Wednesday, December 30, 2009

“Life is what happens to you…”

We enjoyed a lovely evening with friends who came for dinner last night. I woke up in a rather cheerful mood, a mood that lasted until I took a load of laundry down to the basement and discovered that everything that had passed through our garbage disposal and dishwasher the night before had backed up into the laundry tub and flowed all over the floor. Trust me on this one: dinner is much more attractive on the plate than it is ground up and spread over the basement floor.

I pondered my schedule for the day, the extent of my plumbing skills, and my modest collection of drain snakes. Obviously the clog was a major one, and located below the lateral pipe from the laundry tub. While I could certainly amuse myself for several hours trying to force a snake through the clog, a professional plumber with a powered snake could blast through it in minutes. It was time to reach into my toolbox and pull out my most useful tool of all, the telephone. Sometime this afternoon I will get to use my second most useful tool, the Visa card.

So here I am at my desk, an hour later than I had planned to be, rearranging my schedule for the rest of the day so that I can be available when the plumber calls. As John Lennon expressed it, “life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.”

This is a very modest disruption of my plans, and I am not complaining. Last Sunday we learned that a dear friend was about to have emergency surgery to attempt removal of a malignant tumor on her brain stem. She went to her doctor on Saturday believing she had a sinus infection, and the next morning was on the operating table. They were able to remove 90% of the tumor and are hopeful that a combination of radiation and chemotherapy will take care of the rest, which I hope and pray will be the case – this lady has already been through more than enough.

It is remarkable that we begin each morning with relative confidence that the day will unfold pretty much as we expect it to, and even more remarkable that it usually does. But even a “normal” day will always bring surprises, some pleasant, some less so. I remember being with a group of clergy when one minister sighed and complained that he would have a much better ministry if it were not for all the unexpected interruptions. An older and wiser minister smiled and said: “the unexpected interruptions are your ministry!”

The test of our character and integrity often lies in how we respond to the things we cannot predict or control. Are we willing to set aside our plans and schedules to be present to a friend who needs us? Can we rearrange our priorities when life throws us an unexpected curve ball? If we are to center our lives in the things that matter most, we need to school ourselves in flexibility. And know when to call the plumber.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Making ourselves the measure of all things

We keep our house at 68 degrees in the winter. Our son keeps his at 67, so I always feel a little chilly when I am there. Our daughter keeps her house at 69, so of course her house feels uncomfortably warm to me. Sixty-eight degrees is the perfect compromise between comfort and energy efficiency. Why can’t everyone see this as clearly as I do?

For many years I have poured 1% milk on my cereal in the morning, so now skim milk tastes like white water while 2% milk feels like something that needs to be chewed. Why doesn’t everyone buy 1% milk? I always drive at precisely the right speed, grumbling at all the fools around me who are driving either too fast or too slow. People who spend more money than I do are self-indulgent spendthrifts, and those who spend less than I do are stingy tightwads. On it goes. We develop our own particular patterns and habits and come to regard them as normal and right, not just for ourselves but for the world in general. We make ourselves the measure of all things.

Mostly this is a harmless conceit that makes for stimulating debate with friends who also believe their particular patterns and habits are normal and right (they are wrong about this, of course). To my knowledge a war has never been caused by disagreement over the ideal fat content of milk.

But this harmless conceit becomes pathological and dangerous when extended to the arenas of religion, race, sexual orientation, and politics. When we label someone else’s religion as “false,” their race as “inferior” or their sexual orientation as “sinful” we have denigrated their personhood and created fertile ground for hatred, violence and oppression. It is dangerously easy to fall into these patterns, sometimes in ways so subtle that we are barely aware that we are doing so.

Politics used to be an arena where we could disagree with one another with mutual respect and affection, but the growing polarization of our society has hardened the edges in disturbing ways. Views have become more extreme, and we are far more prone to demonize those with whom we disagree. For examples we need look no further than the extreme right’s view of Barack Obama or (let’s be honest) my own view of Sarah Palin. Yes, I am guilty of the attitudes I condemn. Civility, which includes the ability to “agree to disagree,” is essential to a healthy society, and we have allowed civility to erode so badly that it will be very difficult to recover.

It is human tendency to make ourselves the measure of all things and to have too high a regard for our own opinions, whether we are discussing milk or politics. We need the wisdom to know when our convictions represent a harmless conceit and when they represent a destructive prejudice.