“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo
When John read my last blog, he felt sad. First, for him it neglected to mention the tremendous joyfulness in our marriage. Second, it didn’t hit on the most important lesson we’ve learned together. "Look for the good” in each other – in situations, in life.
Indeed, we say this “I see the good in you” almost daily to each other. I think it's...magic. For John, the concept is also simply common sense. Practical. He tells me that when he skis he knows to look where he wants to go. Not at the trees. But it can be bigger.
I'll tell you a story about "Sonja," a woman I worked with briefly. You'll see what I mean.
Sonja hated hearing how central relationships are for a good life because people were her greatest source of frustration. No matter that she constantly pushed them to excel, they continued to make the same mistakes. Her least most important and least satisfying relationship – her marriage of over thirty years was largely characterized by apathy, criticism, and small annoyances.
To increase passion, engagement, and joy would be beyond Sonja's wildest dreams at this late stage. Her goal was simply to feel a bit happier.
Then Sonja decided to do what she called her Michelangelo action. The name comes from the Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet and engineer who described sculpting “as a process whereby the artist released a hidden figure from the block of stone in which it slumbers.”
Sonja’s Michelangelo action was to re-sculpt her view of her husband by recalling 1-3 virtues of her husband and writing about them, verbally acknowledging them. She took on the goal for the next two weeks to look for these virtues and comment on them sincerely.
For example she said things like, “Stan, I’ve always admired your perseverance since the time I saw you digging the truck out of the ditch for over three hours. I’m noticing that your stick-to-it-ness just keeps growing. Look at how you worked on that leaky faucet even when you were tired after dinner.”
Michelangelo saw the image of a beautiful sculpture in a block of marble. Seeing virtues in others helps bring out their best. Researchers have noted that very happy couples see virtues in each other and consequently build those strengths, develop those ideal selves in one another.
After two weeks Sonja confessed that she didn’t do all she was going to do. She didn’t need to. After three days of bringing to mind only one of her husband’s virtues and commenting about it to him, the world changed. Spring seemed to arrive, the sun’s rays warmed her bedroom, the buds appeared on the apple trees, and her bursitis seemed better. Somehow her children and employees had become a lot less sloppy and Stan was on time for dinner.
We can bring out the best in others by noticing the good. Dr. Shelly Gables has done work in this area. (That green underlined link is worth checking out to get a fuller picture.) We can have happier lives by noticing the good. When we bring out the best in others they are more engaged, motivated, and happy - so are we. (A different metaphor and research coming out of appreciative inquiry, the heliotropic effect).
And a step further, when we notice the good in ourselves, in others, in the world. Everything changes. We are transformed, the world is transformed, we move toward that highly sought after state called "transcendence."
In my mind that’s a lot of what religions and rituals try to help us get in our bones. Being kind, grateful, noticing the good…it takes us into a realm we cannot even fully imagine. It is "heavenly." As we look for the good we find that which gives us ultimate meaning, significance, and connection. We step into the peace and joy which I believe are our inherent spiritual longings.
We can re-set our negatively attuned brains each time we ask ourselves these sorts of questions… where have I seen compassion, or kindness, or goodness, or love, or connectedness? We will find what we seek. Joy will follow. We’ll be moving toward transformation and transcendence.
We might even go further... if we are open to transcendence… and ask...where have I seen (a bit of) God today? In a baby? A sunrise? A smile? An act of kindness?
When John mentioned that the previous blog didn’t capture the joy of our marriage, I asked myself to remember, to savor those instances of joy we have experienced over the years. My tears just started flowing as soon as I did that. Tears of joy, happiness. Transcendence.
Now it also comes to mind how John does this Michelangelo thing with lots of folks, not just me. I have seen him authentically connect to curmudgeons, drug addicts, and homeless people. They simply become different people in his presence. And that brings more joyful tears to my eyes. I see the good, the God, in him.
It’s powerful stuff, this looking for, this remembering, this savoring the good. We don’t have to wait for a midnight mass or candlelit Christmas eve service although that may help. We can do it anytime we are willing. And sometimes just asking a simple question can get us on the track to transformation and transcendence and joy.
How might we journey together to The Good Life by continuing to look for the good, finding, and savoring it...in ourselves, our friends and family, those on the margins - today and even in our yesterdays? May we have joyful holidays and holy days. See you in the New Year.