Monday, December 16, 2019

Living the spiritual life in a defensive way.

In 1964, Chris Imhoff of the US National Safety Council developed and introduced a course on driving focusing on driver safety. It was called the Defensive Driving Course.  Its syllabus went beyond the basic driving course that was mandatory for all drivers learning to drive.  It went beyond the mastery of the basic rules of the road, and its aim was to help drivers to anticipate dangerous situations and the mistakes of others.  Defensive driving was often referred to driving as if everyone else on the road were drunk.  I have of late begun to incorporate this mind and give my counselees and spiritual directees a similar way of living their spiritual lives, with the hope that they will be able to prevent the very common sins of anger, rage and acrimony towards others in life.

As a spiritual director to the people who come to me for help in living their spiritual lives with more effort and better outcomes, I have been trying to see a pattern in the way that many, if not most, people live their spiritual lives.  Of course each person is a unique individual that is a composite of one’s past history, one’s family background, one’s encounters with people, one’s social surroundings and one’s God experiences, and no two persons in the world are perfectly identical in this regard.  But there are certain patterns that are rather similar, especially in the areas of dealing with people who are a challenge to love.  These people can be the people they are married to, their children, their parents, their neighbours and those whom they work with.  

Oftentimes, our relationship with these people in our lives can be the cause of their sins of rage, anger and resentment. Generally, we may have great difficultly in handling the quirks, idiosyncrasies and behavioral patterns that these people adopt in life.  It could be things as seemingly harmless as the habit of their shaking of their legs when seated, to wanting to be control freaks in the relationship, or to being hardly expressive of gratitude for love shown.  When that happens, the material we bring up in confessions are often repeated sins of anger and resentment toward these people in their lives for such things.  One would think that after years of being spouses to each other, or growing up as children of our parents, that these personal quirks and idiosyncrasies would be accepted as part and parcel of their personality.  But it is often the very same issues that crop up that ignites the bed of anger in the heart, and leads it to become a veritable inferno, where the anger becomes an uncontrollable rage that causes harm to other relationships around us.  

I always tell my counselees that they cannot change the people around them very much, but they can and should change the way that they deal with them.  I remember once hearing a very humorous statement made, giving advice to women entering into marriage – that the only time that anyone can successfully change a man is when he is in diapers.  There may be some truth in this.

What’s all this got to do with defensive driving? Bear with me.  Remember - the essence of defensive driving is to drive with the expectation that every driver on the road is drunk, requiring of us to drive with extra care, extra vigilance and caution, and having this attitude results in safer driving conditions on the road (at least on our part).  Perhaps we can learn from this and apply the very same principle in our relationships with people.

We need to be very keenly aware that sin and its bedfellows like selfishness, pride, egocentricity, sloth, envy, lust and just putting the self in the dead centre of the universe is something that plagues every human being.  Just as driving defensively asks that we treat every other driver as a drunk ensues that we drive better, living defensively asks that we see that sin prevails in every person too, and that when these traits of sinfulness show up in life, we will be ready for them, and not let these quirks, habits or irritations cause us to react. This will cause us to live our Christian lives better.   Because we are ready for the negatives in others, we act rather than react. Spiritual defensive living is our readiness for such moments of negative encounter.  

Now I know what you, my reader, may be thinking. It’s not that I am asking you to label every other person in life as a sinner writ large.  This is not what I am suggesting.  I am suggesting that in readying for others in our lives to not live up to their heavenly best form, we are prepared to give them our heavenly best in ourselves NO MATTER WHAT their response is going to be.  If it is their kindest, most patient, most generous and most loving response, count it as a bonus and give God thanks for it.  If it is their worst, when their response hurts, betrays us or gives us pain in whatever form, we are prepared because we are not blindsided.  

Of course, living this way requires very much that we are in a state of grace, because it requires of us to give others grace when they need it most.  The more we are in a state of holiness, deeply in touch with God and loving him in others, the more we can offer them our best when they give us their worst.  For the Catholic, the assurance of us being in a state of grace is when we go to Confession.  Only in this state can we do the difficult thing of giving others our best when they give us our worst.  This is what happened on Calvary when the world threw its worst at God and despite this, God still gave us his best in Christ.  

In this way, living holy lives mimics Chris Imhoff’s Defensive Driving Course, but on a far more existential level.

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