For me, many decades of ministry have come and gone but — through challenging, sublimely rewarding, or very difficult times — the deep and overwhelming feeling of being free has never diminished. I have come to know however that not every Catholic, let alone every person, lives their lives conscious of the personal freedom that God wants every moment for each of us. These reflections I offer as an “urgent gift” — gift because this clear and direct spiritual path has been so helpful to me, “urgent” because I’m convinced that we are living in a time when so many of the usual “categories” ordering our lives seem to be failing.
Without asking for it, we are from our earliest days put in “categories”. We are kids, students, girls, boys, young women or men, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, parents, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Americans, Germans, Hispanic, Republicans, Democrats, employees, plumbers, clerks, bankers, teachers, and so on.
We get used to being “just another one of…” whatever categories apply. This is the first threat to our uniqueness. We learn, of necessity, how to fit into each of our categories so as to succeed. This is not of itself a bad thing; it helps us acceptably find our way. The upside is when we grasp and assume the good, life-giving or maturing qualities of the category. “American”: freedom-loving, enjoy and respect my own rights and others’, many good possibilities, etc. “Catholic”: the revelation of God’s love, wisdom and caring in Jesus Christ, a unified community of believers, etc. “Wives”: creative, life-giving, wise, caring, etc. “Bankers”: guardians of our economic wealth, supportively funding new possibilities, etc.
The downside of belonging to so many of the categories in which we find ourselves seems in our day, however, to be dragging us down, destructively preoccupying our thoughts, creating anxiety and even anger. For years, I and more learned others have discerned what might be called a “low-grade anger” which is frequently lurking just below the surface of most people’s daily lives. What would rightly be seen as a minor event “scratches the surface of our lives” and provokes a cosmic reaction. The other guy’s driving gets me cursing and gesturing my displeasure — interrupting an otherwise pleasantly normal conversation. On the evening news, an extremely partisan political comment leads to frustration, anger and upsetment — just the mood for a pleasant dinner together. “Where’s the remote? The thing is never where it should be!” And let’s not even talk about the too frequent lack of patience with spouse, kids, or my other “loved ones”.
Those unsettling personal moments are nothing compared to the disappointment or disillusionment some have with the larger categories we inhabit. “American”: government and politicians are evil, no-good, and can’t be trusted. “Catholic”: the Pope/Bishops are out of touch but want to tell us what to do, all priests are child-abusers, I don’t need to go to Church to pray to God. “Professionals”: they just want our money and don’t know what they’re doing, etc.
Someone could be thinking at this point, “Granted, but my Father or Uncle or Aunt used to talk that way, so there’s nothing really new.” May I suggest that perhaps they too didn’t live each moment conscious of their personal God-given freedom and worth? Wonderful people no doubt, but defined and limited by the good and bad of the “categories” they lived in. More importantly, in recent decades there has been a quantum leap in dissatisfaction with the “categories”, rules, institutions, authorities and structures of our lives. Some may be due to a former naivete that they were better than they truly were, and now experience has made us more critical. Maybe some categories or structures truly were better then; maybe they were always worse than we thought.
To offer an image: “we must stay ON TOP of our lives“. Instead, so often we do not feel “above” the fray, but driven this way or that and victimized by our and others’ weaknesses, problems, obligations, limitations, motives, stupidity, disappointments, hopes, fears, embarrassments, insecurity, duplicity, pretense, etc. We permit ourselves to be pummeled and beaten down by what we might call all these “bullies”. If we are pushed down low by life, we will never be free. True, life is not neat; life is not a picnic — and it is never completely in my control. But I can stand tall and LIVE MY LIFE, not let my life live me!
+ First Principle: Beware of being created and determined by the categories or structures in which you live. There is a free person, given life and accompanied every moment by God, and it is YOU.
When we speak about a “free person”, it raises another most important reality. Each of us is responsible for her/his own actions. Whatever action I do (or don’t do, if I should do it), the act, words, omissions are MINE. Adults must never attribute their actions to bad influences of mother, father, spouse, teacher, buddy, etc. My actions are mine. Your actions are yours. Everyone must “grow up” and accept that fact. Further, spiritually, morally, and psychologically you or I are formed to be “who we really are” by our actions, That’s what freedom really means: we make our own lives. When we live with this awareness and accept it “warts and all”, we should feel a deep sense of well-being and joy — because we are ALIVE, our own person, somebody!
+Second Principal: Each of us is responsible for his/her own actions.
So at this point, I am in charge of living my life, aware that I am a free person, who takes responsibility for her/his own actions. I am consistently (not obsessively) aware of trying to free myself from any destructive influences of my categories — and other negative forces or people as well as my own unresolved limitations. I am trying to keep on top of my life, above the fray. I am attentive but never worried, since worry accomplishes nothing but waste of time and energy on something that may never happen. Rejoice! This is how life is to be lived, so enjoy it! God is always present, healing and incredibly more patient with us than we are with ourselves. Breathe easily — omit the drama!
Generously embracing the third and final principal can and should change your life. Amazingly, it will also put into concrete practice God’s two great commandments and all God’s advice: “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind”, and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In addition, it will make you the most loved and admired person you can imagine. You will always be welcome, anywhere.
Dictionaries describe “KIND” as caring, helpful, sympathetic. The word “love” has become overused in our society (“I LOVE my Buick!”). Everyone knows what “kind” and “kindness” mean. Have your car break down on a snowy evening with no one around except the “kind” stranger who stops to help you — and you know exactly what “kind” means! Or the person who offers to give you a hand with something that isn’t fun. Or the one who caringly notices “you look tired”. Or the buddy who listens to your problems but doesn’t judge.
Spirituality and theology have always said that “love” includes all the other virtues. Anyone taking responsibility for their actions is attentive to the demands of justice, truth, compassion, etc. The Book of Wisdom says about God: “You taught your people…that those who are just must be kind” (Wisdom 12:19). This is not a “weak” virtue, but requires attention and strength. We are speaking here of a conscious commitment that ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE, I WILL BE KIND. When you get time, reflect and imagine what it will require to be sincerely and appropriately KIND to each of the following: spouse (at every age), fellow worker, my parents, my child, teacher or fellow parents at school, repairman, store clerk, another driver, friends, relatives, person on line at the market, a stranger. What a sense of well-being — and a new appreciation of others — such love will bring us. It’s not easy even to try to be kind all the time, and to everyone — “caring, helpful, and sympathetic”. But what a marvelous person you’ll be, inside and out!
+ Third Principal: Always and everywhere, I will be kind.
We have looked at three very significant areas for living a more happy life. Each of us is a free person, given life and accompanied every moment by God — who sees our lives through our eyes and hears with our ears. We are never lonely; we are always understood. Part of enjoying and putting our freedom into practice is to take responsibility for our actions. Then we will know at the end of each day that we have not lied, bullied or cheated our way into presenting a “phony self” — who, if we are not very honest, even I might start to believe is the real me.
Trying to be KIND, always and everywhere, takes life seriously and joyfully. Every challenge, problem and relationship, with God and with everyone else, can be faced more peacefully with kindness. “Caring, helpful and sympathetic” describes the best Christian — indeed, the best person.