"The immediate needs of those around me are to be known and loved… to be noticed and appreciated."
Here’s what. Objective #2 of the Mission of Saint Thorlak will not always translate into outward action. It would be very difficult to imagine approaching someone with an outstretched hand, saying to them, “Hello! I notice you, and I love you!”
(Please… do not do this.)
What, then? This: The Mission of Saint Thorlak is a contemplative approach to ordinary life. This means, the majority of our Mission work is accomplished within each of us before we ever set foot outside our doors. This is purposeful for several reasons simultaneously:
The first four objectives all begin with the same purpose: To make people aware. Awareness is a personal, individual experience, synonymous with concepts such as recognition, interest, realization and perception. It is at the core of mindfulness, with which many of us are already familiar as a practice that increases focus, decreases anxiety and gives us a greater sense of being present in the moment. Those of us who pray experience awareness at different levels of participation in prayer. Reciting memorized prayers can be mindful or mindless, depending on how much attention we give the words and allow our interior sight to gaze upon what they mean. Likewise, conversation – either with someone else or in prayer with God – can be a mindless wandering into our own thoughts or can be a dynamic experience of engaging with the thoughts of the other.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak must begin with awareness, or else what we do moving forward is meaningless. It is the difference between social skills classes completed for a row of gold stars or a doorway to true connection when we encounter others.
Awareness that the person in front of us has the same need we do (that is, to be known for who we are and loved because of it) changes everything. This is a step above mindfulness. This is missionary awareness: being aware for the purpose of changing life for the better.
Imagine being told that someone today will hand us a large sum of money, but we can’t know who it will be. Think of how different everyone will look to us. Think of how carefully we will attempt eye contact, and proximity, and our most pleasant demeanor. We act much differently than the way we behaved yesterday, even with many of the same people. That is a function of awareness. We are showing greater awareness and attempting to increase our awareness that much more.
Imagine someone in our life who irritates us for one reason or another. The prevailing social climate encourages us to dismiss people who are aggravating, or worse, to call them a derogatory label. This, no matter how mild or meaningless it seems at the time, is dehumanization. “My brother is a pest” and “You voters are morons” are equally dehumanizing statements. All kinds of those words end up in our daily vocabulary, even the ones we think are cute. Even the most passionate community motivators among us may end up using dehumanizing words. Worst of all, many people believe these terms are justified for use based on their victim’s unpopular words or actions.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak asks only for awareness. Be aware. Be aware that each person, the ones we call by their given names and the ones we call by derogatory names alike, have the same needs we do: to be known and loved.
Go as far back as we can in our memories, to our most vulnerable and innocent times. That is when our needs were right on top. We can likely think of occasions when those needs were met, good measure and overflowing… and also when they were violated by someone who was thoughtless, cruel or unaware of what we needed.
That person in front of you has those needs. That person was once that child, too.
That person STILL IS that child, now older. People don’t morph into different people when they reach different ages. Those needs are still the same. We do not reach an age where our humanity ceases.
If we wish to battle disconnection, we need a missionary awareness of how it happens. Thus, our first two objectives:
And… it is need’s knock which opens doors – whether our own, allowing others to know us, or the doors of others, to greet us in kind.
This is a true story.
The scene is an urban hospital, in the surgical family waiting room. There is a cross-section of people anxiously hoping to have a nurse appear, call out the name of their loved one, and give a good report. It is equally likely that someone is waiting while her father electively has cataracts removed as it is that the person next to her is the girlfriend of a twentysomething year old being operated on for a gunshot wound. There are older men, teenagers asleep on knapsacks for pillows, and middle-aged women staring blankly at the news channel on the television overhead.
A very young mother walks up to the reception desk, toddler in tow, and negotiates an issue that can’t be overheard in detail but is obviously causing much aggravation for everyone involved. The toddler, bored and unable to see over the height of the counter, begins to fuss.
The mother interrupts the receptionist to silence her child’s whining. The child begins to cry.
“SHUT UP!!! NOT NOW!!!” The mother has gone past her ability to cope with any more problems. Not understanding this, the child cries harder and says she wants a snack.
“I SAID SHUT UP OR I’M GOING TO SPANK YOU, HARD!!!”
The child reverts back to whining, persistently whimpering between hiccups.
The mother leans down to the child and hisses something in red, hot anger.
The people in the waiting room begin to look back and forth to one another, sharing unspoken thoughts of discomfort and uncertainty. Nobody wants to witness this. Nobody wants to make anything worse. And, many do not want the noise. A good number, in fact, wish that both mother and child would remember they are in a hospital setting and please keep their voices down.
The child is quiet for a minute or two, then begins to cry again, loudly.
A woman, sitting alone and reading, puts her book down and slowly walks over to the mother. Everyone in the waiting room is watching, expectantly. Here is a volunteer who is going to speak what is on everyone’s mind and put this mother in her place.
The woman says to the mother, “How old is your daughter?”
The mother, surprised, says, “She’ll be three next month.”
The woman smiles. “I thought so. My own daughter just turned three, and boy, is she a handful. She could outscream your daughter any day. I’m glad I could leave her with my mother, because she would absolutely hate it here.”
The mother, looking exhausted, says, “You want to hold her?”
The woman smiles and picks up the child. “Hi! You’re hungry, huh. Me, too. I wish everything didn’t take so long. But it’s easier for me. I can see everything. You’re stuck looking at everyone’s knees, and that’s no fun. And this is a huge place. I bet you’ve walked a long way and just wish you could take a nap.” The child looks quizzically at the woman, who looks back at the mother and says, “You’ve got a tough job with a strong little girl like this.”
The child reaches for her mother, and the woman hands her over. The child snuggles into her mother’s neck, and the mother gazes at her child thoughtfully.
“Hang in there. It gets easier, especially when everyone is back home.” The woman smiles and sits back down. The receptionist hands the mother something which apparently satisfies the need at hand, and the mother leaves toward the exit with her child nearly asleep in her arms.
Oblivious to the buzz around her, the woman is back to reading. The receptionist calls out: “Ma’am? Ma’am? Excuse me?”
The woman looks up.
“Thank you so much. That was a miracle, what you did there. I was so scared for that little girl.”
Others start chiming in. “Yes, thank you!” ---- “You were so brave, I would have been afraid to approach her like that.” ---- “How did you do that? You’ve got a special touch!”
Everyone present agreed that a miracle had taken place. Hostility and exhaustion do not just melt away. The woman herself thought: yes, there has been a miracle. But not the miracle everyone else claimed.
This woman being hailed for such courage and kindness lives each day as a person with autism. Eye contact makes her heart race. Speech is a chore, and “shy” is the kind way to describe her habit of hiding wherever she goes. She struggles between the wish to be invisible and the longing to be known. Relating is hard work. No matter what she says, she second-guesses her wording, feeling more like she is performing than connecting with others. It is a labor for her to be here, but having a book helps drown out the noise and keep her eyes from having to look toward others. Small talk is torture.
In relating this story, the woman said with astonishment that she never, ever imagined doing what she did. She thought a moment more and added, “There was just something about both of them that said the same thing. The little girl was overwhelmed, like I feel most of the time, and so was her mom. The only difference is, people let little children cry when they can’t handle any more, but adults have to put on a strong show and keep going. Who was there for the mom? Who is there when I am at my lowest, except a bunch of people who look at me like everyone was looking at that mom? I didn’t even have to think about it. This time, it wasn’t a social skill I had been taught and had to practice just right. This was just being human, one struggler talking to another. No rehearsing required.”
The first two objectives of the Mission of Saint Thorlak are:
- To make people aware of our humanity: our human need to be known and loved
- To make people aware that these are also the immediate needs of those around us
The woman with autism in the surgical waiting area accomplished our second objective much more effectively in her observations and actions than any essay we might attempt to post.
Pray: Heavenly Father, give us eyes that see the human needs of those around us.
Contemplate: How would we treat people around us if we prefaced all of our actions by thinking, “These people are showing me, this very moment, their human need to be known and loved”?
Relate: Use that contemplation at least once in action, and see if it changes anything – an action, a reaction, an attitude, an outcome.
Our human need to be known and loved. Last week, we methodically looked at the lexical meaning of each word within this first objective. This week, we look closely at the spiritual meaning.
Humans are distinguished from other creatures by our capability “of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving and entering into communion with other persons” – so says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #357. We find this definition especially well suited to our Mission at hand. For the numerous ways Catholic principles were challenged in St. Thorlak’s day, and all the more in our own time, many find the foundational definitions supporting Catholic teachings surprisingly sound and widely acceptable.
This definition of human hinges on the notion of allowing others into our hearts and minds, and willingly visiting in the hearts and minds of others.
Both elements, our openness to giving and our openness to entering, are radically challenging. Giving others access to our hearts and minds exposes our greatest vulnerability: our very selves. We risk others mocking, dismissing or exploiting that which makes us who we are in our deepest essence. Opening our opinions, ideals, hopes and imaginings to others gambles that they will not feed upon them for their own power or gain over us. Does this seem a bit melodramatic? Think about the secrets you keep tightly guarded about yourself, and ask yourself why. It takes a lot of energy to protect ourselves from exploitation; it must be for very important reasons that we all routinely do just that.
Openness to sharing the intimate thoughts and feelings of others sounds much less threatening, much more easily accomplished – assuming others are open to sharing with us, right? Well, that means that we are open to knowing and considering the passions of the person in front of us, from the baristas to the classmates to the passengers across the aisle to the significant others in our lives. Are we willing? Are we open? Are we interested? How easily do we knock on other people’s doors – particularly those with whom we are not yet very familiar?
This could get complicated quickly. Isn’t it human nature to open ourselves easily among those who share common interests and values, and to show more caution with people whom we know disagree with (or disapprove of) us? Yet this definition of “human”— given to us by an institution more than twenty centuries old and considered unyielding by many – makes no exceptions regarding those whom we are to seek in communion. It says, to be human, we freely seek communion with one another. Period. It makes no allowance for selecting those whom we most resemble or most prefer.
What about obstacles arising from conditions we do not choose? Autism, anxiety, speech and language difficulties make connection difficult, but certainly make us no less human. For that matter, other people’s grudges, prejudices, fears and emotional histories can just as well create barriers for us. We believe the solution is in the desire. No matter how many factors impact our ability to connect right now, our openness means more than our execution.
There are countless reasons why we do not grant access to our most cherished ideas, or why we do not comfortably greet others’ thoughts with the same reverence as our own; yet, until we at least agree to be open to this goal, we hold ourselves to a standard far below what personhood is meant to be. We must counteract excusing behavior as “human nature” when people habitually guard themselves or refuse attempts to understand others’ points of view (even if those viewpoints contain error). Correction: It is AGAINST human nature to resist knowing each other personally and deeply.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak begins by living our human need, right here, where we are. Our entire vocation is striving to allow others into our thoughts and feelings, and to participate in the thoughts and feelings of others. How we choose to do this is up to each individual’s creativity and expression, capabilities and limitations… but we believe it can be done.
Pray: Heavenly Father, show us today how to give others the chance to know us: first, in our own thoughts; then, in our hearts; and finally, if we are able, in our words and actions. If we are not yet able to speak or act, we pray for openness to the way to see this happen.
Contemplate: Communion makes us human. Think about this in everything we do, with everyone we encounter.
How frequently do we check in on ourselves to see how well we are doing at being human?
There are no standard responses. Every person, every situation is different and requires different degrees of prudence. There are as many gentle souls out there as there are predators who exploit our trust, and the wise person seeks out the difference. But our fundamental way of living must start with at least the willingness, the wish, to reach a level of ease enough to allow ourselves the experience of being human.
Mission of Saint Thorlak, Objective #1: To make people aware of their humanity: their human need to be known and loved.
Last week’s thought might be summarized with one word: WORTH. We wondered when it is worth our effort to act with the care, concern and attention that we ordinarily save for the best occasions, the best people. We agreed that fine crystal is worth more than disposable plastic. And we concluded that the worth of what we have, whether plastic or crystal, can be elevated as simply as elevating the care and attention we give it.
This week, we attempt to translate this into our Mission. Arguably, the most unsolvable problem of the human condition is the way we are assigned different levels of importance, both by our own esteem and by the opinion of others. Though we are all born with equal worth, our day to day value varies by each eye of each beholder. Helpful people are of temporarily greater value to us than people who hinder us. Then, too, what we call our own best may not be what the people around us want. The portfolio of our value could rival any stock market report, with ups and downs as dramatic as the judgments we receive from others. Yet, on the most fundamental level, we know this is all an illusion. We know we all have equal worth.
How can anyone make a difference when the day to day economy of relationships makes it nearly impossible to remain objective? If only we could keep situational value separate from inborn worth, philosophically. We need a formula that cuts through complexities and allows for imperfections – dare we say, allows for failure. Otherwise, we may as well hang it up right here. Life does not conform to ideals and maxims no matter how good they sound or how firm our intentions.
Our objectives, therefore, attempt to whittle things down to the common denominator of our humanity. No matter how differently, how well or how poorly we accomplish our daily doings, we can all agree that each person in front of us is human, exactly like we are.
Thus, Objective #1: To make people aware of their humanity: their human need to be known and loved.
Breaking this down, we have:
Humanity: Care and dignity of the person (for a longer discussion, see our thought from March, 2017).
Known: Understood. Recognized. Familiar.
Loved: Cared for. Cherished. Appreciated. Delighted in.
Need: To require because it is essential.
We included that last one to emphasize that being understood, recognized and familiar… being cared for, cherished, appreciated and delighted in… are all things that are required because they are essential – crucial to the very nature of our being human.
Why stop here? Each one of these elements can be examined even more closely.
Being understood: When others perceive the intended meaning of our words and actions
Recognized: Recalled, remembered from before; acknowledged as a valid person
Familiar: Comfortable; belonging there
Cared for: Attended to; interested in; concerned with
Cherished: Protected; valued highly
Appreciated: Recognized by our full worth
Delighted in: Pleased with; enjoyed; considered satisfying
We can all agree that these are the ideal conditions we would wish for each person born into our world, starting with ourselves. But wait: Did we not just say that our Mission will fail if we insist on conforming life to ideals?
Which brings us to a critical point: We do not ask our Missionaries to fix anything.
The working of this Mission depends on needs.
We ask our Missionaries to remember that we all have the same need for our intentions to be recognized… the same need to be supported and accepted where we are… the same need to feel at ease in public… the same need for others to find us interesting, even enjoyable.
Our Mission works because it is a Mission of awareness – starting with our own needs, and then recognizing that we share these needs with everyone else. Anyone, anywhere, can achieve this. Can we fix hearts, minds, attitudes? Probably not. But we can be aware of the needs which unite all of humanity. And we firmly believe that awareness of our common humanity, if properly cultivated, will elevate our sense of worth… and all else will naturally follow.
Objective #1 does not hinge on how well people behave, how kindly they act toward us, or if we agree with what they have to say.
Objective #1 hinges on WORTH. Objective #1 is to remind people that humanity is WORTH more than things that are disposable. Humanity is WORTH time and attention, to understand and appreciate… and we are willing to step up and start now.
It runs the risk of looking differently: Looking at ourselves differently… looking at others differently… and, most especially, looking differently from others. Leading with our most human needs. Are we willing to do this?
For Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, it is all our life’s worth.
Pray: Heavenly Father, show me how to notice… how to see… how to feel… and to embrace my own need to be known and loved. Show me where I act against this need, and show me where I go to fill it. Show me, so that I may be aware. Help me see and understand before I do anything else.
Contemplate: How aware am I of the basic human need to be known and loved? Consider this week’s thought over and over. Are these thoughts familiar, or something new? As fundamental as these concepts are to our lives, we do not often spend time thinking about them specifically.
Relate: This week is all about awareness. When I go about my week, may I be aware of my attitude toward each person I encounter, including my opinion of their worth, and my awareness of their needs.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak