I don’t like brussel sprouts.
My mother was of the old school. When I fought eating the Brussel Sprouts she put on my plate, she’d say: “Just think of all the starving people in China.” I’d eat the brussel sprouts resentfully, not because I had any idea that eating them would serve the needs of a starving population, but because my mother wouldn’t let me leave the table until I did.
That must have been seventy odd years ago. To this day, whenever I see brussel sprouts I have vague thoughts of China, but don’t like brussel sprouts any better. There has to be another way (other than through shame and intimidation) to help us obey our better angels, serve the less fortunate and still enjoy nutritious food or for that matter, the other blessings we already have.
It’s easy to feel down when we’re sick, especially today when half the world is sick or in imminent danger of becoming so. There’s an old wives’ tale about how to cheer up someone who’s down either for illness or any adverse circumstances. Invite the stricken person to consider all the people they know who are in worse shape than they are. Then they are sure to feel better. When I first heard this I felt righteously indignant and considered it rubbish; am I to feel better only if I can think of others who are more miserable? And then, too, what if, after identifying others who are suffering, I discover I’m worse off than they are. The last state of my soul will be worse than the first. No, there has to be a better way of managing misfortunes, mine or those of others. Just thinking, ‘Wow, I’m glad I’m not that bad off,” is not a good way to go.
On TV recently, I watched Governor Cuomo speaking to the needs of New York and how the city was being ravaged by the coronavirus. His statement touched something in me. I was born in New York and lived for a time in Manhattan: I have fond memories of my years there.
Cuomo went on to say how New York City became the vibrant city it is because of its vast array of people. Today, some eight and a half million live there. The numbers and the variety of the population brought the creativity and imagination that has characterized its history. In a cruel irony, the same asset that has made the city so vibrant is now devastating it: the presence of the corona virus in such a population density has turned the source of its vitality into a scourge. As Cuomo explained this in more detail, I had a feeling I didn’t like. My reaction was not one of compassion for their suffering, but personal relief. I compared my situation here on the Eastern Shore to theirs in New York. Isn’t the population comparatively sparse here which will mitigate some of my exposure to danger, more than the residents of big cities like New York will have? While the thought offered me momentary relief, I knew it was a thinly veiled variation of what I’d thought was so contemptible in others: finding in the suffering of others a way to make me feel better. My relief was short-lived as I met my own self-centered impulse head on. I felt like a deer in the headlights.
I know that being self-centered is part of being human; it comes with the package. We see it quickly in others, although rarely in ourselves. It’s as epidemic here in the U.S. as the COVID-19 is, and it’s having a corrosive effect on American morale. The me-first milieu that seems to pervade doesn’t make for a congenial community
I’ve decided to deal with the potentially corrosive effects of my self-centeredness in the ways we deal with COVID-19; first take a thorough inventory of our own spiritual “vital signs” to determine the state of our own soul, and next, to use Mr. Rogers iconic phrase, “look for the helpers,” that is, notice the ways in which the selfless people among us look out for others.
Checking regularly on the level of my self- awareness helps immensely. A self-inventory can help me clean out the ego litter, like going through a closet that’s long been untended, accumulating all kinds of junk we’d forgotten was there. As with closets and psychic spaces, a lot of what we’ve accumulated there we really don’t need, anyway.
After tidying up my psychic closet I look around to find for those looking out for others. Looking for helpers like that can be heartening and inspiring. It’s encouraging being able look up to public servants again and feel ennobled, like our health care workers.
We don’t normally think of them unless we need them. At this time, they have emerged from relative obscurity to heroic status. These are the other-directed few doing so much for so many. And, front-line causalities are taking a toll on them.
What does any of this have to do with Brussel Sprouts? I recall one incident years ago.
My daughter offered to cook dinner for me. She knew nothing about my unhappy history with brussel sprouts and as dinner came, I saw to my dismay, three brussel sprouts sitting a half an inch away from the salmon. My self-centered instinct came over me and was compelling: tell her to lose the brussel sprouts and ask if she’d make something else. Scrambling for time to decide just what to do with my egoistical impulse, I inquired, “Oh, you like brussel sprouts?” Not only did she like them, they were her favorite. I struggled for a minute and then said, “I’d like to try them.”
When I feel a compelling instinct driven only by my own selfish impulse, and I can recognize it for what it is, I try to catch in the bud and decide deliberately just how I want to handle it. In this case, my better angels told me to just eat it.
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.