A first-year teacher reminded me of the question we each must answer. Namely, are the successes worth the sacrifices? I smiled at memories of one student who was in my science classes three of his four years in high school. As a senior, one day he was rather disrespectful during a bioethics presentation. I felt that behind his cantankerous adolescent behavior was someone seeking the chance to find and express his own answer. In addition, his stated position did not match the young man I knew him to be.
Afterwards, I privately asked him to find, then share with me, the best evidence supporting his position. He eagerly said yes, but then without explanation refused. Right before graduation I received an email. He said, “Thank you so much for letting me express my opinion. That gave me the chance to realize I was wrong.”
So many times we each act as that student initially did. Something irritates us or makes us jealous. We give in to our emotions. Soon, whatever raised our hackles is all we allow ourselves to see in the other person. We react in a negative or hurtful manner towards another instead of choosing a kind and loving response. Joseph and his older brothers are a Biblical example of this (Genesis chapters 37-45). In a rather immature way Joseph had bragged about his dream where his brothers’ sheaths of wheat bowed to his. The brothers had seen their father’s favoritism of Joseph. They perceived Joseph’s interpretation of that dream as narcissistic arrogance. They placed Joseph in a cistern then sold him into slavery.
The stereotypical image of what this hardening of the heart towards another does to a person is found in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:1-32). Coming back from the field the older son sends a servant to find out what precipitated the huge celebration. When he hears that the family is rejoicing upon the return of his (prodigal) brother, he steadfastly refuses to enter. His father’s pleas of, “Everything I have is yours” and, “Your brother was lost, but has been found” fall upon deaf ears. I believe Jesus left the imagery there because He wished the story to evoke in each listener the question, “Is this whom I wish to emulate?”
In Jesus’ exchanges with the Samaritan woman at the well, we see His frustration with the human weakness of choosing to have such partial vision (Jn 2:5-42). Jesus challenges her step-by-step to look deeper at Him and within herself. Eventually, she reveals her faith in the Messiah Who is to come. Jesus replies, “I am He, the One speaking with you.” She leaves the exchange with and acting upon a new understanding of life.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry said, “One ne voit bien qu’ avec le coeur. L’essential est invisible pour les yeux.” Translated: “One cannot see well that which is within the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.” As the Samaritan woman found, the meaning of life called forth from one’s heart is dependent upon the depth of one’s search.
Jesus’ directive is to “Love your enemies” (Mt 5:44). Jesus also exhorts His followers to pray for their enemies. In order to really be able to pray for an enemy, one has to choose to look past surface appearances. Many times one must discard worldly opinions. In fact, one has to choose to look deeply enough to recognize the other as a fellow child of God. Seeing the good, even amidst the annoyances, allows one to find a way to connect. Sharing God’s love with that person allows the miracle of that boundary of “enemy” to be erased.
The story of Joseph ends with him reconciled with his brothers and the enmity dissolved. The translation for the name of Joseph’s first born son means, “God has made me forget entirely the sufferings I endured at the hands of my family” (Gen 41:51).
Another example of what God can bring about when we accept and live the challenge to love our enemies is St. Patrick. As a teen-ager he was kidnapped then enslaved in Ireland. He escaped. After a vision in which he saw the people of Ireland inviting him to walk among them, Bishop Patrick voluntarily went to Ireland as a missionary. The chieftain who had previously enslaved him was reportedly one of Patrick’s first converts.
Reading that student’s email, I felt that warm and fuzzy feeling one gets knowing a difference has been made. It is only when we, like that student, have the courage to accept what we find when we look deeply inside ourselves and others that we may truly live the greatest Commandment.
Can you imagine what the world could be if we each worked to reduce enmity by standing with someone marginalized or dealing kindly with someone (who can be irritating)? Together, let’s help bring forth that world.
Anchor columnist Helen Flavin is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer and a member of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River. email@example.com