Part II-Trust

Age

This one is perhaps the most straightforward to begin with. My two friends and I are all in our early twenties, either college-aged or just recently graduated. The man who approached us seemed older–how old is rather difficult for me to say. But looking back, it does strike me as noteworthy that of all the adults in the cafe at the time, he approached the booth where my friend and I were sitting first. Perhaps it was simply chance that he came to the two of us. But I can’t help but remember some words my Dad told me recently:

“When you get older, you may have already encountered several people who have tried to take advantage of you. After a meeting a string of such people, you might conclude that many people are out to get you, and you become less trusting in general. The thing is, this is a bias that emerges as you get older–something that you have to correct for.”

Is it possible that the man approached us because he saw that we were younger than most people at the cafe? Could he have thought that we would be more likely to help, because we haven’t been jaded as much, because we might be more naïve or more trusting? I should point out that these are questions are hardly objective, because they assume that I have an idea of what the man’s intentions were. Although I can try to infer them based on what happened, frankly I don’t know them.

Gender

I can count three major interactions in the story of that cold Saturday morning: (1) The man and myself, (2) the man and my friend, and (3) the woman and my friend. Of these three interactions, the last two are the most memorable. After my friend got back from outside, one comment she made to me was that she shouldn’t have been so careless. That comment struck a chord with me, or more accurately a nerve–what had happened was absolutely not her fault, and yet she was telling me that she was in part responsible for it. I wish I had said something to her with something then, but my response came much later. After the woman who gave my friend a twenty and left, I wondered out loud what would have happened if I my friend and I had switched parts–would the man still have walked away, or would he have ignored me too? My friend seemed to think so, but I’m not as sure.

I think the woman who talked to my friend afterward did a much better job in addressing this point. She affirmed that whatever my friend decided was okay, and that she had no obligation to feel guilty about it either way. The fact that she approached my friend to ask if she was okay also said a lot–the support she showed my friend, both through her words and her actions, reminded me of how human, how painfully and beautifully human, all the interactions in this experience were.

In terms of things I worry about as I go about my day, my personal safety and whether I will be respected tend not to be very high on the list. The fact that I can say this carries a lot of privilege. When I talk, usually people will at least be willing to listen or acknowledge me (whether they can understand me or not is another question, but that’s besides the point). I deeply wonder, though, why the man didn’t listen to my friend when she was talking to him. Was it because he didn’t take her seriously, or because he just wanted to leave? Again, I don’t know what his intentions were, but these questions certainly have a leading edge to them that I need to acknowledge. My friend and I are entering a field where practitioners are predominantly women, and yet as someone whom many would identify as male, I highly doubt I will escape the issue of gender and the privilege that comes with it. And I suspect that my friend is far more familiar with that issue than I am.

Race

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention how the people in the story visually appear to the outside world. I also asked you to remember what details you filled in about the people involved–was race one of them? Or, perhaps, was skin color one of them? I make this distinction because they are not the same thing–race is often inferred from skin color, but only the latter is thought to have biological meaning. That doesn’t mean race is meaningless, though–on the contrary, it is incredibly charged with culture, meaning, identity, and social implications.

My two friends and I both present with light skin, as did the woman who later approached my friend. If someone had just met us and we didn’t tell them how they identified, I would guess they’d assume we were white. The man who approached me and my friend presented with much darker skin. If someone had just met him and he didn’t tell them how he identified, I would guess they’d assume he was black. If each of us were to describe to this hypothetical person our recollection of events, this difference would likely have a profound effect on whom they would be more inclined to trust and believe.

Of course, you would also have to take into account their skin color, and what race they identify with, too. We tend to be better at distinguishing people who look similar to us, and we also are more inclined to trust people who are closer to us. The further removed someone is from us in terms of appearance, the harder it is for us to distinguish them, or perhaps even trust them. I have a less clear sense of how race played into our interactions on that day compared to the other two factors, but I have a feeling it mattered. And looking back on what I’ve already written, I think that the leading questions I’ve asked regarding this man’s intentions are influenced by that.

Part I-Prologue: A cold afternoon

Two friends and I were sitting at a cafe near Northeastern for lunch. Two of us had just left an open house for Northeaster’s graduate speech-language pathology program, while the third was a current student in the program. When one of them left to pick up his order, a man approached the two of us at our booth. He explained that he was trying to buy a blanket at a nearby Target for him and his girl because it was cold out, and he needed some help. I gave him a ten, and he mentioned going to a nearby ATM. I then gave him five ones, not responding to his comment about the ATM. My friend at this point started rummaging around to find her wallet as he sat down and asked how we were doing. The man said something about exchanging bills to her, so she gave him a twenty. Then he got up and started to walk away.

My friend quickly stood up and walked after him. It took me several seconds to realize what had occurred, and during this time I only watched what was happening. My friend followed the man outside–it was a frigid, windy Saturday afternoon, and she had left her coat behind. She was talking and trying to get his attention, but he kept walking. As they both left the cafe, several people turned toward them to see what was going on. I saw the man cross the T-tracks and leave, while my friend came back into the cafe. I asked my friend if he had walked off, and she said he had. At this point our other friend returned, and he asked what had happened. We explained some of the details, and then we all started to process what had just occurred.

A few minutes later, a woman approached our booth and asked my friend if she was okay. My friend assured her that she was fine, and the woman continued to say that what my friend did was kind, but it was okay if she didn’t feel comfortable giving someone money. She asked my friend how much she had given the man. When my friend responded, the woman told her to wait, and she left the cafe. Several minutes later, she came back and handed my friend a twenty. My friend protested, but the woman insisted that it was okay. She then bade us farewell, and the three of us sat for a while and talked about all of these events. In total, the entire incident probably lasted around 15 minutes.

Before I continue, let me pause here for a moment and point out something. I left out many details about the people involved in this story, and mainly told the events of what happened. Did you fill in any of those details as you were reading it? If you did, I would invite you to hold those details in mind as I start telling you more about these 15 minutes.

In the past when I’ve talked to friends who belong to different communities, they have told me to consider the social and systemic forces that are at play in our everyday interactions with others. For this reflection, I am going to attempt to do just that with this story. In that process, I may say things that you may disagree with. I may say things that you find ignorant, narrow-minded, and perhaps flat-out wrong. I will be candid in saying that what follows are difficult topics to discuss and reflect upon. But I am willing to risk being wrong for the sake of starting a conversation about these forces.

A Love Letter to United Methodist Women

I spent this weekend in Nashville Tennessee at a meeting of the United Methodist Women Program Advisory Group.

At our closing worship today we sang “For Everyone Born”. The opening notes of the song transported me to the first time I ever heard it. Assembly 2012- St. Louis. We sang it in a plenary session and the mere memory of thousands of women singing those words, affirming our call, still gives me goose bumps.

This morning, the people in the room began holding hands as we sang. I stood there, clasping the hands of women I name sisters and I felt tears coming to my eyes. I started thinking about all the moments that had brought me to this point.

I was nominated for this position in the spring of 2016. At the time, I believed I was too young and far too inexperienced for the role, but I felt a nudge and decided to say yes. I was elected, to my surprise, that summer. I never expected to be standing in that room.

I am unabashedly a product of United Methodist Women. This organization has educated me, given me so many mentors, nurtured me and provided me with a space to explore and take risks. In this community I found a safe place to venture into leadership, knowing I would benefit from honest advice and criticism as well as infinite encouragement and love. I am blessed to have grown up surrounded by strong, bold, loving and passionate women who saw things in me I didn’t see in myself. Women who pushed me to listen to myself, helped me discover my voice and gave me the courage to say “yes” to God.

As we held hands and sang, I began to look at the faces in that room. I remembered how uncertain I felt entering this group and how quickly these amazing women dispelled my fears with their hospitality, encouragement and love. I thought about all of the passion and knowledge these women bring to their work every single day and the inspiring pieces of their stories they have shared with me. I thought about all that these past eight months have shown me about myself, the ways that I have grown. I realized how much richer my life is because of the relationships that I have formed here. I am blessed to know them and I love them with all of my heart.

That morning, I sang with my sisters and reflected on the legacy of this organization- the brave, persistent women who paved my way to that room. I thought about the work being done for women, children and youth around the world, the relationships being formed as I type. It affirmed that just like our foremothers we are called for such a time as this. We must continue to comfort the marginalized, to push the boundaries, to make space at the table, to lift our voices for justice and to boldly answer God’s call. We must continue to say “yes”.

Yawning, Empathy, and Understanding

It all started in endocrinology class a few weeks ago. My professor was talking about behavior that’s influenced by hormones during development and around puberty. One of the behaviors he mentioned was yawning in rhesus monkeys. Then, to demonstrate, he yawned.

It took me a split-second to understand what he was doing. But by then it was too late, and I’m pretty sure that knowing his intention wouldn’t have stopped me anyway. I started yawning too. The class noticed, and with a chuckle my professor continued on with the lecture, having made his point.

A week or two later, I was having dinner with a small group of friends, when the same thing happened. A friend across from me started yawning, and almost immediately I yawned back. This happened about 3 or 4 times, to the point where we both started laughing because it was so comical.

Since these two incidents, I’ve been noticing the occasions when I’ve yawned, and I don’t think all of them were due to fatigue (although a good number probably were). I suspect that in recent weeks, I’ve been yawning a lot more in response to others because I’m starting to expect it of myself.

What’s interesting about yawning is that it’s a socially contagious phenomenon, and some studies have found correlational data between yawning and empathy. As someone trained in science (and neuroscience at that), I am obliged to give the caveat that correlation does not imply causation. The data on this subject is not something I’m very familiar with, either.

Despite my own limited knowledge on the subject, however, these past few weeks have got me thinking about empathy more–the ability to relate to another person’s emotions and their perspective. When empathy comes up in conversation, it tends to be mentioned alongside another quality, compassion. A few weeks ago, I related compassion to another closely-related concept, its near enemy pity. And that isn’t even bringing sympathy into the mix.

Empathy, compassion, pity, sympathy…all of these terms have very similar meanings and are difficult to disambiguate. Unfortunately, the etymology doesn’t help much on this one. Empathy breaks down to the Greek em and pathos (“feeling in”), sympathy breaks down to the Greek sun and pathos (“feeling with”), and compassion breaks down to the Latin cum and passus (“suffering with”). Pity is probably the strangest of the bunch–it comes from the Latin pietas, meaning “piety.”  This is perplexing, considering that of the four, it probably has the most negative connotation today. Each term has slightly different implications, but they all relate to one thing: how we respond to the emotions and situations of others.

Responding to other peoples’ situations and feelings presents a fundamental problem: how do we genuinely know another person, their perspective, and what they are thinking and feeling? A blunt answer to this question is that we don’t, and we never can–we only know what we think, feel, and our own perspective.

But this answer isn’t particularly satisfying or helpful–as a matter of fact, it can be paralyzing if you push it to its logical extreme. If you only know what you experience, then how do you know that anything outside of your own experiences is real? This resembles the question: “If a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” I’m not fond of this philosophical view, because it seems to imply that you need to be present to observe something for it to exist (if you’re interested in this question, though, I encourage you to look up “solipsism”–but for your own sake, don’t get me started on that word’s etymology).

Perhaps we cannot ever truly know what another person is feeling or their perspective. This presents a fundamental limitation of empathy. However, empathy allows us to approximate the feelings of others to an extent–maybe not what someone is feeling, but what their feeling might be like. And sometimes, that approximation can be affect us deeply.

One of the criticisms I’ve heard against empathy is that it allows us to feel another person’s negative emotions, as well as their positive ones. Those negative emotions can cause us distress, to the point where it inhibits our ability to take care of ourselves. Instead, some argue, we should focus on practicing compassion after using empathy–expressing genuine care for someone and the wish that they get better after we try to understand their pain–to protect ourselves from being weighed down by it.

While I firmly value self-care, especially when being present with another person and their suffering, I do have one question: doesn’t that strategy miss the point of what compassion’s literal meaning is? Can you truly call it “suffering with” someone if you only try to understand their pain, then shield yourself from it by showing them concern or wishing them well? You may argue that I’m being too narrow in my definition of compassion, but that’s precisely my point–it’s only one definition of compassion, out of many possible ones. Which brings us back to the issue of disambiguating what empathy, compassion, pity, and sympathy mean.

Another view of compassion, which I align with more, is that compassion involves taking on some of what a person is experiencing, sitting with its weight and processing it for a while to understand it, then putting it down so that you can genuinely care for that person–and yourself. You may take criticism with this definition as well, and I welcome it. But this definition also does not solve the problem of disambiguating these four terms. Perhaps I cannot resolve this ambiguity, but I can offer my perspective and listen to yours and others’ to better appreciate it.

I’ve neglected pity and sympathy, so now I’ll turn to those. These two seem to have a more negative connotation associated with them–a recognition of someone else’s suffering, with a “but” attached to the end of it. For pity, this could be expressed as “I see your suffering, but I could have handled the situation differently,” or “I see your suffering, but I’m in a better place and can’t help you.” There’s a noticeable edge of condescension to this. Sympathy, on the other hand, could be expressed as, “I’m sorry you went through this, but at least you’re okay now.” or “I’m sorry that this happened, but at least this aspect of your life is going well.” There’s an attempt at softening that can come with sympathy, but often that softening of suffering can come off as an insincere attempt to help. But then again, suppose you actually aren’t able to help someone, or you genuinely don’t know how to respond to a person’s suffering. These responses, although they may not be helpful to the other person, may help you get through a difficult situation because in some ways, they are more detached ways of relating to another person.

I bring up these points because these terms are incredibly ambiguous, and whether they are good or bad depends on whom you are trying to help when interacting with another person and attempting to understand their emotions, pleasant or aversive. Humans are incredibly social creatures, and intentions, as well as emotions like pain or behavior like yawning, may pass between or through us without us even being aware of it. I don’t expect any of us (myself included) to get it right every time we interact with someone. But I will leave you with two questions, which I hope you will pause and consider. When you are trying to relate to someone’s perspective or feelings, whom are you trying to understand? And when you are trying to relate to someone’s suffering, whom are you trying to help?

This I Know for Sure.

On Monday, February 27th, 2017 my life changed. I had a missed call after leaving our weekly intern meeting that I’ll never forget. I walked up the stairs of Marsh with my close friend Denise and told her “I’m about to find out about the scholarship” and she said good luck and we went our separate ways. I called the number and it rang a few times and then Professor Brown answered. I was nervous. She asked if I was sitting down and I said no. She said I should because I would be the only Buck Scholarship recipient this year. I was completely speechless. I stood on Marsh plaza and all I could do was crouch down and listen to her speak. Tears ran down my cheek and the conversation ended and she said “Congratulations, call me if you need anything.”

I walked around Marsh plaza and tried to regain my composure. I went into the entrance to the BU School of Theology and called my brother. The tears wouldn’t stop flowing. I called my parents and then my sisters and then my grandparents and my girlfriend and then I went back into Marsh. I kneeled at the alter and wept for what felt like eternity. I had envisioned this moment since March of 2015.

I had just received one my last and most coveted acceptance letters, I was accepted to Boston University. I was pumped. I was undecided, but God had guided me into twelve outstanding colleges. My GPA in high school was decent not good. I prided myself on my extracurriculars. My SAT scores were below the BU average and many of the other schools I was accepted to by 300-500 points. My essays were probably by the best thing I submitted. I chose BU because I wanted to be challenged. I passed over schools that gave me significantly more scholarship money and chose the school that gave me zero dollars in aid my first year of college. I don’t come from a family of money. Somehow my parents never let me see struggle, but we were far away from wealthy and I refused to put the burden of paying for college on my parents. I picked the school that would require me to take out a student loan larger than any other school would. It was the biggest risk I had taken in my young life, but I hoped that if I worked hard enough it would pay off.

Monday night it finally did. Monday night, God reassured me of why I chose BU. Monday night I realized it wasn’t about me at all. I was nominated for the Buck Scholarship by my teacher in core, Professor Hamill in early October. I don’t even love core, most days I don’t like it. She asked for my resume with no context and I trusted her and a month later I was told to prepare an application for a scholarship that would cover all my BU expenses. I worked hard on my application over winter break and interviewed with three professors at the start of the school year. My GPA is good not great, I struggled my first semester here. Once again, I’ve relied heavily on my extracurriculars. After my three interviews it was in God’s hands. I waited for a month for a response and finally I was told I would be the only nomination for the Buck Scholarship this school year and that my finances at BU are taken care of.  What Professor Brown didn’t know is how long I’ve waited to hear that. How unsure I’ve been lately about BU and if the financial risk I took to come here was worth it. I kneeled at the alter at Marsh Chapel and cried because as much work as I put in, God did this for me, just like he got me into BU. I honestly, should not be a Boston University student, let alone a full tuition scholarship recipient. But God pushed me to BU. He pushed to stick it out in the core curriculum and placed individuals in my life like Professor Hamill who see more in me than I do in myself.

I knelt on that alter and congratulated God on his achievement. Every action he made was so beautiful. I don’t write this blog to give brag nor boast. This is about my best friend. He’s never left me, not once. He’s been with me the entire time. I remember thinking somehow I’ll get a big scholarship and these student loans won’t be a thing. I told my Dad just you wait I’m gonna get a full ride somehow. I wasn’t a trustee scholar, I received more aid my sophomore year, but nothing that would make a difference. A year ago I didn’t know what the Buck Scholarship was, there’s little information about it. This whole post is a thank you to my guy upstairs that sees something in me that I never have. You’ve done it again. Trust God fully, he works miracles. He’s the smartest person I know. This is my testimony, a reason to celebrate. God is always good, he’s always been real, this I know for sure.

Cyclical Anxieties and Trust

The only thing I have perfect access to is my own mind, and what I know about the world is based on my own perceived experiences. While I love talking about how we gain knowledge, and I often think about what real things are – which, in my opinion, is anything we can be wrong about – I have recently been pressed about another consequence of the fact that an individual has a limited perspective and a limited access to reality: anxiety.

I am well aware that anxiety problems run in my family. I come from a family of over thinkers, and I exhibit the behaviors of a well-known anxiety problem: OCD. Technically speaking, the label is a little bit messier, as OCD is not technically OCD unless it inhibits an individual’s ability to function properly in life. We all have pet peeves.

But, in the past, I have had to go to a psychologist – and while I was totally a completely functioning individual as a young boy, I am sure the fact that I found myself washing my hands every 3-5 minutes because they felt dirty, and my hands would crack in the winter, and I would silently pray away intrusive thoughts over and over again in class as a high school student, and just pretend to be really tired, or I would force the volume on the TV to be a number that ended in 4, because other numbers made me uncomfortable, or a bug bit my arm and I totally was going to die so I just needed to ask my parents over and over again if this was it for me and I needed to alleviate the anxious tension among other things somehow – my behaviors totally did not mess with my quality of life in any way.

But, hey, I was never accurately diagnosed with anything, so if I am correct – and people who are more educated on the topics than I am, correct me if I am wrong – I technically do not have OCD.

Analyzing my brain biologically, and assuming I really do have OCD, one would find that a specific mechanism in my brain does not properly deploy. This part of my brain is responsible for telling me that a pressing matter causing me stress is no longer pressing and I no longer need to be in a stressed state even if the stressor is gone. I might consciously conclude the stressor is no longer there – I mean, I just saw myself wash my hands and they are likely very clean – but it does not matter: I am still going to feel anxious and I need to clean my hands.

Now I am past hands, thank God. I am also past volumes, and numbers, and fear of illnesses (well, for the most part – but maybe that’s just being careful about one’s health, right?), but I find myself still anxious about other sporadic parts of my life: myself and other people.

What are other peoples’ intentions? What are my own intentions? How can I trust that I have not hurt others, and how can I trust that other people genuinely want me in their lives? All throughout my life, I have observed, and been the victim of, people who live dishonestly towards others, and would turn on friends almost randomly, which I could not accurately understand. I still do not understand. I do not know if it is naivety, or innocence, but I cannot understand how someone could just so very quickly cause such a negative impact to people around them and feel no remorse. I mean, you are hurting another person with thoughts, feelings, insecurities and desires. How would you feel in their shoes?

And what keeps others from spontaneously just, well, leaving me then? And if I have ever wronged or hurt someone, how do I truly know that they forgive me and that they are okay? I can, and have, asked a friend “You’ll stay my friend right?” or “I am okay, right?” and I have gotten a variety of responses, responses that have ranged from an annoyed “Yes, Nick” to a comforting “You’re okay” to, from a very self-aware friend who is also well-versed in the facets of neuroscience and psychology, a declarative “I am not going to answer that, Nick” – the last response forcing me to live in the anxiety, which is exactly what cognitive forms of therapy to OCD force patients to do. Looking for affirmation only provides temporary comfort, but my brain cannot effectively turn off the anxious loop, and so the affirmation will only reinforce the anxious feedback loop and instill ritualistic behavior.

‘Will my friend stop being my friend? Let me ask. Okay, they said they will stay my friend. Okay. It’s okay. But how can I be sure? I should totally ask. Same response. Okay. But are they sure? I should probably ask…’

I don’t often exhibit the above behavior anymore. I mean, no, I totally do, just perhaps in different ways, but I am well aware this anxiety will likely be something I will have to live with for the rest of my life. My family over thinks everything – and hey, maybe that is a somewhat good thing sometimes; I have been told that I am a somewhat self-aware individual.

And, I mean, I do not wash my hands obsessively anymore, and the fact that I can change my computer’s volume to a random number like 29 and that is totally okay, shows that I have gotten better in many regards. And, last summer, when a very bad anxious feedback loop hit me in the middle of an Orientation session – and thanks to a wonderful friend who convinced me that, while I was breathing heavily and pacing on the verge of fainting, I probably was not in a good place to run a Common Ground trip – I was able to take a step back from everything and deal with the loop, and break out of it.

And I know I have problems, is that not the first step in the process of fixing problems? Awareness?

As I talked about this with one of my mentors, Bobby from Sojourn, our conversations led me to a few ideas that I definitely have to reflect on. Besides the fact that he suggested it may do me good to seek professional help again – which may not help me anymore than allow me to obtain a more accurate diagnosis about my internal psychology and perhaps more methods in which I can better cope with and understand the underlying causes of my behaviors – he did suggest a few other ideas that I guess will marinate in my head and pop up at random moments in my thoughts and in the music I listen to and in conversations for the next while.

Do I value myself? Do I think that my friends and the people close to me could leave me easily because I do not see myself as a valuable human being? Even further, is there even such thing as a human being without value? I would say no to the latter question, people matter. There’s an inconsistency in my thinking there, and my doubts towards my own self-worth is most certainly not, as many theologians and writers have pointed out, humbleness. In fact, that might be connected to a form of arrogance. Is that where the problems in me lie?

Do I struggle with trusting? I try very hard to be a reliable support and security to my friends and family. I genuinely care about those around me, and I genuinely do not wish these anxieties on anyone. And I think I am an optimist. I do genuinely think people are great. But, do I live that way? Do I really think that then? If there is an inherent problem in me with trust, is it solely a biological problem that I may need to cope with, or are there underlying problems in my psyche that I have to consider?

Honestly, I do not have answers to these questions, but I am sure I will continue to ponder these ideas in my conversations with friends and mentors for the next many days to come.

Sunshine and Sentimentality

This past week, as temperatures reached into the 70s, I loved watching how people were drawn outside—stretching hammocks between trees, sprawling on every available patch of grass, tossing a Frisbee with friends between classes, and coming up with any possible excuse to go for a walk. After weeks of solitary morning runs where I could go for miles and only encounter a few other souls crazy enough to run in a snow storm, I was suddenly surrounded by runners, walkers, bikers, and people with their pets enjoying the unexpected preview of spring. I could feel my lungs expanding and my shoulders relaxing every time I stepped outside, relishing the feel of sunshine on my bare arms, tilting my face up to the sky to capture as much vitamin D as possible. Because I spent last semester in Ecuador, it’s been a while since I experienced this transition—of snow and ice turning to sunshine and welcome breezes. I had forgotten how much the warmer weather jars me out of my routine, reminding me to take in my surroundings, to relish the moment, and to look up.

Due to its association with the end of a school year, spring weather like this always sets off some sentimentality on my part and right now, since this is my senior year, it’s hitting a little harder than normal. So indulge me for a minute as I share a little sentimentality about my time at Marsh. Due to the national holiday on Monday, we did not have our normal community dinner followed by our staff meeting. So this morning, when all seven of us interns were at Marsh for Sunday service, it felt like it had been so long since we had seen each other. And in my energetic sun-fueled, overly sentimental state, I felt so at home in their company. We are a crazy, eclectic bunch—Nick quotes theologians and rappers in the same breath, sprinkling metaphors involving math or science into deep, rambling philosophical thoughts. He’s always flying from one thing to another and yet has the time to write 1500 word blog posts. Matt baffles us all with his love of finance and he brings a quiet, indomitable energy to his work, refusing to let anyone take the air out of his sails. Devin speaks poetically from the heart in his blog posts and has fearlessly taken on the task of teaching Marsh Chapel’s gaggle of children everything they need to know about the bible. Tom only joined our ranks this semester and has already found his place among us, bringing a reflective presence and friendly confidence to our little band of Marshians. Denise and I have become great at exchanging sideways glances when the others are getting a little out of hand and her blog posts are beautiful expressions of her exploration of faith and the world, grounded in a strong United Methodist identity. My fellow senior and three-year veteran of the internship program, Ian is our glue, providing a listening ear and quiet wisdom that emerges both in his careful pauses and thoughtful words. He is a walking encyclopedia—able to reference Greek and Roman mythology, explain concepts from biology, neuroscience, linguistics, and philosophy, and analyze Latin etymology of words without breaking a sweat. And then there’s me—I am enthusiastically Lutheran and in my confirmation class growing up I was the know-it-all who made a game of seeing how fast I could find scripture passages in my bible. My major contribution to our cohort is probably sarcasm and raised eyebrows but I do my best to balance it out with a serious and thoughtful presence when I can.

We all bring something valuable to the table, shaped by our own passions and faith backgrounds, each of us trying to figure out where God is calling us to go and what God is calling us to do. There is a lot of laughter and love here and an overabundance of puns and fire emojis. But there is also a willingness to be vulnerable, the freedom to ask questions and learn from each other, and the ability to engage in discussions about God and faith without worrying about judgment or rejection. No matter what else is going on in our lives, we know we have each other’s backs and that energizes my soul more than even the sunniest spring day after a long winter.

To Err and to Forgive

I’ve known for a long time that the weather in New England can be unpredictable. At times tempestuous, at times calm, but always changing. Given the tumultuous past few weeks in my own life, my reflection for this week might reflect today’s weather–unexpected, and at times a little chaotic. I ask you to bear with me as I try to organize my thoughts and feelings on the page.

To be honest, I didn’t have clear idea of what I wanted to write about this week. I had just finished two midterms for my phonetics class, and I was sitting down to another quiet evening at the office. I had uploaded the sermon from this past Sunday, in which Dean Hill meditated on Matthew 5:39 and the meaning of resistance. But when I opened up the blog to read my fellow Marsh Associates’ reflections from this past week, the title of Denise’s reflection caught my attention: “Sunflower”

When I was in high school, my sophomore year history teacher introduced us to a book by Simon Wiesenthal, called The Sunflower. The book talked about Wiesenthal’s experiences in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, and the outlook of those in the camp with him. The core of the book, though, lies in an ethical dilemma. While in the camp, Wiesenthal is taken to the bed of a dying SS officer, who asks if Wiesenthal can forgive him for killing several hundred Jewish people a year prior. The officer was holding a sunflower in his hand, a flower that was planted in the graves of SS officers who had died.

In the end, Wiesenthal says nothing and leaves. He then presents an ethical dilemma by asking a single, haunting question: Should he have forgiven the soldier, or not? The second half of the book contains the answers and reflections of several dozen individuals on this question–scholars, theologians, professors, and many others. There’s too much in their answers for me to address here (and it has been a long time since I last read them), so I will focus instead on the question Simon Wiesenthal asks; namely, the question of forgiveness.

There is a saying that “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The English saying has been attributed to Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism.” Part of this phrase, though, has even older origins, in a Latin phrase that is sometimes attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca. One of the formulations of this phrase is as follows: “Errare humanum est, perseverare autem diabolicum.” This translates to, “To err is human, but to persist (in error) is diabolical.” These two phrases, when paired side by side, have very different meanings and implications, which seem rather self-explanatory at first glance. But when they are paired together, they capture a lot of the tension and conflict that come up (at least for me) regarding the question of forgiveness.

The Latin word “ignosco” can be translated into “to forgive.” This is interesting etymologically, because it contains the roots for the words “to ignore” and “to know.” Thus, the word “to forgive” in Latin could be broken into the literal phrase, “to not know,” or “to ignore knowing.” This presents a challenge when I think about what it means to forgive someone. Can you genuinely forgive someone by overlooking what they’ve done, especially if it has harmed you or people close to you? When I think about the situation that Wiesenthal was in with the SS officer, I am inclined to say no. This attitude strikes me more as complacency than as genuine forgiveness.

What about other takes on forgiveness, though? Matthew 5: 38-48 offers a different perspective:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

If someone were to ask me which part of the Bible I struggle with the most, this is one of the passages I would likely first point to. I’ve heard interpretations before that note there is a lot of historical context surrounding this passage that is missing from the text. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough of that context to adequately comment on these interpretations.

I have trouble with this passage for the same reason that I have mixed feelings about the Latin word “ignosco.” Namely, I disagree with an interpretation that one could draw from both of these views: that forgiveness is something that is given blindly.

If forgiveness can be understood as an internal state or feeling (whether it’s human or divine is debatable), then I would guess that it tends not to be the first thing people feel in response to a wrong done against them. In general, forgiveness takes time and processing to emerge, and it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect someone to feel immediately forgiving toward anyone who has done harm, especially if they are considered an enemy. Perhaps if they are ready to forgive, then that internal state may help them heal and move on. But I don’t think feeling forgiveness is necessarily the right way or the only way to heal.

But this doesn’t get at Wiesenthal’s question, which was should he have done something to forgive the officer, not if he should have felt something. Should you forgive someone for the harm they have committed against you, against another, or against an entity? My answer, as unhelpful as it might be, comes in the form of another question: Why are you offering forgiveness? Are you giving it for the person who would receive it like the officer, so that they might have some peace of mind? Are you giving it for yourself, so that you may find healing? Are you giving it because that’s what you were taught to do? Or are you giving it because you believe that is the right thing to do?

I can’t say whether the answer to any of these questions is right or not. That, after all, is the beauty and the difficulty of ethical dilemmas. But the next time you are in a situation where you must choose to forgive or not, whatever your decision, I encourage you to reflect on why you make your choice. What motivates you to forgive, or not to forgive? There, at least, you may find some answers.

Sunflower

I love the spring. I love the melting snow, walking without a jacket, seeing green, but above all the sun. One of my friends jokingly called me a “sunflower” last year and it is one of the best descriptions of my personality that I have heard. The appearance of nice weather and sunshine is rejuvenating. Days feel much shorter and more pleasant when I am not bundling up for the cold. Needless to say, I have enjoyed the last couple days.

Even if cold weather returns, it has been a reminder that as Emily Dickens wrote “we’re closer to spring than we were in September”. The signs of life among us are rejuvenating. I am able to enjoy my walks to classes much more now. They are no longer a race from one warm space to another, I can are casual strolls. I am comfortable enough to listen and breather and reflect as I move. That makes my whole day better. That is why I am a sunflower.

A Proud Roommate

This week I had a road block: I did not really know what to write about. I usually do not about specific people; however, this blogpost I must mention my roommate. A week ago today we were sitting in the top lounge in 575 Commonwealth Ave doing homework. I won’t say the specific time that we were working; but, let’s just say it was pretty late at night. My roommate was hungry so he decided to go to 7Eleven across the street and get some food.

After a half hour I look out the window and see a group of police cars in Kenmore Square. I called my roommate to see what was going on and he did not pick up. About 15 minutes later my roommate came back upstairs.

He told me that he had found a young woman who was visibly distraught and screaming for help. She had been raped and robbed. My roommate was the only person who stopped to help her. He had stayed with her the whole time until the police came and even stayed to help while they were they were asking questions.

My roommate did not want to take much credit; but, I feel like I must post something to thank him for what he did. Not many people would have been able to handle the situation like he had. In fact, many people just walked by her. I am very proud of him for what he did. Thankfully, he was able to get the young woman the help she needed.

We do not know if they ever found the man who defiled her. However, what my roommate did is still commendable. He came to the woman in her time of need and did everything in his power to make sure that she was okay. I’m proud of you and proud to call you my friend.