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Remaining open-hearted in a cruel and disappointing world

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 01/22/23

How do we stay open to new experiences and friendships when life can be so difficult?

Sorry to begin this way, but let’s be honest — the world can be a depressing place. 

We know this. We’ve all hit that mysterious tipping point … that one news story, conflict at work, or disappointment that finally pushes us over the edge and makes us throw up our hands in frustration while vowing to withdraw from society forever to become an isolationist homesteader. 

Those are the days when we dream of happily making goat cheese and weaving our own clothes (that’s the hardest part) hundreds of miles from civilization (that’s the good part). Then, if you’re like me, you head over to Zillow to research rural properties where you and your chosen friends — your band of brothers — can set up shop and live a peaceful life, free of the cares of this broken world. 

The ultimate escape

My favorite form of escapism is reading. I saw a meme the other day about how, occasionally, it’s a good idea to look up from your book and actually observe what’s happening in the world; then you can take a “hard pass,” and keep reading. The idea is appealing.

I do, of course, make my own quite significant contributions to the ills of the world, but there are also plenty of times when it seems that, no matter what I say or do, I cannot heal a conflict. It bothers me to think I’ve made other people feel this way and it bothers me to be made to feel this way. The easy solution is to shut down and close myself off. I highly suspect I’m not alone in desiring to do so. Why else are we all dreaming of escaping to idyllic farms and beach cottages? It seems to be a unique quality of human beings that we get on each other’s nerves and then react by shutting each other out.

We need each other

At the same time, it’s also a unique quality of human beings that we cannot live without each other. No matter how much society crumbles, or what the politician-I-don’t-like is up to now, or how frustrated I become with other people, I very much need to live in a community in order to thrive. 

People bring out so much good in each other. It’s astounding to see how people care for each other, how much better we make each other. One of the most touching parts of my week is gathering with the people I love for Sunday Mass.

I don’t want to be cynical. I don’t want to lose my open-heartedness and desire to make connections. But how do we stay open to new experiences and friendships in a cruel and disappointing world?

Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. Yes, the easiest path is withdrawal into a private world, but the cost of retreat is high. All the most beautiful and memorable moments in my life have been with other people. 

Even though we can cause each other pain and distress, the gift we give each other is so much greater. We give each other the opportunity to be creative, supported, and loved. Whether it’s loving the unlovable, remaining vulnerable when we don’t want to, or spending quality time with people we truly enjoy, the gift is the same. For better or for worse, we’re good for each other. Without this open-heartedness towards other people, our souls will never unfold into their true potential.

St. Paul’s new freedom 

As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a famous loner, once lamented, “I am too strong for myself.” By this, he means that, on his own, his thoughts run wild and unchecked. He is unruly, undisciplined, and far too egotistical. There’s a kind of brokenness in this, he says, because in being closed off he has no companionship in carrying his burdens. He has no opportunity to have his rough edges filed away. It turns out that, if we were to achieve our dreams and have complete freedom from interactions with other people, that same freedom would smash us.

It’s worth consideration, how to remain tender to the world. That phrase, “I am too strong for myself,” sticks with me particularly this week when, during Mass, we will celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Here was a man too strong for himself, who closed himself off to the deepest font of grace we will ever know. He had become cynical. His inner motivation is unknown, but I have to imagine that his fear of Roman persecution and drive to remain a purist in religious practice was a driving factor in how closed off he had become. Ultimately, only a miraculous encounter with God could shake him free from the trap he’d built for himself.

After his conversion on the road to Damascus, he was a new man. Suddenly, he was a world traveler who made intimate connections with people everywhere he went. He remained open-hearted through extreme suffering and injustice. 

This is the example for you and me. This is how we take our place in the world. As frustrating a place as it can be, and as much as we’d like to run away, the world is nevertheless a beautiful place worthy of our engagement. It would be far less beautiful without you.

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