Lately my most pressing prayer has been for an increase in charity in specific relationships in my life. I’ve admitted before that I struggle greatly with patience. Living in New York and being constantly bombarded with people and demands leaves me feeling exhausted, and the only time I really have to be alone and quiet are in the few minutes I have after Mass each day to sit in the church and pray. While I’ve come to realize that needing alone/quiet time every day is part of who I am, and a need I ought to try to fulfill, I do have control over my reactions to people when I am feeling deprived of peace.
I remember a wonderful lecture I attended by Professor William Mattison of Catholic University of America on the morality of emotions. At the beginning of the lecture he pretended that his wife was calling interrupting him (the organizer in the back of the room was really calling him) and snapped at her. Then he revealed the ploy and asked us whether what he had done was charitable. After all, he was just reacting out of anger–how much control did he really have?
Over the lecture he helped us understand how a pattern of negative reactions based in emotions can seem to override our control and lead us deeper and deeper into anger and, yes, sin. It is possible, however, to break the pattern when one examines what exactly one is reacting to. My friend Grace, when she talked about her difficulties with judging people, summed up her problem as well as mine: “I always assumed people had the worst possible intentions in their actions toward me.”
What does this mean, exactly? When your friend shows up late to dinner, it’s not because he/she might be scatter-brained or that traffic was bad–he or she is purposefully disrespecting you, has no regard for your time, etc. Do we consciously realize that this is how we think? Usually not, but when I considered Grace’s comment in light of how I was feeling, I realized it made perfect sense. When I viewed other people’s motivations as constantly aimed toward hurting/thwarting me, it made my reactions to them emotionally and outwardly more and more angry.
And what was Grace’s solution? Simple: assume everyone always has the best possible intentions. Well, you might think, I see how this might be helpful in situations in which I’m overreacting, but what about those less clear interactions, or what about when it’s obvious someone is trying to belittle me? The answer is that it still works even then. When a co-worker corrects me in a rude way, though my initial response is to be angry, I pause and think: maybe I was really in the wrong. Maybe my mistake caused him to receive flack from his superior. Maybe his newborn kept him up all night. (I’ll admit, this happened to me on Friday, and I skipped straight to anger for a few hours before being able to employ my own strategy here).
My novice mistress told us a story last week of a priest she met who never seemed to react with angry outbursts, even while driving, which for her was the most difficult time to remain patient. She asked him how he did it, and he said, “When I wake up in the morning, I am peaceful, and I’m not going to let anyone steal my peace.” Allowing oneself to be conditioned to react in anger is really only robbing yourself.
So, then, what does this have to do with growing in charity? This is what I am setting out to discover. If I re-train my mind, will it help in the difficult relationships I mentioned at the beginning of the post? Ultimately charity is very much beyond emotional reactions, and yet it has to start somewhere. If I can’t put more effort into shaping those, I won’t be able to go much deeper in love.