Thursday, March 29, 2012

Personhood and Compassion

[These are thoughts from a sleepy brain. I hope they are not too abstract to be convincing or useful.]

To love people, you must first see people. If you cannot see people as people--or rather, as persons--then deep compassion will be impossible.

It is difficult to recognize another person's personhood. The other person is all wrapped up, in clothes and flesh, in attitudes and posture, in language and culture. Maybe the other person thinks in radically unfamiliar ways, and so acts in ways that are unpredictable to you, and therefore disturbing.

Otherness tempts us to judgment. It is easy to look out from the familiar windows of my own perspective, and think that I see the world outside me as it really is. The Other outside doesn't make sense, seen through my lenses, except as rude or deceptive or stupid or lazy or cold. It is easy to look out my windows, forget the glass is there, even forget the frame is there, and think: what I see is what is. I see that person, and he looks deceptive to me: he is deceptive.

But the windows are there, and they are made of imperfect glass. It is dirty, or streaked from being imperfectly cleaned, or between its double panes it holds a film of water vapor mixed with dust. Or the glass itself is lumpy, or curved, or contains bubbles. Moreover, the frame is there, limiting the extent to which I can see even a distorted view of the Outside and the Others who inhabit the Outside. The frame, the walls, the windows themselves all limit the accuracy and completeness of the view from inside. And so as long as I stand inside, looking through the glass, I will never see the Outside as it actually is. I need to step outside and look directly at the people around me and the world around me if I want to actually see them.

Compassion is the thing that opens the door and enables me to step outside. Compassion comes from knowing or trusting that that Other being is a Person, exactly the way that I am a Person--no more and no less. Without putting faith in the Other's Personhood, it is extremely difficult for me to have compassion for them. I need to see (with the eyes of faith) that the Other has a story, a mind, a heart; a language, an experience, a culture; thoughts, feelings, memories; a soul. Then I can humble myself to imagine their perspective, and to guess at their motivations with a charitable attitude. Then I can have compassion. Then I can begin to love.

[Credit: I first encountered the idea of personhood or Christian personalism in Thomas Merton's Seasons of Celebration, which I very much recommend.]


About three weeks ago, we got a pet rabbit (from a girl who advertised him on Craigslist). Especially since I've mentioned him here a couple times already, I figured this blog is overdue for a cute picture--or two. So here's the rabbit exploring the bookshelf (which is now off-limits since he tried to eat too many books):

Just one indication that he belongs in this house: his love of books.

And here he is in a slightly more natural habitat, about to chew on his favorite rug:

He is a dwarf rabbit, five months old now, and he is utterly adorable in action. We call him Pipkin, after the little rabbit in Watership Down (which, upon recent re-reading, I think is my favorite novel).

As it turns out, his personality is nothing like that of the original Pipkin, who is timid and constantly in need of reassurance. Our Pipkin turns out to be a bold explorer. He has ventured, for instance, into all the heaters he has access to, and dug out diverse small objects therefrom, such as coins, buttons, and a pink plastic Easter egg. We keep having to chase him out of those burrows when he starts assiduously yanking out the insulation or whatever it is that sticks out between floor and wall... A couple days ago, after I moved his cage closer to the couch, he figured out that he could jump from the top of his cage onto the arm of the couch. He is sitting there now, in fact, cleaning between his furry toes with his tongue.

When I started this post a couple minutes ago, he was racing back and forth along the couch, reveling in the fact that he can run properly on this fabric surface. (On the hardwood floor he slides hilariously when he tries to change direction too fast.) Then he hopped carefully onto the back of the couch, and looked out the window for a long moment.

Now he is lying on the armrest at the cage-end of the couch, ears up but hind legs sprawled out. This position signals supreme relaxation and security. With his legs out behind him, he wouldn't be able to get away as quickly if a predator came at him. It makes me happy to see him so confident. He surveys the living room like a king on a throne.

A moment later, he is up again, compacted, attentive. Listening: What's going on? Will I need to run? I wish he would let his guard down more of the time. There really aren't any dangers here at the moment; there's no need for him to be on the alert, nervous, wired. (Of course, I do the same thing so often. I stress about things that don't matter or that end up not happening. I carry tension in my body when I could be resting. I probably look a lot like Pipkin from God's perspective: real cute but way more worried than I need to be, and inclined to chew on a lot of things that are bad for me. Hopefully one day Pipkin and I will both learn to really rest, trusting we're safe.)

He is always changing. But whatever he's doing, he is always adorable and I love to watch him do his funny, bunny thing.

Dusk in New Jersey

It's past seven o'clock but the sky is still bright. An airplane, surprisingly close, slides across blue-grey clouds whose bellies glow warmly, the color of summer apricots. Behind them, the sky is cornflower blue, shading imperceptibly into pale yellow as the eye travels down. The yellow ends abruptly in an unfamiliar horizon--a bank of clouds disguised as a mountain range. It reminds me of the mountains at home, of wooded foothills with mist rising off them as the sun slides into the Pacific.

But this isn't California, this is New Jersey. The trees silhouetted against the sunset are still starkly leafless. I am home alone (except for the rabbit, who is adorable but silent), and home is such a different place than it was a year ago. Has it really been eight whole months since I moved to this state? since I became half of a new household, a new family (a word I feel more justified in applying since we adopted a baby bunny)? since I married O. and changed my name?

Emotions change as swiftly and smoothly as the clouds shifting color as the sun sets. The apricot is gone out of the clouds now, they have all cooled to a smoky blue. The pale yellow has deepened subtly, producing a peach-like effect. Ah, summer and your fruits, how I miss you. Spring offers warmth, brilliant sunlight, soft blossoms, but moments later the wind whips itself up, and the sun flees. Clouds come and go. Today I have cried and then laughed as many times as the clouds have covered the sun and then parted. The night is young--darkness has not yet fallen, it lingers in the east and creeps nearer: how many more tears will fall from my eyes, before I fall into bed? and how many times will my lips curve in a smile, or a kiss, before sleep wraps me up?

Another airplane passes, and another, shadows now against a white sheet. The wind roars through the city. In the distance a contrail glows like a sideways candle. The peachy glow above the cloud-range dims, but magenta stripes--like lacerations--break through the blue of the false mountains. Behind them, the sun must be burning still, white hot, as it always is.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Twenty-three years of sleeping alone have come undone in eight quick months. Monday night when I went to sleep, O. was still on the couch, working on his laptop. The bed was cold when I lay there alone--my pajamas and blankets are calibrated for the heat of two bodies. Still, I slept. I slept and woke, slept and woke, each time expecting to find O. beside me. He wasn't there and he wasn't there.

It's astonishing, the blast of feeling that comes in the first microseconds of waking, when the mind stumbles across the threshold between oblivion and consciousness. I never suspected that sleeping--really sleeping--would become a social and relational activity. Here I am, not even three-quarters of a year into this covenant of life together, and already my default settings for something as fundamental as sleep (and if you know me, you know sleep is extremely fundamental for me) have been totally altered.

(Well, not totally. I still need my 9 or 10 hours of sleep for maximal functioning, and I still wake up when the light first reaches me. Nonetheless, so many qualitative factors transformed themselves while I was unawares.)

At dawn, O. finally came to bed. The next two hours of sleep were more restful than the preceding six. When we woke together, the sun was falling through the slanted blinds onto our shared comforter, and in every way the world was brighter and warmer than it had been, just hours before.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Meditations on a Spring Sunset

A swathe of lavender cloud veils the upper sky. At the level of the tree-tops (still skeletal, these), its color warms suddenly, glows like a summer peach. Behind the trees the sun is setting. The sky burns where it has passed. The houses hide the star itself now, but its light lingers. The trees in the west still proclaim winter, but the sky has softened and burst open into all the colors of summer.

The sun sinks further. The orange glow deepens and dulls. Lavender and peach, the clouds mingle. They breathe together.

In the top of the tallest western tree, a black plastic bag billows. It has been there for days, or maybe weeks, months. Sometimes it hangs quietly like some slow-ripening fruit. Other times it tugs at the end of the branch. I expect it to fly away like a bird.

A bird detaches itself from the tree in one place and flies briefly across the incandescent sky. Then I lose it. Is it in the tree again? Has it joined the clouds? Did it dip below the houses, is it following the sun down? to the place where it rests? (but the sun does not need rest, it is not alive. I need rest because I am alive: I need sleep, death's twin, and this need shows that I live.) Rest, it is the time for rest.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring Leaves

Washing dishes, I looked out the window--and the trees were green! The starkness of bare branches is yielding, day by day, to the complexity of leaves. Yesterday, discreet buds emerged. Today, they burst open. Tiny tender leaves, intricately curled and crumpled, complicated the outline of the tree. I no longer notice its black branches against the neighbor's white house. I no longer notice the house at all. I just see the leaves.

Even if the robins weren't chirping all day long, I would know that it is spring.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Grown Up?

On Sunday I completed yet another trip around the sun: I turned 23. I told O. before that I was looking forward to being 23 because it's an odd number, and better yet, prime. But now that it's here, 23 seems alarmingly close to 25, which is sort of an okay number because it's a square of a prime, but is mostly intimidating and even alarming. A twenty-five year old is definitely an adult. Teenage years and even the amphibian early twenties are behind you.

I am not ready to be twenty-five. But that's all right, because I have two more years to get ready. For the moment, I am twenty-three. Which leaves me thinking about whether I feel more grown up this year, or less.

Points toward being more grown up:
+Graduated from college.
+Moved out of my parents' house for real.
+Got married.
+Signed a lease.
+Got my first credit card.
+Set up a sublease.
+Changed a diaper.
+Drove on a New Jersey freeway.
+Changed my name and got the social security card to prove it.

On the other hand, I have lost some of the progress I had made toward being (or feeling like) an independent adult:
– No checks with my name on them. O. has piles of checks with just his name (and his address from two apartments ago) and at present we're using those up instead of getting new accurate ones. Thus I have to ask him to write a check any time there's one that needs writing, whereas before we got married I'd had my own bank account and checks for five or six years.
– No car I feel comfortable driving. (It's O.'s car and I've driven it twice, for a total of less than 5 miles.)
– No donations with my name on them. They're all made from O.'s accounts these days and he is the one entering the numbers and clicking the buttons and making sure they go through. This makes me feel like I'm not taking any action to give to charity. I am part of the decision-making process, of course, but I miss actually giving myself.
– No job, no income of my own. I do babysit occasionally but that feels more like a throwback to high school than anything adult.
– I'm not leading any groups. This is a relief in some ways but I do miss it. I miss helping and teaching.
– O. and I are younger than most of the people we interact with regularly. I'm not a senior in college but a baby among adults.

On balance, I guess there are more +s than –s, which ought to mean I am more of an adult. Sometimes I feel this and other times I don't. (It's interesting to think about how much of what makes me feel independent might be financial independence, or at least independence to make financial decisions myself. I should probably be mulling that over.) I never thought that graduation and marriage could make me feel less grown up, less confident and capable. I thought that the feeling of being an adult must continue to increase slowly but surely, that it would never dip or plummet.

But I guess part of growing up is learning you were wrong. So I'll mark that as another +, and accept the fact that I am more of an adult now than I was a year ago, even if I feel less of one than I did last spring--

when I was too busy to sit around listening to the birds,
when every hour needed to be planned for,
when time's slipping made me feel important and competent and frantic,

when I thought, deep down, that
that feeling signified
being grown up.

Sabbatical Me (Pt. 3)

Last month, I wrote a couple of posts about the Sabbath in response to a friend's questions, but I left this last set of questions unanswered:
I'd be even happier if you would also reflect on/write about the role of Sabbath in your life, in general...perhaps including (but by no means limited to) what you do/don't do on that one day of the week, what your conception of Sabbath is and how/why this has changed for you over the years, etc.
Essentially, S. is asking me to tell the story of my relationship with the Sabbath. I started writing a reply to these questions three weeks ago, but the post kept getting longer and longer. The more I wrote, the more I felt that I do not know and cannot say all there is for me to write: that the story of me and the Sabbath is still "coming to a middle" (to quote the captain of Serenity). And now it's the middle of March, and I think this is destined to be a post without a conclusion. With that prelude, here it is.

When I was very young, my parents read me the Little House on the Prairie books, as well as various accounts from the Puritans, in which the characters took the Biblical mandate to rest on the Sabbath very seriously and strictly. They construed "rest" and "holy" to mean no play as well as no work. As far as I can recall, this was my earliest picture of Sabbath: something austere, defined by all its negatives. Later, my parents took up a habit of fasting on Sunday at lunch time, and I think this also played into my perception of Sabbath as a time of deprivation.

When I was ten or eleven, I began to be concerned about my relationship to fiction, novels in particular. I don't recall what triggered this--perhaps a sermon on idolatry? teaching in my Sunday school class? I do remember talking to my dad about it. He was not as hard on me as I was on myself. Thus it was entirely my own decision (I'm not sure I even told my family about it) to stop reading fiction on Sundays. I kept to this practice for years, with varying levels of stringency; to some extent I still follow it. I don't feel good about watching Firefly or reading Anathem on Sunday. This Sabbath practice represents a seeking of holiness and godliness by turning away from worldly things, and a prioritization of God and God's values (for instance, love for other people) by setting aside pleasures that I sensed to be worldly/fleshly.

This version of the Sabbath wasn't the austere and empty time seen in Little House on the Prairie; the void left by not reading was filled by games or cooking or hiking with my family, and by lively time in my church small group. Nonetheless, it was a negatively defined Sabbath: Sunday as the day I don't read.

Another dimension to my observation of the Sabbath came into play in middle school when my workload at school increased. My middle school forbade weekend homework assignments (thank God), but was big on projects which one inevitably ended up working on during weekends: posters, research papers, art projects, book reports, ... It only got worse in high school. I--probably with encouragement from my parents--decided any schoolwork I needed to do over the weekend should get done before Sunday (if possible); if necessary there was always Monday morning. (I was the kind of kid who did better finishing an assignment at 6am Monday than at 11pm Sunday, or even 10pm. Definitely a lark, not an owl.)

Not doing homework on Sunday reflected the day-of-rest aspect of the Sabbath. Still a negative-space definition of Sabbath (no homework day), but moving toward something more positively defined (rest day).

At some point in middle or high school, I heard John Ortberg preach a sermon on the Sabbath, and he called it a joy day. (A cursory search on didn't yield the sermon in question so I leave it to you to seek it out if you're interested.) I think this was the first positive definition of Sabbath that I encountered. He spoke of using the day of rest to focus on relationships, beauty, anything that brings joy. I think this is a much-needed perspective, and a lovely picture, if an incomplete one. But if there's anything I've learned from thinking about Sabbath and other things God-related, it's that no picture is complete.

There was also a conference I went to with my family where the speaker (Mark Labberton?) addressed the Sabbath and exhorted us to observe it more conscientiously. He advocated never buying or selling on Sunday. My dad was not convinced, and talked to me about Romans 14:5--
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
--which remains the primary source of uncertainty for me about the present day significance of the Sabbath for Christians and the applicability of the Old Testament laws concerning the Sabbath to Christians. You can read more about his perspective here.

In college I tried to avoid homework on Sunday, but it didn't work out too well. Then for a while I tried to keep Sabbath from sunset on Saturday to sunset on Sunday, on the grounds that the Jewish model begins and ends the day at sunset. This was better than trying to cram all my homework into Saturday at the cost of staying up so late that church was painful the next morning; but it felt like I was cheating and I was never convinced that it was really the way to go.

Somewhere in there I read Lauren Winner's lovely book Mudhouse Sabbath. I don't remember what impression of the Sabbath it left me with, but it was a thought-provoking and life-enriching book. Anyone interested in tradition or spiritual discipline or Judaism and its relationship to Christianity should read it.

At present I keep the Sabbath mainly as a day of personal rest, not really focusing on the social justice aspect. I avoid buying things on Sunday mostly because that feels like work for me. But I don't have pangs of conscience about eating out on Sunday because that results in rest for me. But I don't have a good sense of whether that's God's plan for how I keep the Sabbath. The part I am more convinced about is that I need to avoid novels and movies on Sunday, to surrender that pleasure-source up to God, and spend the day loving my God and the people He has put around me (in this season, mainly O.)

So: that's where I am, and those are the places I've come from. I'm still on the journey, so feel free to check back with me in a few years on this topic! I hope you will join me in continuing to wonder and ask God about His good, pleasing and perfect will for the Sabbath.


It's been almost a month since I posted. I think that means I need to post almost every day until the end of the month, which might be difficult because Spring has arrived! The sky is blue again. The trees burst into blossom and put out twists of leaves. In the park, the male pigeons strut about puffed up like turkeys, dragging their stiffened tails on the ground. The female pigeons turn their backs and walk away, pecking at the grass. (I don't have to play those games any more, and for this too I am so grateful.)

Thank God for sunshine burning hot, for the softening of tree branches bare for so long; for the darting sparrows, the strutting pigeons; for squirrels popping out from behind tree trunks, streaming across the grass; for the promise of green whispering leaves, for the memory of their shifting shadows and of the light that percolates through the verdant canopy, falling at last to mark the ground with overlapping circles of sun; for the arrival of Spring, for the nearness of Summer; for the covenant that the Seasons will keep turning, that Spring will never not come, that night will never be eternal; for the endurance of Life and for the end of sleep and cold and death; for Life and Light; for Himself.