I’m on the train platform suffering a sneezing fit because the guy next to me smells like Irish Spring soap, and even though I’m surrounded by commuters, no one utters "bless you." And I know no one will utter "God bless you" because we live in a secular society that’s hostile to the mention of God.
The guy on my other side, with a shaved head and tattoos, is wearing headphones so he doesn’t even hear me sneezing.
If I fell on the tracks, would anyone make a move to help me? It’s a cold world out there, getting colder by the day.
When the train pulls in and the doors open, I offer to let the guy with the shaved head go on first, but he refuses. I guess he’s not accustomed to kindness. Does he think I want a tip?
I say "please" but he resists. This mini-drama lasts a few seconds, and I sense the commuters behind me are getting impatient. At any moment, they’ll surge forward and stampede over both of us. No good deed goes unpunished.
The bald guy finally gets on, but then, in my campaign for courtesy, I hold the door between trains for another fellow who, in a British accent right out of Downton Abbey, says, "Why thank you very much, sir. That’s awfully kind."
I guess God realized I needed a tiny bit of affirmation and appreciation to keep up the struggle.
Sometimes I wonder why these little mini-encounters, which when added up constitute "life," can have such a debilitating emotional and spiritual effect on me. When I confront rudeness and lack of consideration, I get spiritually stymied and want to say, "Heck with you. No more of that ‘love thy neighbor’ stuff for me. No more Mr. Nice Guy."
When my neighbor learns to love me, I’ll start loving him back.
But I know that’s not the way it’s meant to be, so partly out of desperation and partly out of innovation, I’ve developed a new approach to life.
Rather than brooding and sulking and getting downright angry over these little slights and rejections, indignities and insults, I’ve decided to offer them up for the person who commits them. In my feeble way, that’s about as close as I can get to praying for people who hurt me.
Sometimes I try to convince myself that Jesus was prone to exaggeration and couldn’t have actually meant you have to love those who hate you. Did he want us to take him literally when he said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"?
Were the Beatitudes, I sometimes wonder, a literary device (like hyperbole) designed to get people’s attention? But then I return to reality and realize he really meant this stuff or at least he meant for us to try. That’s where I am at this late stage in life. Still trying. Still struggling. I once thought that by now I’d be spiritually perfected. No such luck.
When I look back and assess my spiritual growth, I get discouraged. It hasn’t been very good and sometimes, many times, I think I’ve gone backward, but I have to keep trying, and I’m inclined to think Jesus is a lot more patient with us than we are with ourselves, which is to say, a sincere effort pleases him. He’ll reach out and help us if we only go half way, a third of the way, a quarter of the way, two steps of the way.
If what the nuns told us is true about offering up little trials and big trials in life, I’m on the road to recovery, as they say in those Twelve-Step programs.
This morning, a young, snappily dressed, up-and-coming financial wizard with earphones, an Italian-cut suit and a copy of The Wall Street Journal under his arm, cut me off getting on the elevator.
My first impulse was to push him between the closing doors, but then I thought, "That’s not the kind of person I want to be."
My second impulse was to forgive and forget, but then I thought, "No, that’s not the kind of person I want to be."
My third impulse was to push him only part-way between the closing doors.
However, this is what happened: Against my will, I tried out my new spiritual improvement technique. I thought, "O.K., this ain’t easy, but I’m offering up this rudeness, this crudeness, this incivility for this fellow as a personal sacrifice." I sure hope it does him some good because it wasn’t easy for me. I waited for the next elevator because I didn’t think it would be a good idea to get on the same elevator with him. Praying for him was hard enough.
But then, standing there, waiting, an inexplicable feeling of peace came over me. Was it grace?
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.