I was sawing logs.
Sunk down into, of all things, a navy couch uniquely patterned with scores of symmetrically placed unicorns which I was re-purposing as a bed in the balmy living room of my some of my buddies.
The night was peaceful. Silence nestled us each in our sleeping quarters.
But that calm was violently vandalized.
Out of the quiet came a howling protest accompanied by fierce banging on the front door.
“Turn it down! Turn. It. Down!” a hysterical woman shrieked like a screech owl.
My pulse tripled. Terrified and unsure of where I was, I desperately tried to locate myself in these strange surroundings, where drowsiness had enveloped me just moments before.
The only constant in those distressed seconds that elapsed were the distraught lady’s screams,”Turn it down! Turn it down!”
She was insistent.
But there was no noise!
The Housecoat Clad Prophetess of Gloom
I peered through the window to witness a housecoat clad prophetess of gloom, with staccato knuckle-rapping rhythm on the glass storm door.
Finally realizing where I was and feeling the angry accusations reverberating through the walls, I addressed her through the locked door, without opening it....(I had just graduated from college after all, and had the world ahead of me!)
I sought to reassure her (and save myself), “I don't know what you're talking about!”
“Turn the music down!” she clarified, as if there were a drowning taking place.
“But there isn't any music,” I replied in this bizarre conversation about disturbing noises in a completely silent room, the only sound present, the rude thumping of my pulse as it terrorized my ear drums.
I waited with jumpy silence.
Suddenly, apparently satisfied, she concluded her tirade, “Funny, I don't hear it anymore.”
And she walked down the front stairs and out of my life, hopefully(!) forever.
But like many startling things, that strange episode is now featured among the many curios of memory in my mind.
And it was instructive for several reasons.
“Everyone is in the middle of a great war...”
For one, that mysterious and confused woman was reacting to something that was apparently compellingly real in her mind, but no place else.
That being so, it was a coronary infarction inducing episode to remind me that there are subterranean matters going on in others at any given point about which I have no idea.
“Be kind,” said one church father, in what has become a favorite pastoral adage, “for everyone you meet is in the middle of a great war.”
There’s no telling what the wars in the minds of my friends, congregants, or even insurance agent might be adding to my actions or words to them. But I can at least be merciful and anticipatory about it. As I hope they’ll be with mine.
Listen with Self-Suspicion
Mrs. Scream also unwittingly instructed me on how simple it is to read into situations what absolutely isn’t there.
So perhaps, we ought to listen to each other with a modicum of self-suspicion. And maybe throw in a hefty injection of gracious charity in our appraisals of others.
We are, all after all, subject to what I’ve heard Andy Stanley and Patrick Lencioni call the “Fundamental attribution error.”
That wonky self-preferencing feature in me which assumes that my failures are always due to extenuating circumstances while yours and everybody else’s are the result of colossal failures of consideration, character, and thought.
If I’m late to a meeting, it is clearly because I had to help a pregnant woman deliver her baby on the way while building a house for a homeless man.
If you are late, it is solely due to your ridiculous self-absorption and lack of care for anyone but yourself.
My faults are due to environmental factors. Yours are because you are a scoundrel.
If suspicion must be present, I need to turn it on myself first and permit the same merciful allowances for others that I so effortlessly grant to myself.
Being Mindful of Misinterpretation
The confused woman also unwittingly alerted me in her vast misinterpretation of the situation that I should be mindful of the possibilities of my own misinterpretations when others let me down, injure me, or fail to do what they said they would.
Perhaps what is stunningly clear to me would be muddied, at least a touch, if I heard the whole story?
Maybe I am missing something even though it isn’t clear to me what it is.
The mere suggestion of a possibility is enough to slow me down to listen with the requisite attentiveness and evaluate with the sort of grace I’d like to encounter.
My wild-haired middle of the night instructor also introduced me more keenly to my primal desire for self-defense. Even though I could not defend myself in this situation. Sure, I answered her erroneous accusation. But I never met her.
She was disturbingly and wrongly convinced that we were destroying the wholesome peace of the apartment complex when in fact we were being model citizens...even though we were only 22 years old!
But I would never be able to clear things up with her. Or give her another impression.
In fact, she may presently be writing about the night that a weird young man on a unicorn couch disturbed her deep sleep with raucous music and then denied it after he had sneakily turned it off!
I will never know.
But it doesn’t matter.
“My salvation,” says the Psalmist, and my honor depend on the Lord.”
There is a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of unified voices in the Scriptures and among the perceptive and wise that urge us to avoid defending ourselves.
Because of course, most of us want to do that exclusively.
We can’t abide being misunderstood. It is intolerable to have another think the wrong thing about us.
But if and when I practice my belief, as our Savior did, that I have a Defender, Protector, Guardian and Rectifier for all the unjust things that need to be settled, I can refrain both from relational self-defense and from attempting self-promotional brand enhancement projects on others.
Instead of retaliating when I am insulted, mistakenly interpreted, or injured, I can respond to what St. Peter insists is “our calling” by, even when being slighted for doing good, simply entrusting myself to God who “judges justly.”
I can let my future and the way that I am viewed be in the hands of Him who truly does know all and interprets correctly.
Jesus, we’re told, carried out just this sort of mission, “led” as he was “like a lamb to the slaughter” but refusing to sling back verbal grenades when such accusatory weaponry was lobbed at him.
And of course, refusing to defend yourself, and abandoning a strategy of suspicious self-protection is the ONLY way to have meaningful relationships with anyone.
An Odd Form of Instruction
Knowing such, is partly why all manner of old, dead, holy dudes would tell us not only to refuse to defend ourselves, but to take insults as an odd form of instruction.
“Consider your critics,” they would urge. “Let the complaints of others be taken either as a mirror to initiate our change” or “a strike to our swollen ego that probably needed it anyway.”
Marilynne Robinson’s, Pastor John Ames, understood these matters with intimate experience. He advises his young son in Gilead:
“I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level it expresses a lack of faith....And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”
The screech owl woman, and the frightened young man she accused stand at every moment in need of a rescue.
Christmas is a swell time to practice the courage to stand “against defensiveness” and so to refuse to struggle against God’s surprise entrance into the wounded world one night so many years ago. Not with shouts of accusation did he come, but with coos, cries, and a frailty like ours did he knock on the doors of our world, so that we might all, open up and welcome the rescue of Him who’ll eventually renovate all the true AND imagined vandalizations of peace that have awakened, startled, or disturbed us.
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at firstname.lastname@example.org