I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that we are in Lent, the liturgical season of forgiveness and repentance during which we are to reflect on the mess we’ve made of our lives. That’s not exactly the official description, just something I’ve come to understand over the years. I wouldn’t say that my life is a mess, but I am definitely not in the Frank Sinatra category of regrets “too few to mention.”
There is a line in one of the prayers at liturgy that refers to “weapons of self-restraint.” It caught my attention for its juxtaposition of what seem to be opposites. If I did word association, I don’t think I’d ever come up with self-restraint as an example of a weapon. But the people who write these prayers include poets as well as liturgical theologians, so they can get pretty creative. They also like to challenge the people in the pews.
For Lent, the usual arsenal of weapons contains prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Those are the traditional things that lead you to forgiveness and repentance and, in the end, a better self. And that’s the goal: to become a better human being. I told my class that the other day and they looked at me. They’re business students.
So I am trying to become a better human being, which is easy when it comes to repentance but just about impossible with forgiveness. Do I really want to forgive that colleague who acted like an absolute ass to me? Or the relative whose goal in life, apparently, is to cut me to ribbons with his tongue? It seems as if the weapons I need should be measured in calibers, not self-restraint. Then there’s forgiveness of self, but I won’t go there since you can’t mention that nowadays without fourteen experts popping up to tell you what you already know and charging you for it.
So, there I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when a deaf and mute man comes up and starts signaling and grunting that he is hungry. He makes this sweeping gesture with his arms as if he is Hoss Cartwright and really hungry. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. He was a wispy guy who looked homeless and on amphetamines. To quote Pope Francis, who am I to judge?
This has happened to me once before, when I was accosted by a silent Buddhist monk on Fifth Avenue. I got into a heated argument with him over the fact that he demanded twenty bucks for a bracelet and bookmark that I didn’t even want. I’m not making this up (see “The Monk’s Retreat”). This guy didn’t want twenty bucks. He wanted food. So, I offered to take him to the Chinese takeout a block away. He pointed in the other direction and showed me a deli brochure. Again, who was I to judge? If he wanted pastrami and not Kung Pao, I wasn’t about to argue with him. I gave him a buck. He grunted, tapped above his heart just like the monk, and tore down the street to the deli.
Now, here’s the thing. I didn’t feel particularly generous or loving toward this guy (I wasn’t about to give him the five dollar bill I had initially pulled out of my pocket), and I don’t think a dollar was going to save his life or even make much of a difference. So, what did I accomplish other than stand there wondering whether I had been taken again? If that’s the case, then I am out a total of eleven dollars: ten to the monk, one to the deaf guy.
Maybe I exercised restraint. After all, I didn’t yell, put up a fuss, or walk hurriedly away, which is what most people in my neighborhood do. It wasn’t as if the guy was well off and begging on the street as part of fraternity pledging. Besides, I had just come from an anti-corruption conference at Midtown with a bunch of prosecutors and felt inspired.
Self-restraint is a tough one. Right now, I have narrowed it down to trying to pray, fast, and give money when I can, but mostly it’s about keeping my mouth shut and my eyes open. Do you know how hard that is? For those with ears to hear, let them hear.