"I really don't have a preference," I said. "Would you like some chocolate, Margie?"
Margie jumped at the chance to trade, and as my (now) fat slice of powdered sugar dusted vanilla cake with a thick layer of creamy pudding started its journey across the table in my direction, it caught Christen's eye. She glanced down at the raspberry cheesecake sitting in front of her.
"Want cake, Christen?" I asked. "I really have no preference."
"Oh. . .do you mind?" she asked, as she slid the cheesecake toward me.
Maybe it's because I was full already, and knew I wouldn't eat much dessert. Maybe it's because each of the desserts looked equally scrumptious. But it was slightly unusual truly to not have a preference. I notice that it freed me to defer to the wishes of others.
In The Way to Love: The Last Meditations of Anthony de Mello, de Mello ponders the issue of our attachments from nearly every possible perspective, it seems, urging us to see attachments for exactly what they are:
How does one drop an attachment? People try to do this through renunciation. But to renounce some bars of music, to blot them out of one's consciousness creates exactly the type of violence, conflict, and insensitivity that clinging does. Once again you have hardened yourself. The secret is to renounce nothing, cling to nothing, enjoy everything, and allow it to pass, to flow.
How? Through many hours of observing the rottennness, the corrupt nature of an attachment.
You generally concentrate on the the thrill, the flash of pleasure that it brings. But contemplate the anxiety, the pain, the un-freedom; simultaneously contemplate the joy, the peace and freedom that are yours each time an attachment drops. Then you will stop looking back and allow yourself to be enchanted by the music of the present moment.
Notice (from this recent email exchange with my friend about what practice she will choose during Lent this year) the way we even carry our attachments into the areas of spirituality, goodness, and our relationship to God. When I casually asked in an email what my friend was thinking about doing for Lent this year, this is the way she responded*:
"Too many choices. Should I work on a particular thing that is holding me back from God, add something to my current spiritual practices, give up something. . .TV? desserts? making choices? :) Then there are the usual - more prayer, alms giving, and one other one I can't think of right now. . .fasting? Last year I was feeling completely overwhelmed and I chose to do nothing. I sat for 20 minutes each day in complete silence. I think by the end of Lent I was doing more than 20 minutes. It was fantastic."
"I talked to someone who has purchased three books she is going to read during Lent and then she is trying to decide what to give up and something else. My particular recurring issue is comparing myself to others and instead of being able to take a breath and think, What would really help me draw closer to God this Lent? I might know what that is and think. . .if someone asks me what I am doing is that ENOUGH? ugh. (*used by permission)
Since that email, we've laughed about how Lent is not a competition, and how that 20 minutes of silence each day sounds really good. And how, since it isn't a competition, it might be okay to repeat a practice you've found works well for you, even if it means "doing nothing".
In light of an experience I wrote about in the blog a while back, when I was told by a long-time friend that our visit hadn't gone well because of my sarcasm, I've been trying to pay closer attention to my thoughts and my words. I've decided to examine that more closely during the season of Lent, to, ask God to show me what it's about, and also to ask God to make me more aware of it, and to help me.
A couple of years ago, I was walking at Clear Lake. I don't recall the exact circumstance, but I remember saying to God, "I think I'm finally getting past being concerned about what other people think."
My very next thought was, "Now, if you can only get past being concerned about what YOU think. . ."
I laughed, but in the same moment, took the idea seriously. What freedom there will be in that, when at last it arrives, I thought. . .to not have to voice my opinion about everything; to not use words to put myself in the middle of every conversation, to not offer unsolicited advice to others,attempting to persuade or impose my will on them. More than that, to not even have to have an opinion about everything. It sounds liberating. In other words, just as with those desserts at dinner the other evening, to have no preference, with no attachment to what others' idea of me might be.
In Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace, Jan Johnson's beautiful book on spiritual disciplines, Jan suggests some ways to manage our speech in daily interactions with others. These are some of her ideas:
Write, think or talk with a friend about the two words you would like to be used to describe your speech. Pray for that.
Try not to speak at all for a certain period of time. This might be a day or morning, or just an hour of solitude away from pressures and demands.
Plan your next foray into small talk. How might you welcome a stranger but not indulge yourself in talk that is not helpful and necessary?
Pray to become the kind of person whose talk demonstrates the Spirit's power instead of clever eloquence. (I Corinthians 2:2-5)
Try to answer a question today with a simple yes or no. Listen to what happens inside.
For one week, do not give your opinion unless asked, give advice unless asked, of have the last word in a discussion.
And why the desert? Traditionally, it is in the context of the desert where these things are tested out--the issues of our heart and inner life. It's in the context of the desert where we experience, in essence, a form of dying to self. To put into practice what I desire (not talking--or actually the reverse of that, which is putting more silence into the world) requires denial of self--relinquishing what I would like to have for myself in the moment, interest and attention and respect, in service of offering interest and attention and respect to others.