatched different.”
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.