Doing and Not Doing

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Israel loved Joseph more than all his other sons, for he was the son of his old age, and he had a coat with long sleeves made for him. But his brothers, seeing how his father loved him more than all his other sons, came to hate him so much that they could not say a civil word to him.
Genesis 37: 3-4

But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said among themselves: “This is the heir. Come let us kill him and have his inheritance.”
Matthew 21: 38-9

When we usually think about the great commandment to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, we tend to think of it in terms of what good things we are to do for and toward others. We hear from Jesus that the entire teaching of the law and the prophets is contained in the injunction:’’Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6: 31) But there is a complementary directive in the great spiritual traditions, one captured by Rabbi Hillel, the pre-eminent Rabbinic teacher of the first century. “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another.” We are both to act in love and also to not act in love.

In today’s scripture readings we see the brothers of Joseph and the tenant farmers taking action based on their own envious dispositions. Joseph, to be sure, doesn’t help matters as he relates dreams symbolizing the special place and honor that is to be his in life. To be honest, it is not difficult to identify with the rage that he evokes in his brothers. Similarly, it is not impossible to recognize the difficulty that the “tenant farmers” of the gospel have with working for someone else and having to turn over a significant amount of the fruits of their labors to the son of the landowner, who may appear to them to live a privileged life which the work of their hands supports. To be honest with ourselves, we must appreciate how much of our life and our relationship to others is based on comparison, competition, and envy. We are called to love, but perhaps more often than we’d like to acknowledge, love of others may mean “not doing” what we’d like to do to them.

For most of us, the impulses are not to throw another into a cistern and certainly not to kill them, but we all know of the impulse to gossip about others or, if we have some level of authority over them, to set them straight. We all know the desire to “puncture the balloon” of someone whom we perceive as self-inflating. To be sure every day brings moments where we feel impelled both to serve others and to bring others down. This is why besides the injunction to act on behalf of others, we need to attend to the complementary directive to “mind our own business.”

It is perhaps by truly minding our own business in the right ways that we mitigate our envious tendencies. In truth, each day brings with it plenty of challenges to us to live out our own call. It takes real attentiveness and awareness to be present to the moments of the day in such a way that we may be servants of what God asks of us in each of them. The question for us is not what God is asking of another – for we can only be responsible for what it is ours to do. Thus, “to mind our own business” has both a negative and a positive component. It requires, on the one hand, that we respect, from an appropriate distance and without undue interference, the spiritual path of the other which is always a mystery to us. It also summons us to grow in mindfulness to the calls of the moments of our day, growing in willingness to respond within our unique capacities to the Divine call that each moment contains. In this way, we have plenty to do without worrying about where we stand in relation to the others.

A life of leveling envy thrives in a climate of suspicion and condemnation. Envy excludes the appreciative look of respect. Envy’s refusal to “look again” makes the condemnation of the original person inflexible and absolute.

Respectful persons, by contrast, experience their view as tentative. Their minds are open to new perspectives. Valuable sides of the other’s personality may reveal themselves. These cast doubt on their former opinions. They are invited to look again at the other. Respectful persons never see clearly where their openness to the other may lead them. New insights constantly light up for them. They hesitate before passing judgment.

The envious look, on the contrary, is a look of certitude. Envious persons pride themselves on the unshakability of their opinions. They seek to have them confirmed by “facts” and “common sense.” They do not look twice at the persons they chide. What they look for are words and incidents that justify their disapproval. They dislike people who are moved by self-motivation. They are unpredictable. They threaten the familiar scheme of things.

Envious persons cannot risk uncovering the streak of originality they have buried in themselves. Under their ponderous self-assurance, waiting to be tapped, is a hidden source of spontaneity. Its discovery could lead them to a new style of life. But to follow the call of their unique selves would imply not figuring themselves out once and for all.

Adrian van Kaam, Living Creatively, pp. 48-9

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