Lent is upon us again, and with it, that dreaded perennial period of self-reflection.
Dreaded? Might be a strong word. But looking at our own shortcomings is not only uncomfortable but downright difficult. After all, self-reflection uses the same faulty eyes and brains that got us into trouble. If we weren't smart enough or perceptive enough to stay out of trouble in the first place, why should we be wise enough to diagnose ourselves? It's like a brain surgeon operating on herself, or a dentist drilling out his own cavity. It can be done, after a fashion, but it's darned hard and painful!
We hear it so often that it's clichéd, but we are sinful people. We constantly make mistakes, reacting out of anger, fear, laziness or greed. Every hour, every day, all year, we are less than we can be. By rights--if we got our just desserts--we should be living in a constant state of depression or regret. But, people being what we are, we can't live that way. "Luckily," we have powerful coping mechanisms for dealing with our imperfections. And I don't mean fixing them! "Cognitive dissonance" is the term psychologists use to describe the state of trying to think two contrary things at once -- like a) that we constantly make dreadful mistakes and b) that we are good and holy people. In truth, it's illogical to think that evil, sin-prone "us" can be good at the same time. But to make it through the day, we can't allow ourselves to wallow in our self-pity, however well-deserved. So we hide our mistakes, or forget making them. We foist them off as being youthful indiscretions -- even if we were not particularly youthful when we committed them. We blame them on others -- "If he/she/it hadn't provoked me, then I wouldn't have lashed out!" We discount the pain others claim we caused--"Oh, they always make such a fuss about nothing!" We minimize them -- "Really, I wasn't that mean/petty/cruel!" Worse still, we use God to get us off the hook -- "I'm forgiven!" At the end of the day, we negotiate our faults practically out of existence.
It's this same mind, with its enormous bag of self-serving tricks, that we rely on to self-assess during Lent!
What to do?
Well, short of enduring the public self-criticism sessions that were typical in some communist countries, it might be smart to occasionally meditate on things that people have said of us, even as jokes. A spouse may joke, "Ha ha! There you go again, being your stubborn old self!" But while blowing off some steam, is she trying to make a point in the most loving way she can muster? What if you were to consider whether this lighthearted reaction might be worth taking to heart? Or consider a friend who humorously responds "Zing!" to a particular sharp remark of yours. Is this casual repartée? What if you considered that your were actually being too prickly or biting?
Lent is a time when we can--once in a while, and in small doses--dare to doff a plate or two of our suit of protective armor -- you know, the one we wear to protect our hearts and egos from the slings and arrows of everyday life. Without our armor, the snarky response from a spouse, the road-ragey horn blast of a motorist, or the pain of thinking you're being ignored by a friend might be too much to bear. But remember that others wear armor, too! Lent can be a time when we open our visors just a crack to check for me-shaped dents on the armor of those around us, especially those we care about. Do we use mock-aggression, sarcasm or pointed humor to keep others on the hook for their failings? When asked a seemingly-silly question about a person's whereabouts, do we humbly answer, "Sorry, I don't know"? Or do we prefer the less charitable, "Well, where do you think he is?" or "It's not my day to watch him! "
This Lent, let's think about the way we react to others--whether our responses are wholly kind, or conceal a barb.
Bob Denver's song "I'm Sorry" can seem irritatingly sappy and self-flagellating. The fact that its naked sentimentality can seem so cloying to modern ears says a lot about how uncomfortable we are with raw, pulsing vulnerability. But once in awhile (and Lent seems as good a time as any) let's give up on "making a point," "sending a message," putting them in their place" and "giving as good as we get." Could it be that sometimes, the wounds for which we need armor are retaliation for the very wounds we ourselves inflict?