The original theme of this post was going to be “Friends and Family,” but over the past two weeks, I decided that that phrase didn’t really do justice to the human person. Certainly friends and family present the most obvious relationships in our lives, but the human experience goes well beyond interactions with such people. We are often – maybe even daily – confronted with any number of other relationships. We are “in relationship” with each person we come into contact with every day. A cashier at the local grocery store, a bus driver, co-workers, the random person you pass as you’re running down the Great Highway, other drivers on the road, the thief that breaks into your car, members of an opposing team, the person next to you on an airplane, etc. Some of these relationships are fleeting, true, but the human experience would be vastly different without them. Since it is my goal to explore the human experience during Lent, then, and since Lent is a time to grow in our own relationship with God, it made sense to me to take a different approach.
At my parish here in San Francisco we are using a program developed, in part, by the Gallup Organization called Strengths Finder. For those of you not familiar with the program, it is an online inventory that you take and upon completion your answers are used to rank 34 broad themes. You get the top five for the cost of the book, and the rest are locked away on Gallup’s servers. Number three on my list is Relator. The Relator theme is described as follows, “You derive a great deal of pleasure and strength from being around your close friends. You are comfortable with intimacy. Once the initial connection has been made, you deliberately encourage a deepening of the relationship. You want to understand their feelings, their goals, their fears, and their dreams; and you want them to understand yours. You know that this kind of closeness implies a certain amount of risk — you might be taken advantage of — but you are willing to accept that risk. For you a relationship has value only if it is genuine. And the only way to know that is to entrust yourself to the other person. The more you share with each other, the more you risk together. The more you risk together, the more each of you proves your caring is genuine. These are your steps toward real friendship, and you take them willingly.”
This description seems to fit me perfectly. I am, in general, a very trusting person. In fact, some people have told me that I am too trusting in some areas of my life. The idea of being “too trusting” is foreign to me, though. I understand the need to be cautious when someone has a history of bad behavior, or when there is evidence of ill intent, but I tend to believe that the vast majority of the people I encounter day to day are good people trying to live their lives in the best way they know how. Consequently, I have a number of very important relationships with people with whom I may have very little in common. By taking the time to understand why people are the way they are, and helping them see the same about me, I am able to connect with them on a much deeper level, and that is important to me. In my life, I see several different categories of relationships. Since I was born into a particular set of relationships, I will first consider family.
You don’t get to choose your family is something that you’ve probably heard before. Individually, we have no control over whether or not we’re even born*, let alone control over who our biological parents are. I didn’t choose Roger and Kathy as my parents, and they, likewise, didn’t choose their parents. I didn’t choose Amber as my sister and she likewise didn’t choose me as her brother. I was fortunate to grow up in a loving home where I was well provided for, and where there was never any threat to my welfare. And it’s a good thing that my family loved me as much as they did – I was an absolutely awful child. I was diagnosed at a young age with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Read the list of symptoms at the National Library of Medicine. You could put a tick mark next to virtually every one of those for me as a young child. I could write an entire book describing my misdeeds, but I’ll spare you the details for the time being. But despite my consistently bad behavior, my family still loved and supported me. Someone should really get the cause for canonization of my parents started. I know they’re not eligible, given that they’re still living, but there is not other explanation for how they managed to deal with me than a grace which enabled them to love in even the most trying circumstances. Looking back, I can see what a challenge I was a child, and it is something for which I have great remorse. But more than remorse, I am thankful – thankful for my family and thankful that I have been able to share my story with others, most of whom don’t believe it when I start a story with, “I was an absolutely awful child.”
But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from you mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
- Colossians 3:8-10
So how do we grow in our family relationships this Lent? I would suggest, first and foremost, that we can grow through the practice of humility. Isn’t it pride that causes so much strife between family members? When I was growing up, I was always right. To be clear, I was probably wrong much of the time, but I was convinced that I was always right, and I would fight tooth and nail against anyone who challenged my “authoritaaah.” When we strive for humility, we will start to shed with those things that St. Paul calls us to put away. Why? Humility and truth are cousins, and it is the truth that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and that even when we are in conflict, our family members deserve to be treated like kings (because they are kings). And so, in our humility, we put away malice, we put away foul talk, we put away slander. Instead of these, I encourage you to enter into an open dialogue with your family. Come to understand why they feel the way they feel. Bear with them in love, and rather than try to win the argument, ask yourself, “how can I help this person that I love, how can I lift their burdens, how can I help lighten their load?” Can you imagine if everyone began to act this way in their family? Divorce rates would plummet, abuse would decline, families would eat dinner together again!
But relationships don’t start and end at the family. In fact, we probably have more relationships outside the family. Think back to your earliest memories of school. How many lessons can you remember from pre-school or Kindergarten? If you’re like me, your mom kept everything you ever created as a child and you might be able to look back and see what you did, but do you actually remember the class? More likely, you remember people. There are some people from my childhood that I have very fond memories of – Daniel Winfield, Heather Japlit, Carrie Pace, Keith Gardner, Adam Acosta, Dan Owens, Lesli Mozaffari, Raeanin Simpson, Travis Leaf. These are all people that I met before I was even a teenager, and while some of them I knew through high school and beyond, a number of them I haven’t seen since I was 10 or 11 years old, but I still remember them because those relationships were important to me. Friendships are important. They teach us how to love other people that we don’t “have to love.” Sometimes, friendships blossom into romances, and romances into marriages, and marriages into new families, but more often, friendships are just those special relationships in which we encounter others with whom we share at least some mutual interests. Friendship is the main reason that I left the film industry to move back to San Francisco. While working on the film version of RENT, I made so many wonderful friends at St. Dominic’s that it was hard to leave. I did, though, and I moved to New York to work on another film, Across the Universe. When that ended, I went back to Los Angeles, and I found myself missing my friends and the community at St. Dominic’s so much that, without a job or a permanent home, I up and moved back to the Bay Area. And I haven’t regretted it for a moment. My life wouldn’t be the same had I stayed in New York or Los Angeles.
So, in this Lenten season, how do we grow in our friendships? One thing that I would recommend is to let your friends know how important they are to you. Take some time to affirm your friends, to tell them how much you appreciate their friendship. In his homily on New Year’s Day, Fr. Garry Cappleman offered this advice, “We can, with love, mirror back God’s love for others in our acts of affirmation. Do you realize how much people are starving today for one simple kind word. One word of encouragement. One compliment. We ration that out, like we’re in the desert, we have only one drop of water. Acts of affirmation, acts of encouragement, and sometimes, yes, even a simple smile, but a smile that comes deep within, that says you’re accepted, you’re valued, I love you.” Read those words again and ask yourself if it isn’t true. How many times have we been so caught up in our world, in our own lives, in our own problems, that we have failed to affirm even those who are closest to us? I know I’ve missed those opportunities before. During this Lenten season, then, I am trying to focus in a very particular way on the affirmation of my friends. I encourage you to consider some way that you can affirm your friends, as well. You could call a friend each day and tell them a way they’ve touched you, host a dinner party for your friends to say thanks, or offer a friend each day at daily Mass and send them a Mass card to let them know.
What about those people with whom we have very contentious or even negative relationships? I’m fortunate that I don’t have many of these, though there have been a few. For instance, each on a separate occasion, I have had two people e-mail me telling me that we couldn’t be friends for various reasons. While I understand where both of these people were coming from, I do feel that their reactions were a bit over the top, and I believe that there are deeper issues at play in both cases. The easiest way I have found to deal with people like this is to simply act with extreme kindness towards them and to pray for them.
Of course, we’re also in relationship with many other people, on a day to day basis, even if those relationships are only fleeting. Fleeting or not, though, all people that we encounter have equal dignity which deserves our utmost respect. I think that then-Fr. Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) said it well when he wrote:
Being a Christian means essentially changing over from being for oneself to being for one another… Accordingly, the basic Christian decision signifies the assent to being a Christian, the abandonment of self-centeredness and accession to Jesus Christ’s existence with its concentration on the whole.
- From Introduction to Christianity
This concept of being “for” others is crucial when we think of relationships. In fact, isn’t this really what I’ve recommended above, already? Thinking about how we can bear the burdens of our family, acknowledging and affirming our friends, greeting those who hate us with a smile – these are all things that are done “for” the other. Fr. Ratzinger also wrote, “Christ’s existence, as exemplary existence, is fulfilled and perfected in being opened on the Cross.” If Christ opened and gave himself to us on the cross, and if we are called to follow Christ and to love one another, are we not also called, then, to open ourselves, to live lives “for” the other?
Today the Church commemorate St. Frances of Rome. In the optional Office of Readings for the day, we read this:
God had not chosen her to be holy merely for her own advantage. Rather, the gifts he conferred upon her were to be for the spiritual and physical advantage of her neighbour. For this reason he made her so lovable that anyone with whom she spoke would immediately feel captivated by love for her and ready to help her in everything she wanted. Divine power was present and working in her words, so that in a few sentences she could bring consolation to the afflicted and the anxious, calm the restless, pacify the angry, reconcile enemies and extinguish long-standing hatreds and animosities. Again and again she would prevent a planned revenge from being carried out. She seemed able to subdue the passions of every type of person with a single word and lead them to do whatever she asked.
- From the Life of Saint Frances of Rome by Mary Magdalene Anguillaria, superior of the Oblates of Tor di Specchi
St. Frances truly lived a life for others, and I think that there is something that each of us an learn from her example. Recall the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Chapter 16 of the Gospel according to Luke. Read the story carefully and notice that Luke never actually writes that the rich man did anything specifically wrong; rather, it seems that the rich man’s sin was primarily in what he did not do for Lazarus. Let us not be like the rich man, then. Let us always act for others, that, at the end of time, we may find ourselves enjoying the beatific vision together with our family, our friends, and all other people with whom we are in relationship.
This is the second in a series of Lenten essays exploring different areas of the human experience. For more information, see the introduction.
* The idea that God sends us into the world without our consent has been a topic of many discussions that I’ve had with one of my friends, but that deserves its own article.