THE JOY OF KNOWING MY PROPER PLACE
By Fr. Robert Spitzer
The fifty-day Easter season reminds us of the hope and joy that comes from knowing our proper place in the grand scheme of life. Knowing my proper place entails replacing myself as the center of my interior universe with God who properly belongs there, and then finding a coequal place around the center with my neighbors (who are the image of God). I am but one coequal member of that invaluably dignified community. My purpose in life is to enhance and be co-responsible for whatever part of the community that God might want me to help.
We can best love our neighbor (i.e., see the dignity of our neighbor, appreciate and help our neighbor, and be the most effective disciples of Christ) when we are free from having to be the center of our and other people’s universes. Being God for ourselves and others is a most difficult task. It requires enormous amounts of psychic energy to construct elaborate facades, to stake out territories which are not properly our own, and to fulfill our and others’ desires for ultimate and unconditional Truth, Love, Goodness, Beauty, and Being.
It seems like there is virtually no time to attend to the concerns of neighbor, community, and culture when one is preoccupied with being the best human on the block. If one wants subservient respect from others (rather than loving respect), one will have little time to build up the common good and the kingdom of God, because one will have to spend the bulk of one’s time cultivating the tools and attitudes of domination. True freedom, having the time and energy to do what really matters, can be actualized through simply knowing who one is and “is meant to be.”
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Every time I discover a new talent, or master a new academic area, accomplish something new, or attain to a higher status, I seem to go through the same old cycle of troubles. First, I try to define my life in terms of the particular success. This imparts not only a feeling of accomplishment, but also a feeling of comparative advantage (superiority) and even a sense of world-changing, quasi-messianic dignity.
I move from “the world being better off for my having lived,” to “I am an indispensable and central part of my and others’ universes.” When people respect me for my accomplishments, I begin to think, “I’m a little bit better than other people. They ought to be a little bit more subservient or beholden to me for me being in their presence.”
This leads to a second part of the cycle, namely, erratic emotions arising out of jealousy, fear of failure, suspicion, inferiority, superiority, self-pity, blaming others for things that go wrong, exaggerating my strengths, dissatisfaction with my progress in life, ego-sensitivity, inability to fail or be wrong, and resentment for insignificant mistakes and oversights. My easily perceptible egoism and my erratic emotions cause people to avoid me and even disrespect me. Since I desire their respect more than anything, my life suffers reversals.
This leads to a third phase, namely, choice. I can either try to move into higher gear to obtain the respect lost in the previous phase, or I can decide to be humble as Christ was humble. If I take the first route, I perpetuate the cycle once again, exhaust myself even more, find myself still more disappointed with life and closer to the edge of even more hyperactivity.
But there is a way out. For me, it begins with prayer. Prayer, by its very nature, has a way of reestablishing my proper place. I have frequently had the experience after a bout of real arrogance of opening my breviary and finding myself sliding back toward my proper place as God slides into His central place.
I can always tell when God is moving toward the center of the universe again because I enjoy – simply enjoy – praising Him. In a way, starting the prayer lets God slide into the center, and as He slides into the center, I delight in praising Him more, and in that delight, the calm of humble-heartedness begins. This moment in prayer, this reason for the contemplative life, this nexus of contemplation and action frees me to be a neighbor among many other neighbors, and allows me to be unconditionally loved by God, and to be content with imitating Him in that love. Through prayer, I am free.