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All We Really Need To Know

Updated: Aug 13, 2022

"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Matthew 22: 36 (New Testament, Christian Bible, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition)

Recently I was re-reading the 90’s New York Times best seller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. One of his stories in the book is about attending graduate school (theological seminary), needing to support a family, and giving thought to applying for a night job as a bartender.

His wife told him that it was not a good idea. His friends told him that it was not a good idea. Nevertheless, he needed to supplement his income and decided to apply for the bartending job. Eventually, he decided to confess his plan to his seminary dean.

Surprisingly, the dean was delighted. “Wonderful,” he said. The general idea was that Fulghum was perceived as a young, green, arrogant, inexperienced, know-it-all. (Fulghum reminds the reader that he was twenty-one).

The dean felt much of Fulghum's arrogance and shortcomings could be fixed by being out there in the world. A bartender would encounter many people with various needs. He would need to figure out his values and keep his job at the same time. Bars seemed like a great place for a minister.

The dean even considered the job as a work-study program. Each week, Fulghum would discuss with him what he learned behind the bar. The dean’s final instructions were: Keep your eyes open. Suspend judgment. Be useful.

Fulghum said he tended bar for three years and the learning never ended. He was proud of his bartending 101, 102, 103 classes. After his years of bartending, he had a fine evaluation. Still the dean wrote on his evaluation, “Fulghum is not as good as he thinks he is.”

As they talked over the evaluation, the dean told Fulghum to be patient. In time he could become better. “Keep your eyes open. Suspend judgment. Be useful.”

Of course, Fulghum, puts a humorous twist on the whole essay.

As I have thought about that story, it occurs to me how useful those directions are for living the good life. It really is a simple way of stating how to practice compassion, keep learning, and not be so full of ourselves.

Keep your eyes open. That is big for me. I can become so occupied with myself. It is hard to notice others. To see what is happening around me, to be mindful. To see who is being left out, hurt, harmed, ignored, unwelcomed. I am amazed by those who can keep their eyes open – who look around and see the whole of humanity.

Suspend judgment. Another biggie. We human beings love to make up stories about others. Often with little evidence. So many good stories I could tell here about mistakes I (and others) have made. Here is just one I recall.

Remember the leadership guru, Stephen Covey? He tells the story of being on the subway in New York. Everyone is pretty much minding their own business – reading their books, looking at their newspapers.

All of a sudden, the subway doors open and several unruly kids rush in with their father. The man sits down beside Covey. He puts his head in his hands.

The kids are wild. Loud, running everywhere, even slapping people’s newspapers.

Covey, being sure that a little leadership is needed by the father, says something to the effect of “Sir, your children are disturbing others. I wonder if you might say something which would help them settle down.”

The man looked around with a glazed look. “Yes, I see what you mean. I guess they are feeling like me, at loose ends. You see we just came from the hospital. Their mother – my wife, just died.”

Covey recounts how his judgment immediately changed from “here’s a bad father, an insensitive, ill-mannered man” to here is a family who has no idea how to process the grief they are experiencing.

Seems to me, this is THE biggest issue with our inability to connect with others – our judgments, our stories we make up about others. It keeps us from seeing our common humanity. Most of us are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. (This was my mother-in-law’s mantra which turned out to be great when directed toward ourselves as well as others.)

Be useful. Sometimes everything out there just looks overwhelming. So many needs, so much suffering. I keep reminding myself that I can’t do everything, but I can do something.

Often that something I can do is what John and I have come to call “sitting on the porch” with others. Most of us have a hard time just sitting with grief, sadness, anger, depression, hurt. We want to fix it because it bothers us. It is not as much about the suffering of others as our own pain. We have trouble tolerating discomfort.

This notion of sitting on the porch comes from a real incident. Charles, we referred to him as “Charlie,” had a close friend who died. Afterwards, Charlie went to his friend’s house and simply sat on the porch with his wife. No words were spoken. The young widow said it was the best thing anyone did to help her bear her pain.

As we consider what we can do to be useful, as we notice our urge to “fix” other’s pain, perhaps we can learn to sit on the porch together. Learn that being together without “words of wisdom” is often the most healing.

Okay, we can experiment with taking that out into the world. If we can’t get bartender jobs, we can try it at the grocery store, at home, cruising around on our journeys.

Compassion, being other focused and caring, is associated with all sorts of health and well-being outcomes including, unsurprisingly, good relationships. Wisdom teachers say it is the path to the good life and the mark of humanity at its best.

For example, Jesus was asked which commandment was the most important. Good question since there were 613 Hebrew laws to choose from – some which seemed to conflict. He basically said love God with all you’ve got and your neighbor as yourself (some interpret these two laws to be essentially the same process of tapping into our deepest and widest reservoirs of reverence, concern, goodness, and commitment). Turned out Jesus was even talking about enemies and those who despise us.

Could take a little work - this love and compassion practice, especially if we take it to those radical extremes of loving enemies and those who despise us. (The type of love that Jesus is calling for is obviously, not erotic, but rather deeply caring for others' well-being. The Greeks referred to this type of love as agape.)

For more motivation, read quotes emphasizing the priority of compassion from the 8 major religions in Sir John Templeton's wonderful little books - Agape Love and The Essential Worldwide Laws of Life (This fellow Tennessean became a financial genius, philanthropist, and wealthy donor to the scientific study of love and other spiritual topics.)

How might we keep our eyes open, suspend judgment, be useful and journey together to the good life?

(For sermons on compassion, read Rev Juli Reinholz's messages under resources. As always, if you have comments and are a subscriber, you can just reply to this email).


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