Despite the fact that the Washington Nationals decisively snuffed out Saint Louis’ hope of a return to the World Series, I became a Natsfan this week. The recipe responsible for my baseball infidelity went something like this: one part National’s pitching ace (St. Louis’ Max Sherser) gutting out his games; two parts playful conga lines in the Nat’sdugout (plus “Baby Shark” singing and hand motions); and three parts underdog status that would be familiar to any Cardinals fan from 2006 or 2011. For about a week, the Natswere my team, and so I treated that team the same way I have always treated the Cardinals when they win playoff games, or when they lose.
After a significant playoff loss, I regard all media outlets the way a mother bird regards a hatchling overly handled by humans. The radio dials in my kitchen and car remain untouched; the sports page unruffled. I studiously steer a wide swath around all things baseball. And so, after each of the Nationals’ losses, I imposed a media blackout on myself.
On the other hand, if Washington Nationals fans are anything like me, after winning the series last Wednesday night, they not only read their ownlocal papers, they also read their opponent’slocal paper (The Houston Chronicle). I imagine that, along with their Thursday morning coffee, they were enjoying a side order of fresh schadennfreude (i.e. taking joy in the misfortunes of your opponent’s loss). If I were a Nats fan, I would be searching out sports talk radio shows all week long and listening to them while I drove, cooked, cleaned, toileted, and showered. If I were a Natsfan, I know just where you would find my kids and me over this weekend. We would be occupying the kinds of places we occupied on two previous post-World Series Sundays in October (10/28/06; 10/30/11). We would climb the trees lining the victory parade route trying to catch a glimpse and maybe even a smile from the victorious boys of Fall Ball.
In this Sunday’s Gospel selection (Luke 19: 1-10), the audience was given just enough detail to find out that the main character, Zacchaeus, was something of a climber himself. Though a Jew, he became wealthy by ingratiating himself with the local occupying forces to receive a choice position on the payroll. His job was to take the hard-earned money from his fellow countrymen, and give it to the Roman Empire. Along the way, he would have lined his own pockets with money that his position allowed him to extort. In the eyes of his fellow citizens, this man’s morality was far shorter than his physical stature. By the end of the passage, Zachaeus had become a different type of climber. From his perch in the sycamore tree, he saw and heard something that caused a shift in him.
Psychological research has long noted the prevalence of defenses that protect us from experiencing the full-force of anxiety flowing, in part, from dysfunctional choices and behaviors. As a counselor, I frequently encounter a defense known as, “splitting,” in which the subject unconsciously divides up reality, focusing only upon the part of reality that makes him or her feel better. Like a baseball fan trying to forget about a bad game, the painful parts of their life are kept out of sight, and out of mind. This, more or less, would have been the psychological process at work in a person like Zacchaeus who was doing what he knew was wrong.
In this Sunday’s reading, we see why the early Christian community adopted one of the messianic nicknames found in Isaiah (9:6): “Wonderful Counselor.” When researchers study effective counseling technique, what they always discover is that the most powerful tool that a therapist carries in his or her belt is a sense of deep acceptance and care for the client. In this Sunday’s passage, Jesus didn’t look up into the tree where Zacchaeus was perched and demand that this public sinner change his ways as a prerequisite to relationship with Jesus. Rather, he showed care for him just the way he was. In the context of this warm acceptance, Zacchaeus began a process of acknowledging the split-off parts of the self, which led to deep and lasting changes.
In light of this scripture lesson, if there is something that you have been avoiding looking at, perhaps this would be a good week to call someone in my profession (i.e. a counselor). Within the safe container of confidentiality, and deep care for you, perhaps your anxiety and shame can be contained well enough for you to face what you have been avoiding. Likewise, if you know someone whose splitting takes the form of ignoring the abusive side of a friend or significant other, in order to preserve the relationship, perhaps you could resolve to maintain contact with this person despite their frustrating habit of staying in a horrible relationship. Over time, your love and acceptance may allow them to face some previously ignored truths about their friend, and their own reality.