It may seem out of step to talk about insults during the season that is supposed to be about good cheer and “peace on earth.” But that’s what we get, I suppose, for having Election Day come so close to the start of Advent. Or specifically, this Election Day. Election Day, 2016.
Because this one has been, to use a grandfatherly expression, a pip. From start to finish, it was unlike anything most of us had seen in previous elections. I won’t revisit all the reasons why — we have already heard them, and probably, we have experienced them personally.
A lot of this election felt personal, didn’t it? Even people I know who pooh-pooh all things political were drawn in, and … well, we all got pretty worked up. And now, in the aftermath, we’re still pretty worked up. And it is amazing, and kind of shocking, to see how much the insults are flying around. Suddenly, some pretty harsh words are being used, and not just by strangers about strangers.
Which just begs a question: What about insults?
‘I’m rubber, and you’re glue …’
It’s all very well to plead for a return to civility, and maybe that will actually come. Then again, it may not, if it was ever really here to begin with. Western societies and nations seem to have come to a kind of crisis point, and we can’t go on without making decisions about some very big questions. And our culture — from the seats of power down to the spats on Facebook — are where we thrash these things out. But rather than look outward and get anxious and angry, can I look to the Church and look inward, and find some peace?
I frame it as a question, because right now, it is certainly a work in progress. I don’t like being called names, and I don’t like the passionate invective that passes for intelligent argument these days. But yes, if I think about the kind of person I wish I were, rather than the one I am, I think there is some wisdom from the Orthodox faith that shows me an ideal to aspire to.
It’s one of those “sayings of the Elders” that we love so much — in this case, Abba Macarius the Egyptian:
A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and insult the dead.” The brother went there, hurled insults and stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, “Didn’t they say anything to you? He replied, “No.”
The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went away and praised them, calling them Apostles, saints and blessed people. He returned to the old man and said to him, “I have complimented them.” And the old man said to him, “Did they not answer you?” the brother said no.
The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of others or their praises, and you can be saved.”
This actually has a lot of profundity to it, driven home at this point when I am likely to go onto Facebook in the morning and find that some people who agree with me might praise me, and others who disagree with me might insult me. My ego and my “online reputation” — which really must be a demonic invention if ever there was one — dictate that I acknowledge the flattery and issue a strong rebuke to the criticism. To make things really difficult, I do think there are times you may need to explain/defend your position. But how much easier that would be, if you really could do it free of self-interest and egoism. Imagine how liberating to undertake these contentious discussions with the detached curiosity of a scientist who really wants to know whether his theory can be proven or not. Maybe it will turn out I’m right after all … maybe not. Most of the time, it turns out to be a combination of the two.
‘Behold, I send you out as sheep among wolves …’
Have you ever rolled your sleeves up to debate someone and found that they are gracious and unruffled — willing to either explain or concede with equal dispassion? It gives me a lesson much bigger than whatever topic we’re banging on about. My response is the shock of meeting someone intelligent in the rowdy marketplace of talking points. And I immediately recognize a role model –“That’s the way I want to be” — whether we agree on our question or not.
There are still role models like that out there. God willing, in time, maybe I could be one. It will take some work, but I’ve still got some years left. And the way things are going, it looks like I’ll have ample opportunity to try to park my ego and “be like a dead man” where praise and insults are concerned.
It is too bad to have to go about this work when I just want to pick out presents and sing carols, but God knows the times we live in, and why He put us here. Glory be to God for all things … including, I suppose, insults.