Years ago, I was driving downtown to take my turn as a volunteer at the local soup kitchen. On the way, I noticed the following thought appearing in my awareness: “You know, volunteering at the soup kitchen shows to you and everyone that you are a really good person. People will notice and think highly of you.”
Another voice spoke up, “What a tacky thing to think! You’re not going there today to show off. You are going because you know in your heart this is simply the right thing to do.”
Next thought: “What an amusing dialogue you are having, Steve. Sounds like you got one voice that is selfish and another voice that might be decent.”
I was tempted to think the second voice is the “real me” and the first is “not me.” But, you know, I seem to have both voices within me all the time. The first is always performing to impress my self with my self and hoping other people notice what a good guy I am. The second wants to just do the right thing for the right reason without any fanfare.
41 years after being awarded a “Master of Divinity” degree, I am far from mastering the relentless and petty voice within.
I take heart from reading a recent “Daily Meditation” posting by Fr. Richard Rohr.[i] He writes about the Gospel parable in which the field workers are concerned that weeds are growing in the same field as good grain. The owner tells them not to worry – in the final harvest the weeds will be separated out, and the good grain will remain. Rohr says that, growing up, he felt the parable told him to be relentlessly looking for the “weeds” in his life and root them out. But, over time, he sensed that was impossible and gave up. Then, as he matured, he saw the parable in a new way:
…Jesus shows us an absolute realism. He says something that was never said to me when I was a young person: “Let the weeds and the wheat both grow together.” Wow! That’s risky. I can’t pretend to logically understand it, although I know it allows me to be compassionate with myself. After all, I’m also a field of weeds and wheat, just like you are, and just like everything is. Everything is a mixed bag, a combination of good and bad. We are not all weeds, but we are not all wheat, either. We have to learn, even now, to accept and forgive this mixed bag of reality in ourselves and in everybody else. If we don’t, we normally become very angry people. Our world is filled with a lot of angry people because they cannot accept their own weeds.
To accept this teaching doesn’t mean we can say, “It’s okay to be selfish, violent, and evil.” It simply means that we have some realism about ourselves and each other. We have to name the weed as a weed. We can’t just pretend it’s all wheat, all good, because it isn’t. We’re not perfect. Our countries are not perfect…. The project of learning how to love—which is our only life project—is quite simply learning to accept this. If you really love anybody, and I hope you all do, then you have learned to accept a person despite, and sometimes even because of, their faults.
This has strong parallels with Buddhism, in which we avoid the folly of thinking we can block thoughts we don’t want to have. Instead, we learn to let them come into the open, and to observe and assess them. In that freedom, we become more compassionate with ourselves as “complicated” creatures, as well as more compassionate with our fellow human beings who live the same inner complexity.
This perspective doesn’t mean we passively accept disappointing behavior in ourselves or others. But it does invite us to be realistic that to be human is to be a mixture of wheat and weeds. Constantly sorting out the inner voices is hard work and, like the peasants in the Brueghel painting, sometimes it’s OK to take a break. But it’s vital work, and I’m grateful to Father Richard for this liberating insight.
Image: The Harvesters, Brueghel, 1656