The ‘Other’ As Examen

The ‘Other’ As Examen October 21, 2013

The following post was written by Kevin Harris, Director of Community Relations at The Marin Foundation.

Lately I’ve been learning more about the prayer of examen, a prayer for detecting God’s presence and God’s direction in our daily lives as well as examining our consciousness. As I’m attempting to examine my day, I’ve found myself wondering about how information and events (particularly those that are negative) may be used to examine my conscience and grow as a person.

I’ve been struck by how much easier it is for me to internally respond with disdain, condescension, or general feelings of animosity regarding harmful things people have done or even in regards to those that I adamantly disagree with, rather than with compassion.

Each day as I open my computer and scan news and social media sites, I come across articles written to highlight the harmful or simply ignorant things that others have done or been caught saying. Within a few minutes of opening Facebook, I come across a link to a blog post about some prominent figure making a homophobic remark. I scroll past an article about the latest celebrity blunder and glance at a discussion thread with individuals debating who was really to blame for the recent government shutdown. I read a status update angrily writing off some public persona that I don’t particularly care for, and I quietly find a little comfort in others sharing my feelings.

I find myself wondering how some people can do such ridiculous and narrow-minded things. There is no shortage of things to be outraged about and people to be tempted to simply cast off as evil ‘others’.

Regretfully, it can still be easy to respond with animosity and write people off as ‘others’ in our in-person interactions in the way that we see those that say harmful things or just espouse opinions that we adamantly disagree with. Thankfully, the propensity to other people diminishes as we grow in relationship with them and we’re more likely to respond with compassion than compared to our interactions with strangers.

Considering that we will continue to come across actions and words that we find harmful and unfortunate, I’m wondering about what we can practically do in the present to engage in ways that help to elicit compassion as we’re (hopefully) becoming the type of people that are more likely to behave compassionately.

What would it look like use the harmful and unfortunate actions that we come across as an opportunity to examine or investigate our own conscience and hopefully cultivate compassion?

  • It seems like we would need to start off by establishing our equality before God. Like us, our enemies are wounded individuals created in the image of God and loved dearly by God. Also, acknowledging that but by the grace of God we are capable of every evil.
  • Asking ourselves, ‘What would it take for me to do a similar thing?’ Not trying to arrogantly think that we can actually discern the exact motivations and reasons for the behaviors of others, but primarily trying to humanize it. If we did something even remotely similar in the past; were we motivated by fear, anxiety, insecurity, jealously, selfishness, worry, a desire for affection or esteem or something else? If we can personally identify with something that someone else is having a hard time with in any way, we’re more likely to be able to empathize with the person and show them compassion. For example, those that have experienced judgmental attitudes in themselves are more likely to extend compassion and desire to help others that they see caught up in judgmental behavior. We see our model in Jesus whom scripture says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15).” The following verse states that because of this we should then approach God with confidence to receive mercy and grace. We obviously are not Jesus, but that does not mean that we cannot seek to identify with the weaknesses of others in even some small way with God’s help.
  • Asking God to help us see if there is currently anything in us (fear, anxiety, etc.) in terms of personal issues that we need to address regarding the issue or harm we see another perpetuating. We can use our experience as a springboard to pray Psalm 139:23-24 in the situation: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” If we’re actually able to pinpoint something, we’re more likely to be humbled and it could create the possibility for us to extend empathy and act with compassion.

I don’t mean to try to over simplify our response to harmful actions as I realize that it can be appropriate for Christians to condemn those actions that do not honor the inherent worth, dignity, and beauty in others as having been made in the image of God. A righteous anger may be appropriate as well, though I question the ‘righteous’ part if we don’t actually go beyond our yearning for justice to also desiring what is best for the other party and for them to experience God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. Sadness and mourning at the actions of others should obviously have a place as well lest we risk moving even more into bitterness and cynicism.

I’m primarily wondering if we can use the harmful and unfortunate actions of others that we regularly encounter for more than an opportunity to voice our anger (which has a place) or going beyond even using it as motivation in trying to make the situation better. Are there attitudes or practices that can help us to engage with them in ways that encourage and challenge ourselves to grapple with the difficult things in ourselves that are reflected in the world? Could it be turned into a spiritual discipline, and if so what would it look like?

Much love.

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