Thursday, August 31, 2017

Motes and beams

About this time two years ago, I wrote a little something about talents and mites. This morning, the idea popped into my head that I ought to write something about motes and beams. My immediate response was, "Nah, I got a pounding headache. I can't think right with a headache." But the idea waited patiently while I took some ibuprofen, and when the pounding died away to manageable background levels, I could hear it teasing at me like Roxy-cat wanting to play: "Now? NOW? Hey, hey, now? Now? How 'bout NOW?!"

OK, fine. Now. jeez.

If you read any of the first four books of the New Testament, you will notice that Jesus frequently uses a word to refer to people whose internal thoughts and external actions are out of sync. He calls them "hypocrites." In the original New Testament Greek, the word "hypokrites" means an actor -- that is, someone who interprets or dramatizes a role -- but the flavor Jesus lends to this word makes it clear he means it as an epithet, as someone who works to present himself externally as something he is not just to gain praise and approval from other people. Modern synonyms for "hypocrite" include "phony" and "faker." Most people don't mind being called actors, but virtually no one wants to be called a hypocrite.

The Sermon on the Mount. Not an actual photo. :)
A prime example of the use of this word comes from a talk Jesus gave, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. Here's how Matthew recorded it in the King James Version of the Bible:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, "Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye;" and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)

As a kid, I didn't understand this parable because I didn't know what Jesus meant by "mote" or "beam." It came into greater focus in Sunday School, when our teacher explained that a "mote" was a tiny speck, the smallest visible splinter of wood, while a "beam" was a huge cut of wood like a railroad tie (I grew up in the '70s, when it seemed like all of Northern California was using discarded railroad ties in garden plots, so this explanation was super effective). "Can you imagine trying to pull a tiny speck out of someone else's eye when you have a huge railroad tie in your own eye?" she asked. "Jesus is saying that sometimes we want to help people who have little flaws, but we should first work on our own flaws, which may be much bigger."

A few years ago I read a book with the wry title Thank You For Being Such A Pain, by Mark Rosen. The central conceit of the book is that difficult people -- the ones who worry and annoy us the most -- come into our lives for a reason. The flaws we find most irritating in them are like mirrors into our souls; if we view them rightly, we should see that they reflect similar flaws in our own personalities, and take action to correct those flaws in ourselves. Although Dr. Rosen is Jewish, his list of actions draws from multiple ideologies, religious and secular, on how to handle difficult people. (He wisely points out that a difficult person is very different from an abusive person; that we should not suffer abuse in our lives, whether physical, sexual or emotional; and he makes suggestions about how to get out of an abusive situation.) His discussion about how the flaws in other people mirror the flaws in our own souls hit home with me. Yes, because I still have a long way to go, I sometimes vent about the abrasive things other people do -- but afterward I start reflecting on the things I do that other people might find abrasive, and how I should address those flaws.

Jesus is not saying, as people sometimes suggest, that we cannot or should not help others. He is saying we should first address our own faults, and there's a practical reason for that. In the parable, it is literally impossible to see clearly how to remove a tiny speck from someone else's eye when one's own vision is blocked with a gigantic version of the same problem. In real life, the process of getting rid of a personal flaw lets us see how to help others with that flaw because in doing so, we have gained empathy -- the deep understanding of how hard it is to go through this process, and the sensation of freedom that comes from putting it behind us. This is why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are composed of people who have struggled to maintain their sobriety. People who have never had a drink in their lives cannot understand how hard it is to control a thirst for alcohol -- but other alcoholics can, and they are most likely to be able to offer empathetic, useful advice because they have personal experience of what works.

Jesus' advice runs counter to much of the world's advice, which seems focused on pointing out other people's flaws. We want to think of ourselves as basically good and not in need of serious change, so self-examination and self-improvement are difficult. It's so much easier to tell other people what to do. For example, if I were to tell some guy on the corner that he smells bad and needs to take a bath, it wouldn't hurt me at all. It might not even cross my mind that he's smelly because he's homeless and it's difficult for him to find a safe place to bathe on the regular -- hey, not my problem. Fielding criticism from other people, on the other hand, is potentially painful. I don't like being confronted with the idea that others don't see me as a pure paragon of beauty and virtue (heh), and I may shrug off their pointed judgments -- even if they're accurate -- just so I can keep feeling good about myself. So this idea about keeping critical thoughts about others to oneself, about performing regular spiritual self-maintenance first, is almost revolutionary. And just like the other principles Jesus taught, when it's tried, it works.

I am a hypocrite. In all probability, so are you. Hypocrisy is a very human trait, and Jesus knew it. The purpose of this parable is to gently make each of us aware of our own hypocrisy, to advise us to place self-examination over external criticism, and to help each of us become a better and more honest person. It takes work. But then, you've probably already noticed that few worthwhile things in life are achieved effortlessly.

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