Weekly Edgework #86 - February 21, 2006

It All Adds Up

I began to see human beings in a different light; for the first time I was conscious that the really interesting thing about any one is not what he seems at any given moment, but what he represents in the sum-total of his experience. (Laura Goodman Salverson)

It is no secret that we are conditioned by our culture to live according to sensibilities that lie close to the surface. For many that means responding to stimuli that surround them at any given moment. And indeed, there is much to commend a lifestyle that is alive to the present moment. Life is always lived one moment at a time. So it could be argued that responding to the stimuli at hand as best we can on our journey through life is what adds up to a meaningful existence.

On the other hand, I have noticed how shallow life can become when we simply respond to what we see, taste, touch, feel or smell in our immediate context. That should not be surprising to us, since we know that much of what we sense is placed in front of us by those intent on turning a quick dollar. The modern purveyors of consumerism are not really interested in the quality of our lives. They are mostly interested in exploiting our God-given sensibilities for profit.

I am learning that the important and meaningful things of life are usually not those that grab one or more of our senses at any given moment. They are found somewhere below the surface of what appears to be obvious. What you see most readily is not always what you get. Finding quality most often means looking beyond or underneath the immediate stimuli that bombard us.

And that holds true especially in the world of relationships. I am tempted to relate to others mostly in the present tense. Again there is some wisdom to be found in this notion. It is important that we are truly present for each other in the immediate moment. How disconcerting it is trying to relate to persons who are constantly looking at the clock or giving other body signals that they would rather be somewhere else.

But even when we are truly present for one another, it may be that we are simply responding to stimuli produced in the moment. My co-worker says a harsh word and I bristle with agitation as I respond in kind. A sales person meets me at my door and I immediately go into a defensive mode. My friend excitedly shares his knowledge of hockey trivia with me and I try to impress him with how much I know. It is always tempting to see the immediate interaction with someone as an isolated experience in the present moment.

Laura Goodman Salverson suggests that we should see in others, not only what they seem to be in any given moment, but what they represent in the sum-total of their experience. I think this is a profound concept. Who I am and what I bring to any given encounter is a sum-total of all that has shaped me in the past - my childhood experiences, my teenage frustrations, an uncertain relationship with my father, an affirming and loving connection with my mother, my whole repertoire of healthy and broken relationships, as well as all my accomplishments and failures. Even what I had for supper last night now giving me indigestion.

Of course there are some triumphalists who would consider such a notion quite out of place for persons of faith. They would tell you that anything that has happened in your life in the past is of no consequence. When Christ moved into your life all that he found there was exchanged for a new self that started out on a completely new trajectory. Grace wipes out who you have been in the past and you should only look to the future.

This is a great fallacy. It is true that grace makes a difference. It can heal wounds, remove a sense of guilt, and allow you to forgive persons who have hurt you. But scars created in the past remain with you in one way or another. The more you deny it the more it shows. But the experience of grace in the past stays with you too, spawning hope in the present circumstance. Indeed those who have experienced an abundance of grace will tend to be all the more graceful in their relationships.

Viewing others as the sum-total of their experiences does not mean holding their failings against them. Nor should it mean over-rating their accomplishments. What it does mean is taking a long view of those we relate to. It means interpreting the present experience of others as a slice of a much bigger pie – a pie that has been in the making for a long time. While we can never see others as completely as God does, we can at least attempt to view them through the eyes of God – that is, taking into account what we know about the life experiences they have had.

From this perspective we become aware that it is really important to actually get to know others if we are to relate to them in meaningful ways. Relating in the present without understanding at least something of each other’s stories simply perpetuates the loneliness so prominent in our society. Understanding that what we see and experience in others is a sum-total of all they have experienced will foster a greater sense of acceptance and tolerance of idiosyncrasies. It will provide the impulse for extending grace and forgiveness not readily available when persons are seen only for who they are in the present moment.

For whatever its worth, my deepest and most meaningful relationships in the present happen with those who know me best and who allow me to get to know what lies below the surface of their present experience.