Bitterness and breathing

September 26, 2011

“In order to be of service to others we need to die to them; that is, we have to give up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of others. To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate.

– Henri Nouwen, The Way of The Heart

I have been thinking a lot about this excerpt lately. I read Nouwen’s book this summer, and I jotted this passage down, knowing sometime soon I would need to be reminded. My principal at Capernwray Hall used to say that you only really see what you’re made of when something or someone pushes up against you, because, as we all know, we’re really good at making ourselves look well kept.

And I have to say, I don’t feel like I’m frequently “pushed up against” in life. Especially in the past few years, I have not had many difficult interactions in my day to day life. And so “what I am really made of” has been made a little bit more visible this week, because I have been working through a few difficult situations—situations in which I feel wronged by another, or I feel like someone has wronged a close friend. I have more than once felt completely consumed with anger/frustration/”this-is-not-okay!!”ness, and it is not very pretty. And so I calm down: I talk to my sweet roommate, I whisper a prayer, I work on homework, I eat a cookie. And then I remember. Something makes me think of the situation, and I start going over in my head every reason why this or that person is wrong and everything I would like to say to them about their being wrong. And if my roommate is already asleep, if, like many nights this week, I am lying in bed with nothing to distract me from brooding, I brood.

How do I stop being bitter? And when my friend comes to me and tells me she can’t stop feeling angry, what do I say to her?

This past Thursday night, I had the pleasure (and terror) of co-leading my first Torrey session. This entire semester we will be student-leading all our sessions, which basically means two of us come up with the opening question and then ask guiding questions throughout the 3-hour-discussion. My partner Stacey and I chose to lead on A Tale of Two Cities, the first novel we have ever read in Torrey (up until now it’s been all philosophy, theology, poetry, epics, history, or political writing). And, as expected, this novel has a lot to teach us.

Dicken’s book centers around Dr. Manette, a man imprisoned 18 years simply because he witnessed the crime of another. When Dr. Manette is freed at the beginning of the novel, he still lives like a man imprisoned. When his long-lost daughter asks why her father likes his chamber door to be locked, Manette’s friend replies,

“Because he has lived so long, locked up, that he would be frightened—rave—tear himself to pieces—die—come to I know not what harm—if his door was left open.”

I wonder in how many ways I am like Manette, choosing to let myself be imprisoned because it is familiar and safe. But of course, Manette’s actions are justified by the years of suffering he experienced; he can hardly be blamed for the frail condition of his mind.

So I think I might have more in common with Sydney Carton, the lazy low-life who, though desperately wishing to live differently, convinces himself there is no escape from his life of selfishness:

“Waste forces within him, and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honorable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance. In the fair city of this vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight. A moment, and it was gone. Climbing to a high chamber in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears.”

Carton cries because he is convinced that he will not and cannot ever reach “the fair city of his vision.” So instead, he settles for despair and self-pity, because that’s easier than “dying to one’s neighbor” as Nouwen suggests (although, SPOLIER ALERT: that is exactly what Carton ends up doing in the end, literally).

So how do I die to my neighbor? (I think this is probably the same as the question the one above, How do I stop being bitter?)

Maybe my friend John Wesley can help me with this one (and by “friend,” I mean “extremely intimidating guy who I still don’t quite understand”). The first Torrey text we read this semester was his Standard Sermons, and let me say, it was a bit of an emotional roller coaster (although to be fair, I was on post-wisdom-teeth pain medication for the first dozen or so sermons I read). But I did find Wesley’s description of repentance and faith really helpful:

“Thus it is, that in the children of God, repentance and faith exactly answer each other. By repentance we feel the sin remaining in our hearts, and cleaving to our words and actions: by faith, we receive the power of God in Christ, purifying our hearts, and cleansing our hands…By repentance we have an abiding conviction that there is no help in us: by faith we receive not only mercy, but grace to help in every time of need.”

I think that depending on what sort of mood I am in, I tend to focus on only one of the two (usually repentance). But what good is repentance without faith? Maybe that was Sydney Carton’s problem…he recognized his own inability to change himself, but by not moving past this recognition of helplessness, he stayed stuck. And maybe that’s my problem too…I have been a bad receiver. As Wesley says in another sermon, the act of receiving is essential to relationship with God. He describes the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as

“God’s breathing into the soul, and the soul’s breathing back what it first receives from God; a continual action of God upon the soul, and a re-action of the soul upon God.”

I love that illustration, especially because breathing is something so familiar to us, something we all know how to do. Of course, the sort of breathing Wesley is talking about takes time. It takes quiet, and patience, and discipline. Even though I haven’t quite figured out all it is, I do know that receiving is not wholly passive. The way we take the Eucharist at my church—walking up to the altar, kneeling, and raising our hands—is teaching me something about what it is to truly receive. And I’m almost sure that if I can keep my eyes open long enough, I will find opportunities to receive even in the smallest day-to-day ways.