I am reminded of a story of my late Uncle Louie, who as a child was playing with a baseball in the back yard and by mistake threw the ball through the garage window. He was dumbstruck, my dad said. He was dumbstruck and terrified when my future grandfather/his father stormed out of the house onto the back porch to find out what happened. Louie, exasperated and terrified, blurted out, “I didn’t do it because I didn’t mean it.”
Much of the time, we’re not aware of our effect on others. Much of the time, our presence in another’s life brings many gifts, joy and peace. Other times, our presence, unbeknown to us, creates wounds in others.
I can really identify with Louie, God rest his soul. One of the most embarrassing times in my life is when I find out later that something I did or said hurt someone. It doesn’t matter if I had no intention of doing so. There’s a rift and something is broken and if at all possible reconciliation is in order. The egg on my face and lump in my gut tell me that somehow, I need to meet with that person to find out what happened and to make amends. But before all this there is a tension within me that screams, “I didn’t want this to happen,” wanting to magically undo the whole event. After all, who in their right mind really wants to hurt someone, especially someone they really care about? Am I terminally unique here or can you identify?
Other people matter as much as I do—not more nor less but as much. Sometimes I forget this. This doesn’t mean that I cannot be myself in order to please people. I spent a couple years in therapy in my thirties dealing with this as it’s not healthy nor is it genuine. People pleasing also restricts one from intimacy because instead of you “being there” present with the other, a false persona leaves the other by themselves with no real response. It’s kind of like shaking someone’s hand and getting the limp wrist response.
Believing that other people matter requires that I do some self-searching in spiritual circles called, Examination of Conscience. As the General Confession in our prayer book says we look for “what we have done and what we have left undone.” We uncover what we can and even ask for feedback to be able to get to the truth of the matter and then seek to make amends.
But what do we do when people are offended at us when we have not said or done anything to our awareness against them according to the Laws of God and Nature? By seeking to understand what the other person is saying, we may recognize a misunderstanding, something we may have done or not done, or actually not done anything at all according the laws of God and Nature. Sometimes people can be offended because their perceptions are skewed by faulty thinking or subconsciously by inner wounds that result in others crossing a boundary of our autonomy. We equally have the need in our Examination of Conscience to discern whether our perceptions are within the boundaries of the Laws of God and Nature. These are difficult encounters requiring great maturity to be able to sit down and dialogue without becoming inflamed. If values and beliefs cannot find some common ground or be mutually understood, sometimes the best we can do is to agree to disagree while showing respect to the other and go one’s separate ways.
The reason I say “Laws of God and Nature” is because one must have a criteria on which to base one’s thinking, actions and judgment. I don’t have a better guide to follow than the one given to us by the One who created all things. The word here is “authority.” “By what authority,” Jesus was asked, “do you say and do these things?” (Mark 11). We have to choose our authority. In fact, whether we are aware of it or not, every day we choose our authority. And it is important that we choose well.
I discovered a prayer that I like from the New Zealand Prayer Book (Anglican) that seems to fit this occasion:
“O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts.” Amen.