Soul Whispers by George Merrill

I had conversations recently with two friends. They are long-time colleagues. One is a rabbi and the other a priest. They are seasoned clergy. Both think outside the box of sectarian religion and political affiliation. They’re reflective people.

We’d not seen each other for a while. We were catching up. Soon we were discussing the social and political scene in America today.

America’s moral decline soon came up.

We agreed that our social, political and moral codes are fraying. Those supporting the president are as angry and uncivil as those opposing him. The anger finds expression in hostile and mean-spirited exchanges and a pervasive feeling of uncertainty, if not helplessness and doom. We are stuck in a climate of malaise. That’s pretty much the state of affairs and we agreed it’s not going away any time soon. Given those realities, in the interim how might we live our inner lives and help others live theirs? Put differently, how can we stay sane and relevant in a world gone mad?

The rabbi suggested a spiritual exercise. In the short haul, he said, we are limited in what we can do to change things, except to hope and vote. He suggested that we write a letter to our own souls; take the matter up there, rather than engaging in the habitual no-win criticism and carping which I, for one, slip into so easily. What would emerge from such an exercise?

The idea of writing to my soul intrigued me. I began collecting my thoughts. It was a delicate exercise trying to assemble the data to write. A soul brooks no fudging.

Souls whisper. I have to listen carefully to hear. I can con my ego – which typically shouts – but never my soul.

As forthrightly as I could, in the interests of full disclosure, I prepared to write first that I didn’t like Trump one whit. When I see him on TV, the sight of him ties my stomach in a knot.

My soul whispered, “Merrill, don’t give me that, these are not your real thoughts; I know better. You call him a creep and a sleaze.” My soul, mischievously, goaded me: “I’ll bet the ‘Reverend’ would not like those sentiments made public. They’d make him look, well, not any different from the creep and sleaze he’s just scorned with such derisive language.

Listening to one’s soul isn’t always fun. I then had the thought that the meanness and contempt I feel for Trump was as reactive as many conservatives were when Obama was elected president. I’ll bet they said and thought a lot of ugly things, too.

While composing my letter, this first tangle with my soul highlighted what I have suspected is the real heart of the matter, not only in politics, but in how we deal with others; What am I to do with my knee-jerk responses of aversion? They can be vicious and waspish. Do I, as is common, build rationales to justify them, cling to my atavistic impulses and retaliate with all my righteousness blazing? Do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring powerful emotions never works. I know that. They only come out sideways.

What then?

As I consider writing my letter, I know that this internal struggle is timeless. It’s a part of being human. It’s about how discernment is different from reactive judgements and how I distinguish one from the other.

Reactive judgments often carry contempt – at least on this side of the veil – which is why God advises we leave the judging to him. Such judgements have incendiary qualities that stoke an inner seething. That’s when we wish only the worst for who or what we loathe. Such judgements will either mobilize energy or create malaise. When their energy is released, it rarely if ever ends well, or worse still, legitimizes my own craziness. I know this even before my soul confronts me. But, my soul also knows full well that there is also something deliciously seductive about feeling hateful, especially when the hate has been seasoned with a healthy dose of one’s personal sense of rectitude. It’s a rush, a high, and in an absence of anything more substantive, hate and resentment can offer a sense of purpose, a cause to champion. I can feel righteous and ready. It fills a spiritual vacuum.

Discernment is different. Discernment is nuanced. It is a form of discrimination (not prejudice) that reaches beyond outward appearances and sees to the heart of a matter, like an X-Ray goes beyond the surface to reveal what lies beneath. Discernment will not be driven by ignorance, in the way the ego is when making reactive judgements.

A Buddhist myth about an old monk makes the point.

He sits by a stream and watches the current go by. He listens to the gurgling water. He is at peace with himself and the world. He sees a scorpion. It’s floating on a leaf. The Monk knows that downstream the current gets turbulent and will flip the leaf over and surely drown the scorpion. The Monk reaches for the scorpion to take him safely to the shore. The scorpion stings him. In a few minutes, he does the same with another scorpion. It stings him. One of the monk’s disciples standing nearby sees him and rushes over to him. “Master, why do you reach for the scorpions, you know they will sting you?” The monk replies, “Yes, that’s just how they are.”

It’s an odd parable at first glance. Initially I thought the monk was foolish; after all he knows what will happen. I also thought that the monk might do better for all concerned to let the scorpions meet their fate downstream as they would not pose a danger to others.

A closer look at the myth is revealing. In the face of harm that might cause the monk pain if not death, he did not behave reactively. He was a kind and compassionate man. He had no illusions about what scorpions do. He did not react to them with revulsion, anger or fear. He responded with the kindness of his soul, transforming the moment dramatically. The moment was like Dr. King’s March on Washington. King was fully aware of the venom of his adversaries, but he turned a moment that could be potentially toxic into one of hope and promise. The event changed America. Dr. King did not, as with many frustrated Americans today, identify with his angry adversaries and behave like them. He did not lose his own soul under pressure.

Our challenge today is to be as wise as serpents, and as gentle as doves.

For those of us, however, who will hopefully continue to struggle with soul, ego, and specifically with personalities we can’t abide, George Eliot offered this kind but wistful lament: “It was a pity he couldn’a be hatched o’er again, and hatched different.”

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Good Samaritan by George Merrill

Who is my neighbor? The real question is, who are my neighbors?

I remember attending a Eucharist years ago. The homily was memorable, partially because it was mercifully short but also poignant. I’ve never forgotten it.

During the liturgy, the celebrant recited the Summary of the Law: “Thou shalt love the lord thy God will all thy heart with all thy soul and with all thy might, and thy neighbor as thyself.” During his homily, the celebrant posed the question again but rhetorically this time, asking who is my neighbor? He responded, “All those with whom I share space.”

There’s a Biblical story called the Good Samaritan. The story is well known beyond its sectarian boundaries. In fact, it has found its way into American law; it’s known as the Good Samaritan Law. It offers legal protection to people who give assistance to those who are, or whom they believe to be, injured, ill, or in peril. If the help does no good, there are no legal repercussions. We’re free to do good whenever we can. It’s comforting to know in today’s litigious society that when we risk caring for others, we have the full weight of the law behind us.

It’s a humane law. It underscores the assumption of a basic solidarity among humans, and all those with whom we share space. Everyone is our neighbor; some are next door while others are thousands of miles away. Our job, where it’s within our power, is to look out for one another.

Today there’s an undeniable rip current, pulling against our humane instincts. It’s a mindless drive to make those who would naturally be our friends, into our adversaries. One loyal public servant after another is mocked or fired; agencies that serve not only the administration, but also the country’s safety are relentlessly demeaned; the agency for assuring environmental protections, the planet on which all of us share space, exhibits no vision. It’s being sold out to short term economic interests. Migrants, America’s future lifeblood, are being driven from the land.

By now this is old news. I don’t want this to be an “ain’t it awful” rant. Instead, what I’d like to consider is another way of understanding ourselves in today’s adversarial climate. There’s one vision of being with our neighbors and ourselves that might give us heart again and help mitigate the loneliness that our prevailing atmosphere of suspicion has bred.

I’ll paraphrase the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s from the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus is teaching. A lawyer in the crowd asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies; love God with all your heart, your soul, your strength, your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.

The lawyer (pitching a trick question) asks, so who is my neighbor?

Jesus tells him a story:

A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho has been robbed, beaten and his clothes taken. He’s left half-dead. A priest (establishment clergy) passes by to avoid him, as does a Levite (privileged citizen with social capital). A Samaritan (regarded as a low-life) comes by. He has compassion, goes to the victim, administers first aid as best he can, and puts clothes on him. The Samaritan places the victim on his donkey, takes him to the nearest inn, gives the inn keeper money, instructing him to ‘look after him.’ In the event the inn keeper incurs additional expenses, the Samaritan says he’ll pony up for whatever the amount when he passes by this way again.

So, Jesus asks the lawyer, who of the three was the victim’s neighbor?

The one who showed the victim compassion, the lawyer responds.

Now you know who your neighbor is and what you need to do.

Seems to me as if Jesus was saying to the lawyer that if he really wanted to inherit eternal life, he’d first have to get down to earth and get serious and become personally involved with the needs of his neighbors.

One writer said of our time that we live in a season of vanities and spiritual emptiness. Our psycho-spiritual diet has few nutrients. We’re fed mostly junk food. The symptoms are ennui and hopelessness.

Stories can help; parables, sayings that illuminate the soul, can lift us. We need to hear good news; we yearn for a loftier vision.

I’ve read some of the accounts of the early Christian monks, sometimes called hermits. They meditated in the Egyptian desert. They were a quirky lot, one of whom, Simeon, was reported to have lived sitting on top of a pole in order to have a clear and uncluttered spirit to be with God. It’s similar to Buddhists who, when they meditate, say that they “take the one seat,” only Simeon’s practice was more precarious and surely not as comfortable. All were good men.

As quirky as some were, they spoke the language of the spirit and knew the music of our hearts; they knew of the things that are eternal while at the same time were earthy and temporal. One story from that era illustrates this:

“Once, a certain brother brought a bunch of grapes to the holy Macarius. He, however for love’s sake, thought not on his things but on the things of others, carried it to another brother, who seemed more feeble. And the sick man gave thanks for the kindness of his brother, but he too, thinking more of his neighbors than himself, brought it to another, and he again to another, and so that same bunch of grapes was carried around to all the cells, scattered as they were far over the desert; and no one, knowing who first had sent it, it was brought at last to the first giver.”

Considering the miserable climate these men lived in, and despite their personal idiosyncrasies, in my book they sure are the kind of neighbors I’d take any day.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Handwriting On The Wall by George Merrill

I liked taking photographs of old, dilapidated buildings and rusting farm machinery lying in fallow fields; or drift wood that’s stripped bare by the sea and bleached in the sun.

Graveyards also fascinated me, especially colonial sites on the island where I grew up and here on the Shore. On their weathered and crumbling headstones, I’d read tributes to, or lamentations for, the deceased. Whatever else, the headstone epitaphs affirm one’s existence –wanting passersbys to know they had once been – along with a synopsis of how the deceased or someone who knew him or her felt about their life and their death.

When I look around in old cemeteries, I wonder what these brief headstone testimonies mean and what the deceased persons once thought. There are few places on earth, other than a cemetery, where our mortality is declared so definitively. The markers identify not who’s there now, but who isn’t any more. The silence and emptiness of a cemetery’s terrain has a paradoxical effect on me, and, as I’ve learned since, on many others. Even while being in the midst of so many absences, I have a strong feeling of a presence while standing above those who’ve long gone. Among the old stones I stand waiting, as if for a revelation. It’s a haunting feeling, not as though I expected ghosts, but in the stillness of the space, some primal feeling in me is being called forth for which I had no name.

This feeling I’ve come to understand as yearning or longing, not for death, but from a desire to have a more complete story to which the brief epitaphs on the headstones allude. I wanted to reach my hand across the divide of time and experience the world as these people had once known it. I longed to hear their stories, see the landscape through their eyes. It was perhaps as I understand it now, my yearning to feel more deeply connected to the others through whose history, I too, had been shaped.

I long for connection.

Years ago, I read an essay by Bruce Mills titled. “An Archeology of Yearning.”

Mill’s story was about exploring the delicate terrain of the mind; the space deep within and surrounding us, and the symbols each of us use to travel in and out of one another’s terrain. Mills had written a moving account of the years he struggled to find ways to communicate with his autistic son, Jacob.

He seemed to be speaking about something I knew about intimately, but how, since I knew little about autism?

Living with Jacob’s autism, Mills tries to interpret his son’s inner space. Since there is little common language that parents, teachers, or playmates can share with Jacob, he lives in a lonely world. So, do his parents. They are woven tightly together by family bonds, but don’t have a common language. It’s painful being close and yet so far away, like standing next to a headstone that has a story, but no one to tell it.

Jacob drew pictures with the skill of a professional’s hand. He sketched perfect replicas of TV characters from the scenes in the children’s shows he watched on TV – like Sesame Street and various Disney movies. He constructed his inner vocabulary from these images. He mastered drawing perspective and depth perceptions of a much older child.

Jacob thought in pictures, not words, while imputing emotional significances to particular characters and certain colors. Through his art, he developed a visual language to give meaning to his inner space, to reach out to others. It was, however, a pictorial language and his father could not be sure that the pictures meant the same to him as they did his son. Often, they didn’t.

In general, when children pose the question to parents, “Where did I came from?”, I believe inherent in the question is a lot more than curiosity about the mechanics of sexuality. I suspect that in the question lies an eternal yearning to know the continuum of life beyond our own. How is who we are today connected to others who had been there long before? Who were they and what’s our connection to them?

While working with his son, Mills begins to describe his situation with a beautiful metaphor. In the relationship to his son, Mills sees the same mystery that archeologists experienced when first entering the ancient Chauvet Cave at Vallon-Pont d’e Arc in southern France. The images of animals on the cave’s wall witness to a story some tribesmen wished to tell. For the discoverers, in the silence of the cave which they found inscrutable and dazzling, they also felt a deep yearning to know more. What did these images mean?

Like Jacob’s, the images that the Paleolithic inhabitants drew on the cave’s wall were exquisitely crafted. There was the wondering about why this particular cave, and what the paintings themselves signified about the mind-set of the artists who painted them, the culture in which the artists lived and the significance of the particular subjects they elected to paint.

Art is a way of knowing. Art expresses what we feel about the world in which we live. Art is not confined to any one medium. It’s born of the primal human urge to create, to weave the strands of experience into the whole cloth of a vision. For years photography had been my artistic expression. How I ultimately became skilled in photography may not have been that different than the way Jacob became proficient in drawing: he wasn’t able to express his interior space in conventional ways, and so he naturally gravitated to another. It was important for him to create.

When I was a boy, my uncle took me to the countryside to paint. He was was a natural. As I watched him paint the rolling hills and farm houses, I felt lost, helpless. I could not sketch a landscape so that anyone might recognize it. I had no feel for rendering perspective. I wanted to be a part of my uncle’s world, to be creative in the way the way he was, but I had no aptitude for it. I had only a vague sense of color. After a while I’d find reasons not to go with him. I gave up.

That is, until I discovered photography.

It was apparent early on that I had “an eye.” I took quickly to the tools of photography that equipped me to render pleasing and imaginative photographs. As the saying goes, I found my voice, or more to the point, my eye.

In today’s world, the teaching of various forms of art is regarded as “soft” next to serious courses like business or science. Art education, in budget squeezes, is the first to be cut. I think this reflects a spiritual vacuum that exists in our consumerist culture. We have marvelous tools by which to serve our outer needs, while the tools to nurture our inner lives, to feed our souls, languishes.

It does not bode well for society when its young have no visions of possibility nor can its elders dream dreams.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

The Hidden World of Despair by George Merrill

From the outside looking in, I find it almost impossible to spot someone who’s despairing of life sufficiently to want to end it. The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain illustrated this dramatically. To all appearances, they were living the American Dream: successful, creative, wealthy, icons in the public eye, attractive and decent people. Only after the fact, do people try reading signs for motive, but any conclusions are guesses at best. Only years after the suicide of my father did I feel safe enough inside of myself to try piecing things together.

When incidents of suicide increased with the returning combat veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq I began to put together a credible theory. During WWII, the non-physical wounds of war were treated dismissively as either shell-shock or battle fatigue. My father, returning from the war, was clearly troubled. Then, there was also a tacit implication of moral failure associated with the condition. Despair and despondency carried the additional burden of shame, and implications of cowardice. Those suffering from what we now recognize as PTSD, had no place to turn. ‘Be a man’ was about the best counsel veterans got in those days. They were trapped with their nightmares and directed their fear, their sense of failure and despondency onto themselves. There’s always the wound that those surviving the suicide of a loved one, suffer. It’s living with the unanswered question: was there anything I could have done to change things?

Among the relationships we must manage in life, none gets more complicated than the one we have with ourselves. This is the relationship only we know about, if we are aware of it at all. The relationship to self involves nuanced values and proclivities that are uniquely our own, like our fingerprints. They are formed mostly unconsciously through family myths, societal values, personal temperament, circumstances, aversions and attractions. Some people are aware of this inner life because they’ve learned of its existence and found tools to nurture it. Others are not curious about it at all and dismiss it as ‘touchy-feely.’ Even out of our awareness, this inner relationship to ourselves can be as volatile as it is invisible. Self-hate is malignant and undetected it can grow like cancer. If it doesn’t kill someone else, it can kill you.

If we could ever know just what drove Bourdain and Spade to despair enough to take their lives, I’m sure, most of us would not see in their conflicts necessary reasons for despair. We ultimately value ourselves through our own judgements, and as our own critics, we can be merciless.

There is a difference between the ego and the soul. The ego governs life when we’re dealing with immediate challenges like making a living, choosing a spouse, raising children, making friends, or being successful in life. Important, of course. The soul, on the other hand, imputes a sense of ultimate meaning to what we do and who we are; souls are often referred to as our spirit, our essence. Some have an inkling of it, some have no idea.

To gain the whole world and lose one’s soul is a timeless cautionary tale. It’s easy to do in a consumerist culture that has little time for matters of the soul. A soul’s needs are not marketable, but advertisers give it a go; I’ve seen the word love invoked by advertisers in promoting toilet tissue and cars.

In Brisbane Australia, Professor David Tacey once addressed a Conference titled “Spirituality and the Prevention of Suicide.” His concern was that strategies for suicide prevention did not include a serious investigation of the role spirituality might play in preventing suicide.

Tacey is convinced that in the western world, there is little attention given to developing an inner life, encouraging the fundamental skills to help people develop meditative and/or prayerful skills that allow us access to our deeper selves while sensitizing us to the wonder of being alive. He believes this leaves us vulnerable to despair since the only values left for us to hold in dark moments are the social skills that the ego practices. Substantive values offer staying power for the soul and spirit and they are timeless. Consumerist values are all about buying and selling. People are commodities, targeted audiences, valued for their capacity to purchase. Making a bundle or being a celebrity has been likened to Chinese carry out; after you’ve had all you can eat, you’re hungry all over again.

Professor Tacey grew up in Central Australia, Aborigine country. He says “This need for spiritual experience and its therapeutic effect on the troubled soul, should become a major priority for all religions interested in their social relevance and their future existence.”

Lives can be deepened. Tacey cites an example.

Aborigines actively cultivate a spiritual life. It’s cultural, a part of their way of life. They know they possess a deeper self, called “churinga.” The word means one’s own hidden body. Youths are introduced to their churinga or “second life” by engaging in rites of passage. Tribal elders initiate the youth into his or her “churinga” with the words, “Here is your body, here is your second life.” The initiate is expected to live life from this spiritual core, and not allow the surface self to dominate because it leads to illusions and falsehood.

It’s worth noting that Buddhists also teach that the ego creates the illusions that mislead us, cause needless suffering, the kind of illusions that encourage the falsehoods that plague our personal, political and social lives. Meditative practices that characterize Buddhism are concrete methods proven to access the hope and calm, and I would add, sanity, that lies within us underneath the layers of the sand castles that our egos constructed.

I lived and worked in Baltimore for many years. I loved the city. It is a dangerous city, once called the ‘murder capital of the world.’ Not to despair. There are flowers blooming in the urban desert.

The Robert W. Colman is a public school in a hardscrabble neighborhood in West Baltimore. I take this quote from the Washington Post that reported on the school:

“A boy who tussled with a classmate one recent morning instead found his way to a quiet room that smelled of lemongrass, where he could breathe and meditate. The focus at Robert W. Coleman Elementary is not on punishment, but on mindfulness — a mantra of daily life at an unusual urban school that has moved away from detention and suspension to something educators hope is more effective. Here, students are referred to the Mindful Moment Room when they misstep or need calming. In a space decorated with bright curtains, lavender cushions and beanbags, program staff members coax students to explain what happened, to talk about their feelings, to breathe deeply. The third-grader who scuffled with a classmate broke into tears. Staff member Oriana Copeland held his hand as they talked. There were no harsh words. He came around slowly.”

Urban decay is one of America’s worst breeding grounds for violence and despair, violence perpetrated against self and on others. I am profoundly grateful to the people of the Robert W. Coleman school for giving as a vision of hope and possibility in an increasingly despondent world.

The long journey toward inward discovery begins with that first step, taken by the people who care.

Birds of a Feather by George Merrill

I met a wren one morning. She stood on my studio doorstep. Appearing so fearless, she surprised me.

Various kinds of wildlife pass by my studio window all the time; deer, turkeys, otters, groundhogs, rabbits, buzzards, eagles, owls and ospreys. I hear the frequent whimper of squirrels. I have never understood what troubles them that they sound so plaintive.

I am surrounded by trees that whisper in breezes. The magnolia tree is different; its large leaves strike each other emitting not a soft rush as conifers or hardwoods do, but a kind of rattling you hear when wind blows though venetian blinds.

While my relationship to regional wildlife is a fond one, except for ticks, it’s typically distant.

It was unusual for me to see wildlife as close up as the wren. As I approached, I fully expected she would fly away. Instead, she flew and lighted even closer to me on the railing by the steps. She looked at me. I stood still for fear of spooking her. Now she was barely more than three feet from where I stood. A fledgling, I was sure. On her head, I could see unruly strands of nap rather than smooth feathers. I reckoned that this was perhaps one of her early explorations of the neighborhood. She still possessed that precious once in a lifetime gift, the innocence of youth that revels in curiosity and wonder while finding the world irresistibly enchanting.

I didn’t move. In the background, I could hear the loud and insistent chirping of another wren. Perhaps it was Mom or Dad calling for her to come back home “this very instant” the way impatient parents yell at children who heedlessly wander away.

I moved my hand toward her. She turned her head side to side, first eying my hand from one side and then from the other. I suspect she may have been wondering if this was the best time to get out of there. Was she as curious about her proximity to me as I was to her?

Fidgeting some, she remained on the spot. Since she flew up from the doormat onto the railing, I knew she could fly. I was glad she wasn’t staying just because she was injured. Maybe I was flattered that given the choice to stay or leave, she found me interesting enough to hang out for a few minutes to see what I was all about.

Finally, she flew away – back home I assume. However, her leaving did not in the least silence the raucous chirping of the other wren somewhere in the distance. Some parent was probably lecturing this hapless bird brain about never crossing the street alone and especially sitting on some stranger’s doorstep. It’s sad as I think about it, though; that with so many of our wildlife neighbors conditioned to be wary of us, and we of them, man, beast and bird alike are consigned to regard our differences as dangers rather than opportunities for discovery. A peaceable kingdom is not immediately in the offing, but for mutual ecological survival, better it gets on the agenda sooner than later.

Today among our own species, citizens of the same country or even individuals in the same family, differences become occasions for suspicion. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in racial discrimination of blacks by white Americans. We also see the LGBT community being maligned and treated as moral failures while they justly appeal for respect and equality in a predominantly heterosexual society.

After 200,000 years on the planet, we still don’t know how to regulate differences except with violence and by discrimination. It’s as if we’re evolution’s immature adolescents, clinging to personal identities that affirm nothing more enlightening than, “I’m not like them.” This is an old problem, old enough to have been highlighted in Luke’s gospel written over 1900 years ago. We are slow learners. Hopefully we’ll be late bloomers. The parable is instructive

Luke’s story goes roughly like this. Two men go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, a religious elite of that era. He is full of himself and looks down on everyone, or as my grandmother liked to say, “puts on airs.” He prays: “I thank you God that I’m not greedy, dishonest or an adulterer like everyone else or like that tax collector over there.” In those days, a tax collector was considered a social pariah. “I fast, and tithe generously,” the Pharisee’s prayer concludes.

What a guy!

The tax collector, on the other hand, stands apart from him, doesn’t even lift his head to heaven, but instead beats his breast, saying “God have pity on me, a sinner.”

Jesus likes the tax collector better and declares that the tax-collectors is the one that’s right with God.

Not for a moment do I interpret this story as endorsing self-denigration as a direct route to holiness. However, I do read it as a statement that humility, is. Arrogance and humility play out very differently in the human equation as much as they do in divine-human confrontations. It’s the difference between believing in possibilities – being open – or dismissing others contemptuously, as a bigot does. In humility, there’s also a suggestion of reverence, a sense of the integrity and potential goodness we are prepared, at least for starters, to impute to others with whom we deal. Stereotyping is a form of arrogance – thank God, I’m not like him.

A long way from a young wren sitting on my door step, you say? Not really. I was closer that morning than I have ever been to a wren in the wild. The wren’s openness made for a meeting between species. She had not responded fearfully as I’d fully expected, but behaved curiously, instead. And indeed, it turned out to be a moment for a mutual regulation of differences. I don’t normally talk to birds nor do any birds let me close enough so I can.

Imagine if gays and straights, blacks and whites, or that Muslims and Christians could feel sufficiently safe to confide with each other what it’s like to be the kind of people we are. It’s heartwarming to think how, in the last analysis, we might discover we’re more birds of a feather than we’d ever imagined.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

P.S. I Love You by George Merrill

For me, receiving mail has lost its magic.

I once loved anticipating mail. Getting it now is perfunctory, like bringing in garbage cans. Today I receive mostly advertisements printed on intrusive cards some larger than four by five. They hardly fit in the mail box. Then there’s the relentless stream of bills. The joy of anticipation is gone. Once, the excitement of getting the mail was finding a real letter, handwritten, addressed to me. Few if any write letters any more. The world of communication, once a twist of the wrist, has gone electronic. We are literally, snagged by the web, trapped in the net.

I once read that in sixteen-eighty in London, England, the mail system functioned 24/7. If Mrs. Dalloway invited me to take tea with her at 4:00 pm, I’d receive her invitation at 10:00 am. I would post my response straightaway and she’d receive it by noon. Anywhere in London for a penny. It got pricey if you posted out of town, and there was a caveat: the receiver paid postage, not the sender. Considering all the junk mail I receive, wouldn’t it be neat if the post would not surrender my mail to me unless I first paid up? Just say no, would do the trick.

In colonial times, communicating with kin overseas was stressful and cumbersome. A ship’s officer arriving in port with letters without stamps would advertise in the local newspaper. They’d list the names of those having mail and for them to come collect and pay for it, if not already paid for by the sender. I would imagine a husband in London, sending a letter to his wife in Annapolis, would cost her an arm and leg to claim it. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it sure ups the ante in the family budget no matter who pays.

Aviation promised more speedy mail delivery. In its infancy, however, the pilot was more at risk than any mail man was when a junkyard dog tore after him. Without instrumentation, pilots became disoriented when flying through clouds. Pilots might swear they were flying level but in fact were in deep descent. Crashes were frequent.

I remember three chapters in my life when receiving mail was exhilarating. The first was during WWII. I’d receive V-MAILS, letters from my father while he was at war. The return address read cryptically: “Somewhere in Europe.”

Then came my cereal box years. Cereal makers, like those producing Wheaties and Kix, offered toys like the ‘secret decoder ring” that broke all codes or another ring that, by changing color, “foretold weather.” Mailing off a quarter with the box top would assure that I’d possess one of these wonders. After I’d mailed off my submission, I would begin counting the days and even intercept the mailman before he reached the door.

In late adolescence, I was in and out of love. For some of these loves, letters were part of the romance and I came to expect them. The wait for letters was excruciating. I now marvel at how verbose lovers are at eighteen. I simply couldn’t write enough to shape the nuances of my emerging passions and give a voice to my excited sentiments. Run-on sentences were the name of the game.

In today’s post-modern world, hand written letters have been eclipsed by email. Email is fast, economical, and costs the same to send anywhere in the world. Emails arrive almost instantly and like mice, seeing one always means there’s lots more. Some are bizarre. I used to get regular emails from a barrister in the Caribbean who’d address me as ‘Dearest.’ He’d urge me to respond immediately as he was keeping fifty thousand pounds in trust for me.

Email, especially texting, has spawned a form of hieroglyphics designed to reduce words to their marrow. It makes electronic messaging even faster, by lessening the time a writer spends composing texts. For the uninitiated, these symbols are inscrutable and seem more like the periodic table or scientific equations than real words or even sentences. Even the tender sentiments they purport to communicate become tepid and as ho hum as yesterday’s alphabet soup.

How about instead of emailing or texting your loved one, “I can’t wait to look into your eyes and savor the soft scent of your perfume,” you write ‘ILU/ILY’ which means “I love you.” ‘XOXOXO,’ means, I want to hug and kiss you. It works for some, but not for me. Is this only because I’m a luddite, that I’m so old a dog I disdain new tricks? I’d say it’s more than that. It’s about nuance and in my opinion, next to facial expressions, only words can hone our emotions to such fine tolerances.

Tweets serve communication the way fireworks light up the night sky: while they catch your eye, they quickly fizzle. No nuance, here.

Letters take a lot of time and thought to write. It would take me the same time to write one letter by hand than to dash off twenty emails. In communicating with a spouse, loved one or friend, the nature of affection encourages the sharing of many different thoughts and feelings like pillow talk that is lengthy and meandering.

Electronic communication is a boon for commerce. It’s great for communicating data or gathering information, arranging appointments, ordering holiday gifts and getting directions to unfamiliar places.

When kissing my wife before bedtime, however, I can’t imagine holding her and saying ‘ILU/ILY.’ Nothing beats a plain old fashioned, breathy, “I love you,” whether it’s carefully written long hand or whispered softly in an ear. Consider something as sensual as hugs and kisses; when reduced to a formulaic, ’XOXOXO,’ it loses all its pizazz.

A simple ‘PS, I love you,’ works better.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Once Before A Time by George Merrill

In three  days, we will mark the 74th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy. For me, this was once before a time.

I discovered an old book recently in an early attic store. The book, The New Yorker War Album, was published in 1942 as the war was beginning. The book presented a compilation of cartoons by cartoonists like Whitney Darrow Jr., Peter Arno and Charles Adams, familiar names to readers even today.

In viewing the cartoons, I felt I was uncovering artifacts in an archaeological dig. Here was evidence of how people once lived, what they cared about seventy-six years ago. I was eleven then. My father left in ’42 with the Army – first to Britain, then to Belgium and finally he entered Aachen near the end of the war. As a boy, living in the safety of America’s homeland and feeling the intense excitement of the troop movements in and out of New York Harbor, the war was a lark. I imagined it as thrilling adventure in which the nobility and invincibility of our fathers and brothers were defeating America’s enemies.

Shortly after my father left for Europe, my mother and I wallpapered my room. The paper was a war mural, with ships, tanks, and planes engaged in the business of war. The war ships pitched in the waves, their canons trailing smoke from discharging munitions. Tanks barreled over hilly terrain. An American plane soared upward leaving in its wake an enemy fighter—a Stuka—with smoke trailing from its fuselage as it spiraled downward to the earth. Curiously, there were no soldiers pictured in any of the scenes, but only the industrial material of war performing its tasks of killing— lots of iron, but no blood. The scenes were stirring. They fed my imagination daily about the glory of battle.

America was righteous and ready.

Among the cartoons in the book, we see a roller coaster half completed, the track ending abruptly high in midair. Construction projects begun as war broke out were soon abandoned.

While our fathers and brothers fought at the front, all the kids in my neighborhood made war on one another at one such site we called the iron mines. Behind our home, houses under construction ended for the duration.

Workers left behind half dug trenches for basements and large plywood boards used for forming cement. Decommissioned bulldozers, emitting the pungent remains of diesel fuel, were scattered around the site. The digging had unearthed chunks of iron ore. From the trenches and plywood boards, we constructed covered bunkers. We hurled iron ore missiles (grenades) at our enemies, who were the kids in the other trenches. Bulldozers were our tanks. I made a charge for safety behind a bulldozer while lobbing my rock grenade. I was hit on the head by an enemy grenade. I bled furiously and ran home crying. My war ended when my sister came to the site warning all the combatants that we were really going to get it from our parents for throwing rocks. Would that ending a war were that easy. Except for parental constraints, I would have done battle again for the thrill of being at the killing fields of the iron mines. “Men grow tired of sleep, love, singing and dancing sooner than war,” Homer observed darkly.

The cartoons witnessed to the feeling that this was our war, America’s war. The nation was invested in it. The sense of ownership and common cause was palpable. The draft was mandatory, but then young men in droves often lied about age just to enlist and to fight. The cartoon images reflected the sense of high adventure and solidarity. Patriotism was heart-felt.

The cartoons pointed to another phenomenon; the war effort demanded sacrifices from the civilian population. Today’s wars don’t. Today, Americans have it both ways; guns and butter.

A shop keeper in one cartoon urges a little girl: “Better stock up on jelly beans.” Mutual sacrifice for a common good was shared. I remember bubble gum was not available from ’42 until ’45.  Good humored grousing about sacrifice was a part of the national conversation. From references to ration books, and to the limited availability of cooking oil, sugar, butter, gasoline, meat, candy and chocolate, although hardly draconian restrictions, forced unwelcomed changes to life styles. What we once took for granted became precious commodities. The recurring symbol for this phenomenon was the automobile tire. In one cartoon, we see a man skulking furtively holding auto tires. He’d just swiped them from another car. Returning to his own car, he sees his tires have been stolen. In another image, a man at a filling station says, “A gallon will do.” The inference – not only is gas scarce, but he only has a mile or so left on his tire’s tread and that will be it.

One cartoon sketches a parade, the kind we might see on the Fourth of July or Veterans Day. Old vets with canes sit curbside in wheel chairs and civilians wave flags as the marchers pass. The parade extends for several blocks. Instead of cadres of soldiers and military hardware, the parade consists entirely of civilian groups contributing to the war effort: there are Girl Scouts, aircraft observers, motor corps (women mechanics) air raid wardens, nurse’s aides, Boy Scouts, and civil defense volunteers.

Horney young sailors and soldiers are pictured lamenting the unavailability of women. Whitney Darrow sketches a scene in which we see a room full of middle-aged club women assembled, wearing flowered dresses, hats and gloves. All are seated. Two stand at the rostrum, while one introduces the other: “Miss Whitehead is here to tell us how we can amuse sailors.”

As more American soldiers arrived in England to fight, the Brits had mixed feelings about our presence, expressed in the popular quip: “Over sexed, over paid, and over here.” Americans quickly countered the Brits: “Underpaid, under sexed and under Eisenhower.”

In several cartoons, signs of women’s changing roles in the industrial era appear. Two little girls are standing by a car being repaired. They watch as a woman lying on a dolly works on it. One child says to the other. “When you grow up do you want to be a grease monkey like your mom?” Another prescient cartoon tells the same story in another way: a young woman is struggling to choose between getting her M.A. or learn spot welding.

Writer Frederick Buechner once coined a phrase, “Once before a time.” It’s a way to measure our lives prior to some dramatic event that changes it.

Once before a time, I saw war as a glorious adventure. Once upon a time, my father returned from the war in 1945 a broken man.  Then once after a time, I began to grasp the devastation of war.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

Little Things Mean A Lot by George Merrill

Miss the rain? It will be a while before Eastern Shore dwellers get dry. It seemed recently as though it would rain interminably.

On Thursday of that rainy week, I had arranged previously to take my wife to Scossa’s for her birthday. The prospect of dining out was all the more pleasant since it would also get us out of the house for a few hours and into different surroundings. Our dining expedition was a twofer, a threefer, really, as this also included a birthday celebration as well.

That night it rained relentlessly. Fate, however, was kind to us. As we approached the restaurant by car, an SUV pulled out of a spot in front of the courthouse just across the street from Scossa’s. I could see how from that space we’d have a short hop across the street to make it to the restaurant. I parked. We got out of the car, and as we prepared to make our way across the street I saw three men in front of the courthouse.

Two were standing, and one was seated: all three carried placards and although I could not see what they said, I recognized the men and knew why they were there. The rain fell mercilessly on them, as if nature cared nothing about their undertaking, as indeed it appeared that no one else had, either.

These three were a small cadre of the organization known here as PEACE. For years, PEACE’s mission has been to facilitate fellowship and highlight a vision of reconciliation where they can among the different racial and ethnic residents in Talbot Country. They meet faithfully every Thursday evening at five, rain, shine or snow, summer and winter, standing in front of the courthouse, bearing signs that say peace, no more war and other clips that highlight what I believe is one of the most critical of all our contemporary challenges; to accommodate our ethnic, racial and religious differences without hatred and recourse to violence. I think especially today in our amoral climate where might is right, this message assumes even greater dimensions.

I stopped and talked with the three for a moment, before making our way to the restaurant. I had this odd sensation: my wife, Jo, and I were on our way to a celebration and fine dining in a restaurant, and just a few yards away three men sat and stood quietly in a downpour, bearing witness to truths that I suspect few really want to hear about if one’s life has not been touched by violence and hatred.

At first, the scene appeared bleak. Because of the rain, few pedestrians walked by the courthouse. Since the cars parked in front of the courthouse prohibited motorists from seeing people on the sidewalk the men were hardly visible. It seemed like the witness they were making was wasted, voices crying in the wilderness, unheard. I guess being unheard or unseen for the inclement weather is sad enough but understandable. What is less understandable and more troubling is that few may care all that much about what this group is witnessing to, an issue which is precisely what will determine our destiny as a nation and as a world; learning to live peacefully with our neighbors.

In the restaurant, I heard comments about the rain. One couple joked about how they’d noticed animals beginning to pair off. A woman commented to her dinner companion that perhaps Noah had built a second ark to save a new remnant from the flood. As you may recall Noah’s epic, the flood came as a judgment against a wicked world. Noah tried to tell everyone the flood was imminent but no one listened. He built an ark, packed in his extended family along with some select animals and rode the flood out until the ark landed on Mt. Ararat.

Ancient history has a number of similar myths – about resulting disasters impending because of the world’s persistent hatred and violence.

There’s an old Hebrew legend. I learned of it reading “The Last of the Just,” a novel by Andre Schwarz-Bart, a holocaust survivor. He tells how in every generation the world depends on thirty-six righteous souls, on whose piety the fate of the world depends. As I read it, I imagined the presence of such a small company of good men swallowed up in the enormity of the world’s evils. The thought was both hopeful and yet frightening to consider. How could such a small cadre ever make the world right to God, to each other and save us from ourselves. The just men (women) seem so few to guide so many lost people, just a handful of help to repair the damage of generations. And yet, according the myth, our insane world by its amoral entropy and spinning at the edge of chaos is being righted again and again by a few good men and women whose stunning interventions remain mostly invisible.

It’s little things, barely heard or seen that can be so significant, like a gentle touch to the grieving, or a reassuring smile to the frightened or a softly whispered, ‘it will be alright’ to the troubled.

Do I think of the three men I saw before the Court House like the righteous men in the Hebrew legend? In one way, I do. They fit the profile of the ancient prophets; how they tirelessly held up a vision of hope and healing to a world that hardly noticed them. They are the still small voice of justice and the tiny mustard seeds of faith that, over time, grow into great sanctuaries where others may safely dwell

Little things mean a lot.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Learning What’s Important by George Merrill

One of the highlights of my life is a bi-weekly meeting I have with a small group of elders. We are men and women of “riper years” who, in the latter days of our lives, remain curious and wonder what this business of being alive is all about. Some of us are religious in the conventional sense. Others more eclectic, some atheistic and agnostic, but none nihilistic. The thread that connects us all is a feeling of wonder at being alive, the mystery at the heart of it and as we watch the shadows of our days lengthen, we examine what the afternoon light reveals in the landscape of our lives. The conversations can be moving, funny, or sad, but always life-giving.

For me, it’s an opportunity to grow in wisdom. I once thought wisdom was knowing something about everything. It isn’t. It’s knowing what’s most important.

Dr. Lucy Kalanithi is a physician who has learned what is important.

She’s a lovely young woman who exudes heart felt authenticity. She met her husband while studying at Yale. He, too, was a physician. They married. Shortly into the marriage he was diagnosed with stage four cancer; tumors in the lungs and bones. In a presentation she made in a TED talk, our group watched and listened as she shared how she learned what was important. It was not easy to hear, but her message was clear and convincing; knowing what is truly important is doable, because if we can remember it, we always have some choices in how we live. Making those choices together with those we love leads to wisdom, and in themselves become expressions of that love.

“Out loud” was a pivotal metaphor in how both she and her husband negotiated their lives in the face of the husband’s impending death. The metaphor arose when one day he looked at her and said, “I want you to marry again.” She was floored at the directness, the generosity and love implied in his wish. “Whoa,” she exclaimed. “I guess we’re going to have to say things ‘out loud’ from now on.” And so, they did.

In preparing advanced directives, she spoke of their conversations as an affirmation of their love for each other, something about advanced directives that had never occurred to me in that way. She described how she felt when discussing the particulars in what he wished to have happen and what he would need from her. It was a statement about how neither would have to live this tragedy alone. As each spoke “out loud” the hopes and fears of their hearts, they grew closer in an unexpected way. Advance directives became for them not just an exercise in organizing their affairs, but also tangible expressions of their love story.

A particularly moving piece of their story was about making choices, specifically, within the limits of time they had together. Should he undergo extraordinary measures to sustain life? Should they have a child? They measured the time scrupulously to consider the realities of such a move. They calculated that with his life expectancy, he would be there for the birth for sure, but little beyond that. The decision was made to have a baby and she delivered a baby girl. About the time she delivered, he was failing rapidly. He told her he wanted no extraordinary measures. He asked her to bring the baby so he could hold her. Four hours after he held her, he said “I’m ready.” He died.

Light shines through some people. They transmit the light like saints in stained glass windows. The light can be generated in the crucible of white-hot suffering. Wisdom is refined in that crucible and it is offered for us to see, or in the case of Dr. Kalanithi’s story, to hear her account. She speaks “out loud”, too.

She speaks of a life lived fully not as one free from suffering, but because of it. An adversarial relationship to our suffering is often expressed by “fighting” the cancer, “beating” the heart disease, or “conquering” the illness. She does not see us as victors by winning battles. What she and her husband experienced was the discovery that there were shepherds there to guide and sustain them, not soldiers to fight for them. That is something very important.

Freedom, I once read, is not the absence of constraints, but the art of living freely within them. Dr. Kalanithi goes at some length in describing how living in the constraints of the illness, their oncologist worked with them as a co-creator in framing a medical regimen that realistically supported the ways the patient chose to live the remainder of his days. Her husband once told her that things would be OK. Was that to mean that they’d return to the things had been? They were OK if one understands, as she had come to understand, that to live a life fully, is to recognize that we are free enough to make the choices offered under the circumstances. There are typically more than we first imagine.

The opportunities that we have to compose a life in the face of adversities is getting more recognition. As a society, we’re beginning to accept the inevitability of suffering as a condition of being alive. As physicians, both Dr. Kalanithi and her husband knew this, but she says, “It’s another thing to actually live it.” The other message that we gleaned from her talk was the importance of candor, the ability to speak directly to the suffering and not hide or deny it. What grows from the open and shared acknowledgement of pain, the “out loud,” she describes as an increasingly deep intimacy following in its wake.

I know that everyone in the room that day was engrossed in listening to Dr. Kalanithi’s story. Most had been through significant loses; spouses, children and friends and many knew the anguish involved. But for all of us there was something hopeful in her story. I think it was the thought that when tragedy strikes, we’d remember the essence of what she said. And if I could summarize it I’d say, that at end of the day, it’s loving well that’s most important. The unendurable is endurable if we have someone there who loves us enough to walk with us in the time of shadows.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

The Physical by George Merrill

I’ve often wished that I had the temperament of one of my dearest friends. He is faithful in all that he undertakes. He eats sensibly, exercises regularly, never smoked, drinks moderately, prays often and at specific times of day. He never seems put upon when others ask him to perform tedious tasks on their behalf. He is as virtuous a man as I have known – very credible – and although it does him no honor for me to say this, I do envy him his God-given disposition. He has an amiable relationship to himself. Mine tends to be more erratic.

A psychiatrist I know understands envy in this way: if the virtues that we see and admire in others were suddenly bestowed on us, we’d have no idea what to do with them.

I thought about this recently after my annual physical with my primary physician and cardiologist. Overall, I’m doing well. A problem has arisen in the last few years: I weigh more than I should, now to the tune of about twenty- five pounds. Of the invasive and other undignified diagnostic procedures I have been subject to over the years, including the universally loathed colonoscopy, the diagnostic prescription I find most difficult to hear is from not just from one but from both of my physicians; I must eat less and exercise more. At least in undergoing a colonoscopy, I’m out cold so the doctor can say anything and it wouldn’t bother me.

I find ‘eat less’ particularly hard to hear from my cardiologist. I don’t mean that he is not kind and competent. He says pretty much the same as my primary does. It’s just when he holds up one hand, points to the palm of it and with the other hand, inscribes a tiny circle, indicating this should be the size of the portions I need to be eating, I despair. I’m sure his hands are as large as any adult male but when he illustrates this particular prescription, like some ominous signing to a deaf man, I cringe. His hands seem to suddenly become diminutive, like a doll’s, and I think to myself how can he expect so much from me when he promises so little.

Both physicians recommended more exercise, one, advising specifically that walking one hour a day was best. Now this prescription did not please me much either but it was one I thought I could get behind far more than the starvation diet that the cardiologist advised. In one sense, I was prescribed two pills to address my ills; eat less and exercise more. I chose exercise over diet simply because I love to eat. But wait – isn’t contemporary medicine encouraging us to be a pro-active voice in designing our own treatment, tailoring it to the way we wish to live?

I write this to demonstrate how our unruly wills and affections can seduce us. Habits of the stomach for the aging can be even more compelling than those of the heart for the young. My reasoning: far better to burn those calories away in exercise than never to have savored them at all. I see it as unconscionable to waste their sweetness. And then, too, the calories would be gone for good that way, and would not remain available to compromise someone else’s’ health. Actually I’d be serving others.

Here’s the rub. Now, already two days successfully into my new resolve, the issue has come down to how much mettle my resolve actually contains. My challenge lies, not so much in knowing what has to be done, but in the showing up for the doing- boots on the ground, if you will. Am I really exercising for the right reasons? Am I trying to avoid the issue of eating less by exercising more? Yes! Only now I have crafted a rationale.

The great essayist, Montaigne, knew all the tricks that our minds play on us. He wrote, “Virtue will not be followed except for her own sake and if we sometimes borrow her mask for some other purpose, she promptly snatches it from our face.”

I heard a story once about a man, a recovering alcoholic who has enjoyed an otherwise successful thirty-year sobriety. He told about the games his mind used to play on him when he wanted what he wanted, but didn’t want to fess up to it.

Early in his recovery career he went into a bar and ordered six shots of bourbon. He had learned from AA that the first drink is too many, and a thousand is not enough. Just don’t take that first drink was the cardinal rule.

He claimed he never did.

He’d start drinking the the sixth shot, the last one placed on the bar. Then when he was down to the first, left it, then ordered six more, again drinking the sixth one the bartender put on the bar but never taking the first one. By the time he was wasted he had eight shots left on the bar, having left only the first one’s he correctly boasted that he never drank.

Here’s as honest as I can be at this moment in my own struggle with myself. I love eating too much right now to reduce my intake to those Spartan portions that were prescribed. I think I could knock off chocolate and deserts too (by knock off I mean eschewing not chewing) without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Scrapple should go and the skin of southern fried chicken I believe I could do without.

But the immediate challenge is exercise: what about a rainy day, or an extremely cold day, or one of those hot and sultry days on the Shore that can melt macadam on the roads. Worse still, when I just don’t feel like exercising at all. Then my unruly mind and its perverse wishes will begin plotting to defeat my resolve.

It’s time like this I envy my virtuous friend.

“Be sober, be vigilant,” writes Peter in his first epistle, “for your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

It’s not the roaring lion I’m worried about; it’s the whisper of temptation.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that my wife, Jo, copy edits my manuscripts for publication. She rarely challenges content, just cleans them up. She took issue with the number I claimed I was overweight. Normally she’s a great editor although she can get picky about details.

I stay resolutely focused on the big picture.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.