High Fives or Watered Gardens?

[beware: this is a meandering post]

These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
To choose always the hardest. – St. Teresa of Calcutta

I was talking with one of my children the other night [I will say it is my son to keep it non-specific] about people who spend their lives fending off all criticism and any honest feedback from others. Actually, we were speaking of a specific person, but then generalized a bit. Whether by isolating themselves, feigning omniscience, posturing as the mountaintop cynic, claiming a victim status (not my fault), or sustaining an elaborate set of strategies to elicit praise, affirmation and agreement from those around them, these people live in a perpetual buffered zone.

He said, “You just can’t get close to them because you can never be totally real with them. You can’t have a real discussion because you know they’re going to go into defensive mode and it’s always about them winning. It’s like they’re always trying to prove something or can’t learn from you, and that’s just so fake and annoying.”

The conversation was sparked after we listened to a recent live performance by Sigrid of her song, High Five, which is all about this kind of person.

We talked about the best way to relate to this person and maybe help them not feel so threatened or just to face the facts. We talked about this person’s family upbringing and what in the family system might have helped to form those ways of dealing with life. We also agreed that all of us can fall into variations of that pattern, making the distance between us and this person only a matter of degree. He said, “Yeah, I pray for him to get a dose of humility and for me to have patience.”

We talked about the importance of honest friendships or even good therapy to confront such things. I said to my son that one of the main goals of friendship and of therapy is to help us to acquire virtues, like courage, humility or honesty, and added, “Years ago I went to therapy, and quickly learned that in the end it’s there to help you become a good person, not just a more functional person. In fact, the underlying goal of all education is supposed to be cultivating a virtuous character. But we’ve mostly lost that.”

One thing my wife did/does exceptionally well as a parent is work hard at intentionally cultivating virtues in our children and their friends. When they were younger, she gave an award to our children at the end of each school year honoring their unique “beatitude” virtues. For her, chores were about solidarity, dealing with irritating siblings was about patience, organizing your time well was a matter of prudence, admitting you messed up was about practicing humility, putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher was linked to justice, serving in the soup kitchen was a work of mercy, or asking someone how their day went (and then listening) meant choosing charity over selfishness.

Once when one of our children said, “I don’t feel like doing that,” Patti replied, “If I did what I felt like, you’d starve.” She also liked to say, “Character is what you do when no one is watching.”

I flew up to D.C. to meet with the late Carmelite scholar, Fr. Kieran Kavanagh, back in 2006 to discuss my dissertation on St. John of the Cross. It was a great honor. Among the many things he taught me, I recall him saying something particularly remarkable. “One might say,” he said in his very gentle voice, “that for St. Teresa the whole purpose of prayer is to grow virtue. Because when you grow virtue, your soul is conformed to the divine image and so is most suitable to union with God. To be merciful is to be disposed to union with divine mercy; to be just, disposed to union with divine justice; kind, with His kindness; and so on.”

He then added, “As you know, she describes different kinds of prayer as various methods of acquiring water, and says the virtues are flowers in the garden of the soul. So it wouldn’t be wrong to say for her the water of prayer is given for sake of the flowers of virtue. Which means if you want to judge the health of your prayer life, she’d tell you, don’t concern yourself with lofty feelings or inspired sentiments. No, she’d say examine your response next time someone crosses you…”

5 comments on “High Fives or Watered Gardens?

  1. tmm says:

    Thank you for helping the kingdom come, Praise the Lord, post apropos. Have a text mess for the apostolate, and just today, after the Holy Liturgy in which Fr. Leo celebrated in honor of the Trinity, my conversation with the Father was to be answered by reading your post. The subject with the Father was about my trying to do well in living the spiritual life. Doing and trying, for sure not quite the same, but was hoping that He could see my tries among the failures, and see some improvement. He alone is the judge and the one who can accurately gauge the quality of our improvements. Well, the last line of what Fr. Kieran Kavanagh said brought me joy. An incident occurred earlier in the day and my response was that is was good for me to experience a bit of harshness because super sensitivity is in competition with humility. If something is true, why should it hurt, and if something is not true, then it shouldn’t matter, so my choice was to refrain from getting upset. Yea, reading this proved that there is a little bit of improvement going on, and thinking that God is acknowledging our conversation.
    P. S. 👍🏼’s up and thank God for Patti’s concern about cultivating virtue, so delighted that Maria models modesty well.

    🔁It is so true
    Worry is like a rocking chair, giving U something 2do
    But it’s useless & no fun when U end up getting nowhere
    Stick with God, His love never fails & about everything He really does care
    / \ http://gigapostolate.weebly.com է₥₥╱や㈦ ℒ

    • I have missed your commentary, tmm! You take what I say deeper — may God continue to show you His mercy at work in you, as I see it. And YES, we are proud she adopts modesty as her fashion. Whew… 🙂 God love you!

      • tmm says:

        Brother/Doctor TJN, you are a GP ministering to everyone in different ways with your posts. Can’t resist filling my prescription and taking it to heart while traveling the road to spiritual health and wholeness.

        🔁i It is so true
        Worry is like a rocking chair, giving U something 2do
        But it’s useless & no fun when U end up getting nowhere
        Stick with God, His love never fails & about everything He really does care
        / \ http://gigapostolate.weebly.com է₥₥╱や㈦ ℒ

  2. Miss Kathy says:

    This reminds me of a recent Facebook dialogue in which someone tried to convince me that I was wrong to turn the other cheek, that that kind of attitude simply indicated that I was weak. They couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand that stepping down from a platform of confrontation opens a door to dialogue and provided a much more constructive result.

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