Saturday 19 July 2014

Resent or Rejoice

There’s a woman I know who whenever our paths cross, which they do quite frequently, always shouts out to me “resent or rejoice”. It’s been going on for months now and I’ve got no one else to blame for this other than myself. She once heard me talking about my wish to find a word like resentment, but that meant the polar opposite. A word that meant to re-feel a positive emotion or event. Now the word she came up with was “rejoice”. So every time we bump into one another she says to me “resent or rejoice”. I’m beginning to wonder if I actually resent or rejoice in these encounters. Usually I rejoice in the spirit of celebration that she is sharing and in the fact that she is developing something that has grown from a loving aspect of myself. I’ve even begun saying the phrase “rejoice or resent” back at her.

“Resent or rejoice”, it really got me thinking about attitudes and approaches to life. Do I rejoice in the life I have been given and those who surround me or do I resent this life that I am a part of? Do we resent or rejoice in life?

Now personally I would much rather rejoice than be consumed by poisonous resentment, although I'm not sure that this has always been the case.

Resentment is a negative emotion that is re-felt and replayed, over and over again until it becomes all consuming. Frederick Nietzsche said of it, “nothing on earth consumes a man more completely than the passion of resentment.”

When I look at my life there have been examples, some serious and others ridiculous, that have consumed me for long periods of time. I know I am not unique in this, it happens to us all, things from our past can so easily control and even poison the life we are attempting to live today.

I know from truly looking at my own life and honestly acknowledging all that has happened to me and all that I have caused to happen, that many of these resentments I used to carry were really just justifications for the mess I was in at the time. By blaming others for my troubles, the things they had done, real or imagined, I could somehow raise myself above them and place myself on a pedestal. The problem of course was that I just remained lost in this sea of anger and my life went nowhere other than more lost. I was stuck on a ship, created from my own ill feeling, heading for trouble and unable to change direction. The bitter feelings were so all consuming that I could not hear the voices that were offering a different direction and my senses were closed to the joy present in the life all around me. What a waste!

Yes resentment is such a waste of life, as it so quickly becomes all consuming. It can take over your whole life. You will find many examples of this in literature. The classic perhaps being Captain Ahab. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick Ahab is consumed by his rage against the “white whale” “Moby Dick” who in a previous voyage had destroyed his ship and bitten off his leg. So Ahab vowing revenge sets out on a voyage to hunt down the “white whale”. He becomes so consumed by his rage and need for revenge that as time goes by he no longer sees “Moby Dick” merely as the perpetrator of an evil act but as the “devil incarnate”, as the sum and substance of all evil that occurs in our lives.

This is near perfectly illustrated in the following passage from “Moby Dick”

“Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung...All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.”

Ahab grapples with the “white whale” until the end. He hurls his final harpoon and cries out “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

Now I know this is only a work of fiction. A great work of fiction by the way and one written by a man who had links with my own Unitarian faith. I understand that Herman Melville worshipped at “All Souls” in New York. A congregation that was served for many years by my great hero Forrest Church. There is something in this work of fiction that speaks to me and I believe to all of us when we look at the power of rage and the destructive nature of deep rooted resentment. We only need to look at the world we live in today to see example of this all around us.

Have you ever been consumed by such a rage?

The problem of course is that once you become consumed by such intensely powerful emotions it is very difficult to change direction. This is especially true if you believe the resentment is justified. Now while the anger may well be justified I am certain that the all consuming destruction it carries with it is not.

Resentment can close down all our senses to such an extent that we fail to heed all the warning signs around us and end up crashed against the rocks all alone. We may not end up with Ahab’s fate but we can easily find ourselves shipwrecked or lost at sea in a myriad of ways.

This brings to mind a story I heard a little while back about an old ship captain, in the days before modern communication, who one night saw what looked like the beacon of another ship headed straight for him. He asked his signal man to warn them and so he blinked to the other ship “Change your course 10 degrees south.” Moments later the reply blinked back “change your course 10 degrees north” to which the captain ordered the signal man to answer “I am captain change your course south.” To which the reply came back "I am seaman first class. Change your course north." This infuriated the captain, so he ordered his signal man to reply "I am a battleship. Change course south." To which almost instantaneously came the response, "I am a lighthouse. Change course north.”

If only we could just listen and perhaps change course for the good of our own and the health of those who share our lives. It’s not so easy though is it, especially when we believe that we are right and get a sense of superiority by this feeling of being right. If only we could see the damage that this does to ourselves and those around us, but alas so rarely we do as we become consumed by the rage and the hate.

Resentment is a destructive force.

So what is the alternative? Well maybe it is to find a way to learn to rejoice in all that is life. How do we do that? You may well ask. Well I think it begins by learning to see the joy in things, if not in our own lives then in the lives of others. It is so easy to get stuck in what is wrong and to therefore fail to see what is good and rejoice in it. This is such a terrible state for our minds to get in. As the poet Milton said “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Hell of Heaven, a Heaven of Hell.”

Perhaps the key is to change course and not sail into the rocks or to be sunk to the depths by the white whale. The key I suspect is to change our minds. The key is to rejoice, rather than resent.

How does this begin you may well ask?

Well I believe that it begins by learning ways to celebrate our lives; it begins by learning to savour every breath no matter what is dealt to us. This begins by learning to offer that unceasing prayer “thank you”. It begins by following the advice of the Hopi elders who suggested that you should “Gather yourselves…See who is in the water with you and celebrate. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.”

Maybe this is how we begin to rejoice, by looking at those in the water with us and learning to rejoice in who they are.

Pema Chodron claims that “Rejoicing in the good fortune of others is a practise that can help us when we feel emotionally shut down and unable to connect with others. Rejoicing generates good will. The next time you go out into the world, you might try this practice: directing your attention to people- in their cars, on the sidewalk, talking on their cell phones – just wish for them all to be happy and well.”

Maybe this is a way to set ourselves free from the anger and resentful feelings that leave us lost in the sea of life. Maybe this is one way to help us change direction and not leave us shipwrecked against the rocks. Maybe this is one way to begin to rejoice in life. Maybe it can begin by not so much looking for the things to be grateful for in our lives, but instead to offer gratitude for the good fortune of others who we find ourselves in the water with. Maybe it begins by wishing good fortune for the people we meet.

I have found that this really works as it begins to fill us with joy because when our minds are thinking of others good fortune it is difficult for us to be thinking of anything else. Why not give it a go? You never know you might just find that if you do your minds might just become freed from the shackles of resentments, and then you might just be able to learn to live and rejoice in the beautiful gift that is this day.

So what’s your choice to be today, do you resent or do you rejoice?

Saturday 5 July 2014

Who do you think you are?

I recently invited a friend to an event at chapel. The invitation read “come as you are, exactly as you…but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition.” It’s something I always say. There is something of my slightly mischievous humour in the phrase and there is a serious point too. Now my friend's response was quite interesting and I suspect a little mischievous too. He said “But what if you don’t know who you are.” I laughed to myself as I read it and then it got me thinking.

Who exactly are we? Does anyone truly know the answer to that question? Who do we think we are?

It is a well-known phrase isn’t it? “Who do you think you are? Now usually it’s said to someone who is getting a bit too big for their boots, someone who is standing above their station and needs knocking down a peg or two, or so we think. We say to them “Who do you think you are?”

Now the phrase has taken on new and different meanings in recent years. There is a well-known television series that goes by the same title. Each episode follows a celebrity as they re-trace their family backgrounds and discover interesting facts about their ancestors. The program can be quite moving at times both for those watching and the celebrities who participate in it.

Now no doubt the program is popular because it is about the lives of these celebrities but that is not the only reason. I suspect that its real popularity is due to the fact that it taps into a fascination that we all share. It seems that most of us wish to know where we come from and I suspect that one of the reasons for this is that we believe it will help us come to a better understanding of who we are. Genealogy has grown in popularity over the last few decades, it has almost become a national obsession. My mum has herself become a self-taught expert in it. She has studied our own family history and also takes great pleasure doing the same research into other peoples families too.

I suspect that this fascination with genealogy grows from our need to know where we come from, perhaps in an attempt to better know who we are. No one person lives a life separate from those around them and the history that they come from. Our lives are not singular cellular ones. The whole history of life has brought us to the point we are at today and who we are has been created from this.

This is beautifully illustrated By Thich Nhat Hahn, who wrote in “Present moment, wonderful moment”

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.”

All that has been before is a part of who we are. So who do you think you are?

In Genesis ch1 v 26a we hear the phrase "Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness;". It is describing humanity being made in God’s image, in God’s likeness. Now what on earth could this mean? Well image, from the Latin “imago” means reflection or portrait it does not mean exactly the same as. I believe that this passage is suggesting that each of us has something of Divine within us, that we are a reflection of the divine and that this brings a duty to humanity to reflect this image into the world in which we live. This is a real responsibility, to reflect the divine love in life, to incarnate it into being. I wonder how often we actually achieve this.

I believe that most of our human problems stem from our rejection of this "likeness", from our inability to see that we are children of love, formed from love. That this Divine spark is an aspect of our very human being. I know when I look back at my darkest days it is this that frightened me the most and so I rejected it. I know that I am not unique in this thinking about who I am. I feel that so many of us are frightened of this spark of "likeness from which we are formed. Marianne Williamson beautifully illustrated this when she wrote “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God?”

So who do you think you are? Oh and who do you think that everyone else is? Well I believe that we are all formed from that same love, from that same image. That includes you who read this blogspot and even I who write it.

Now of course this is not all that we are. We humans are capable of the worst kinds of horrors. We only need look at the news to recognise this. I do believe that this stems from our continual failure to recognise this sacredness either within ourselves or one another. When I look at the horrors that took place under the Soviet systems and other nations throughout the twentieth century I believe that the root of the problem was that we had reduced our human beingness to nothing more than commodity and that this sacredness, this Divine likeness, had thus been rejected. If we could only see who we really are, rather than what we think we are, we would no longer hurt one another and ourselves; we could no longer sacrifice another for some perceived greater reality; we could no longer claim that the ends justify the means. We would be compelled instead to recognise one another’s sacred uniqueness.

So how do we begin to recognise this sacredness in each other once again? Well I believe that the answer is simple and it begins with one another, with the person we next meet. Just take a look at their face.

We only really need to look into one another’s faces to truly recognise this incredible sacred uniqueness, no two faces are exactly alike and each face has so much to tell of the person looking back at us. When was the last time you truly looked at someone?

Abraham Joshua Heschel said of the human face.

“A human being has not only a body but also a face. A face cannot be grafted or interchanged. A face is a message, a face speaks, often unbeknown to the person. Is not the human face a living mixture of mystery and meaning? We are all able to see it, and are all unable to describe it. Is it not a strange marvel that among so many hundreds of millions of faces, no two faces are alike? And that no face remains quite the same for more than one instant? The most exposed part of the body, it is the least describable, a synonym for an incarnation of uniqueness. Can we look at a face as if it were a commonplace?”

The face…”a synonym for an incarnation of uniqueness.”…I like that.

Our faces reveal so much of who we are to one another. Think about when you meet up with and old friend or relative, one who you have not seen for many years. How often do they say or do we ourselves say “come on let’s have a good look at you” and how often do they or do we then look into one another’s faces to see how we are? And isn’t the response often fascinating for it either brings immense joy or gut wrenching sadness as we see our loved one as they are, for it is written all over our faces. I remember in my darkest days how I used to hate people doing this to me, for I was afraid that they would be able to see right into my soul and know that things were not ok.

In “Anam Cara” John O’Donohue wrote the following about the face…

“The face always reveals who you are, and what life has done to you. Yet it is difficult for you to see the shape of your own life; your life is too near to you. Others can decipher much of your mystery from your face. Portrait artists admit that it is exceptionally difficult to render the human face. Traditionally, the eyes are said to be the windows of your soul. The mouth is also difficult to render in individual portraits. In some strange way the line of the mouth seems to betray the contour of the life; a tight mouth often suggests meanness of spirit. There is a strange symmetry in the way the soul writes the story of its life in the contours of the face.”

We never see ourselves exactly as we are, we certainly do not see ourselves as others see us. We see an image of ourselves a reflection, but that is not who we truly are. We need others, others who we know intimately to even begin to know ourselves as we truly are. We need to look into one another’s face and see what it is that they are, in order to truly know who we are. We need to look into one another’s faces and do you know what, if we do, we may just catch a glimpse of the divine incarnating in life once again.

Do not be afraid of the beautiful light that is in each and every one of us.

So who do you think you are? It really matters you know. It matters who you think you are and who you think everyone else you meet is. Our very lives depend upon how we see ourselves and one another. It matters because life itself matters. Well it does if we believe that we are children of love, formed from love. Each unique and each vital and each with something to offer to life.

You see we are all a part of this body that is life. Everything that we say and everything that we do matters, just as everything we do not say and everything that we do not do matters. This is why it matters how we see ourselves and one another, who we think we are and who we think everyone else is, for this will impact on how we live in the world.

We need to pay attention to who we think we are and therefore who we think others are. For if we see that we are formed in the image of divine love we will see that we have a responsibility to this life that we lead and the human story that we are a part of. If we do we can become champions of this life, we can become co-creators of the Love that is Divine.

Let us make it so.

I will end this little chip of a blogspot with this little gem on paying attention by James A Autry.

“Threads” by James A Autry in “Love and Profit”

Sometime you just connect,

like that,

no big thing maybe

but something beyond the usual business stuff.

It comes and goes quickly

so you have to pay attention,

a change in the eyes

when you ask about the family,

a pain flickering behind the statistics

about a boy and a girl at school,

or about seeing them every other Sunday.

An older guy talks about his bride,

a little affectation after twenty-five years.

A hot-eyed

achiever laughs before you want him to.

Someone tells you about his wife’s job

or why she quit working to stay home.

An old joker needs another laugh on the way

to retirement.

A woman says she spends a lot of her salary

on an au pair

and a good one is hard to find

but worth it because there is nothing more important

than the baby.


In every office you hear the threads

of love and joy and fear and guilt,

the cries of celebration and reassurance,

and somehow you know that connecting those threads

is what you are supposed to do

and business takes care of itself.