When Ronald Reagan was still President, when the deceased artist currently remembered as, “Prince,” was formerly known as “Prince,” when George Michaels was still singing about “Waking Up Before You Go Go,” I had just left, left the seminary and launched my first foray into the young adult world of dating. I felt like a character who had just stepped out of Plato’s dark, movie theatre-like cave, gawking and blinking, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the strange forms that surrounded me.
My wardrobe consisted primarily of priestly black pants, with matching comfortable shoes. Stray shirts and sweaters were collected from musty used clothing stores, giving me a kind of 1950’s Buddy Holly look without the glasses.
I think my cultural naiveté somehow charmed my very first, post-seminary girlfriend. Betty was a local graduate school student. Unlike me, she had spent her college education simmering in America’s cultural soup of sororities, and “techno-pop,” and make-up, and IZODs, and Polo’s (with collars turned up Elvis-style), and mullet haircuts on boys, and poofy, moussed up hair on girls, and parties and all the rest.
The bloom of Betty’s infatuation would quickly fade and fall off of the rose, hastened by the warm summer light of a vacation/college reunion at a friend’s family getaway home on the Chesapeake Bay. Betty and I arrived several days before the rest of my old college crew. Our intention was to enjoy afternoons at the beach swimming and crabbing together (Chesapeake Bay was famous for small, succulent blue crabs.). A robust crop of stinging jellyfish had invaded the bay that summer which prevented any kind of activity that involved water. But that didn’t prevent Betty from crabbing.
As our days together accumulated, she began responding to me as if I were a large dead fish washed up onto her vacation shores. What had once seemed sweet and charmingly naïve about me, now appeared to produce some sort of a bad smell. What had once passed for my humor now produced Royal Family-caliber facial grimaces like a parent whose child had just passed loud gas in church. I took to playing checkers and discussing politics with my college friend’s old, deaf uncle who was living in the house that summer. Betty read and took long walks.
My reprieve came in the form of an old VW station wagon loaded with my college friends who were just now making their way down the Eastern Sea Coast to us. When they got a load of the situation, they quickly suggested that we spend our time away taking in the sights of the DC area. As Betty and I melded into the group, an interesting phenomenon occurred. Betty began to view me through the kinder, gentler eyes of my college friends. Suddenly my humor caused a chuckle, and then a laugh. My ability to hold her attention in conversation increased, and my table manners even became semi-acceptable.
This Sunday’s Gospel, (Mt 17: 1-9) chronicled Jesus’ transfiguration with his best friends, Peter, James and John. By this time in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ public ministry, they would have heard, and been compelled by his teaching. They would have witnessed his miracles. But despite all of this previous experience, the remarkable events on that mountain caused these men to view Jesus in a whole new way. The Lenten scriptures are loaded with examples of people, who like the Apostles this week, changed their focus.
Gestalt psychologists have long been fascinated by the complex processes that make up human perception. On that Washington DC vacation all of those years ago, Betty found herself, like a photographer, scanning the reality of Tom Wagner, framing up his negative attributes, leaving his positive features in the indistinguishable background. My college friends, when confronted with the same data, chose to pull into the foreground those likeable attributes of their friend, Tom, leaving the negative attributes in the fuzzy background. Their influence on that vacation caused Betty to reassess her boyfriend to view him in a whole new way.
Is there someone in your life who you have mentally constructed, like my friend Betty constructed me, by connecting the dots of their negative attributes? As a marital therapist, I know that a couple is headed for divorce when they have looked back over their shoulders at the past, and begun reconstructing their shared history by focusing upon only the negative. This Lent, could you consider taking intentional custody of your perceptual processes? Would you be willing to hone in on what is delightful about your friend, colleague, spouse, or family member, and to pull that into the foreground as you consider who they are to you? Conversely, would you be willing to transfigure yourself in some respect to give a loved one reason to connect their perceptual dots about you in a more positive fashion?