Lent 2012: Day 17

A kind interpretation of actions is such a far-removed idea for me at times, but perhaps the most challenging times are when I’m in a heated situation with a student and when I’m driving in Greenville.

We must come to esteem very lightly our sharp eye for evil, on which perhaps we once prided ourselves as cleverness.

The latter is the most consistent challenge. While I don’t necessarily see other drivers’ motivation as being a result of evil, I constantly pride myself on the cleverness of my own driving as compared that of my fellow pilgrims on the road. This idiot doesn’t know how to turn left at a traffic light. That dolt waits until the car in front of him is twenty car lengths ahead before pulling starting from a green stop light. This moron pulls so far into the intersection that it’s difficult to make a left turn around her. That dork is so busy texting that he misses at least five seconds of the light. This one is a matter of merely reminding myself that I’ve no idea what these people drive the way they drive and that perhaps they have very good reasons. Perhaps the person hesitant to make a left turn recently had a terrible accident doing so. Maybe the person who is waiting for the care in front of him to be a seemingly ridiculous distance from him before starting is having car problems and the car doesn’t respond as well as he wishes. Possibly person pulling too far in to the intersection is on the way to a critical meeting — perhaps a family member is ill in the hospital — and made a last-minute decision not to push the yellow light. And perhaps the person texting is texting about the death of a loved one.

Calmness while driving — offering what Faber calls “kind interpretations” — is fairly simple: there’s very little at stake. A few moments lost here or there is hardly something to get enraged about, and whether or not the kind interpretations are justified, it all seems a relatively moot point when we consider who brief and insignificant the interaction.

The former example of heated situations with students is of much greater import. These are not brief, insignificant interactions. Like it or not, the student and I will meet again tomorrow — and the day after and the day after that — and will have to work together productively. So when a student begins the day with a smart comment to me, simply wants to come in and sleep, simmers with anger at a mild request from me, or any number of things that I would normally be tempted to take personally as an assault on my classroom authority and my personal dignity, I really have two choices in how I deal with the situation, and the decision I make depends on whether or not I create for myself a kind interpretation of the individual’s motives. Students come to class with any number of significant and insignificant emotional weight pulling them down, and the simple truth is I have no idea when someone has placed more mass on her shoulders. Perhaps this young man comes from an abusive home and he just faced down a violently angry parent to deflect injury from a younger sibling. Maybe this young lady is responsible for a eight-week-old sibling during the night because their mother works the night shift. This young man might not have eaten breakfast this morning and had very little dinner the night before. Any one of these situations would be enough to set a day off on a crooked trail. And while I know more about these kids than the average stranger, most of them are still virtual strangers to me when it comes to the clockworks of their lives.

A kind interpretation of their anger, apathy, exhaustion, and frustration results in a kind answer, and we all know what that does.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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