Last Friday, Lisa and I spent our COVID-19 immunity on celebrating her birthday in style. After a year of fasting, we travelled 300 miles north to Chicago for her favorite activity in all the world—watching one of her kids run in a track meet. With a couple of hours to kill before the blessed event, we lunched with her best friend from college, Liz, and her husband Dan. It was during that meal that Liz recounted a thirty-three-year-old story from Lisa’s sophomore year. After 27 years of marriage, it is rare for me to hear a brand new tale about my wife, much less one where she steps out of character (or at least the character that I had constructed for her).
Apparently flush with the realization of what her newfound friend Lisa meant to her, the 21 year old version of Liz enthused, “You and I are so close that I don’t even think of you as Filipino, I just think of you as my friend.” And here’s the part where my non-confrontational wife surprised me. She responded with, “That hurts my feelings, Liz, because I am Filipino.”
Now, how do you imagine Liz responded? In this day and age, it’s not hard to envision a scene like this, “Lisa, I can’t believe you think I’m racist! Of course you’re Filipino, I was just saying that you aren’t a category for me!” Or maybe Liz could have offered her friend some constructive advice, “Lisa, you need to grow a tougher skin! You’re too sensitive!” Or if Liz was a little more subtle in her defensiveness, she could have responded with a popular form of face-saving non-apology. “Lisa, if what I said hurt you, I am so sorry for your pain!” If Liz responded like most husbands I know, including me, she could have then spent a few paragraphs, or pages of conversational space highlighting her misunderstood positive intent in an effort to let Lisa know she has no reason for hurt feelings after all! (“Idn’t that neat!”). And if she wanted to put a cherry-shaped turd on the sundae, she could have followed that up with, “I didn’t know you were so sensitive! I’ll be more careful in the future!” And just to be…well…you know…even a little more helpful…she could have thrown this in for good measure: “I know a good therapist for you!”
Those are the things Liz could have said. Here’s what Liz actually said, “Lisa, I’m sorry.” Full stop. “Lisa, I’m sorry.” Without the lens of social media distorting their view of one another…without the cumulative burden of op. ed. writers playing in their ears, they could fully see one another. They could fully hear one another. It was as simple as sentences lifted from a first grade reader. There was Lisa. There was Liz. There was an honest encounter. In this context, the word, “sophomoric,” takes on a whole new meaning. I am so proud of my sophomoric wife and sophomoric friend. I want to grow up and be more sophomoric like them.
It seems to me that all of us are some combination of developed and undeveloped, redeemed, and still in need of redemption, on our way to being frogs, but in some measure, still somewhat tadpole-ish. Each and every one of us walks around at any given moment with a blind spot that is getting in the way of our further development. It is a gift of immeasurable importance to have someone like Lisa, step up and compassionately show us our blind-spot. It is a gift of immeasurable importance to have the good sense of a Liz to refuse to give in to the trap of shame and have a non-defensive look in the mirror. This is precisely how development takes place.
I recently heard a rabbi who was mentored by Elie Wiesel say the equivalent of this. If you could put the Torah, the Prophets, and all of Jewish Midrash into a large pot, set it on a low heat, and simmer it down to its most essential ingredient, you would get this: “Never ever allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence.”
This Sunday, two historic events coincided: the Christian holy day of Pentecost, and the anniversary of George Floyd’s death. The former shines a light on the divinity contained within the human spirit. The latter points to the aching need for that divinity in a world of casual humiliations.
In light of the confluence of these two events, let’s resolve this week to behave a little more like sophomoric Lisa and Liz. Let’s speak the truth that can set each other free without any hint of humiliation. Let’s commit ourselves to a discipline of grounding ourselves in indwelling Spirit so that when the truth comes, we can hear it, and take the next step forward.