I’m not a particularly religious person. We stopped going to church when I was very little, and while I was baptized, I can’t even tell you the exact denomination. Protestant? Episcopalian? Something like that.
Then when we moved to DC, my parents made the incongruous decision to enroll my brother and me in private Catholic school. Though as a parent myself now, I think it’s safe to assume this was less random whimsy than the result of research involving tuition, academic ranking and proximity to our new home.
Nevertheless, at age eight I had to learn the Lord’s Prayer, which was recited each morning right after the Pledge of Allegiance. My mother, a lapsed Catholic, anticipated that we might have trouble understanding the exact words of the prayer with its lack of colloquial phrasing. So she made sure to explain that we were to say, “our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name,” not “Harold be thy name.” Apparently, this caused much confusion in her own childhood.
Outside of school, I spent quite a bit of time in the homes of friends where religious attitudes ranged from well-meaning to strictly devout. Almost all, unlike my own family, bowed their heads to say grace at the dinner table. This is where I learned how to recite another prayer that began, “bless us, oh Lord, for these thy gifts,” and even pop off a nonchalant sign of the cross finale move.
All were rote words and actions for me. I knew that saying grace was a form of giving thanks and asking for continued guidance in the whole “being a good Christian” thing… But I never gave the ritual any serious thought. I chalked it up to one of the many inexplicable have to’s that plagued any given family.
Grace was a nebulous concept for me. In school it was used in religious terminology. In the novels I read, it alluded to fluidity of movement or an innate sense of peacefully navigating the world. Perhaps it was this lack of definition commitment that put grace in the category of words that didn’t hold much power in my life. Too formal or lofty in its religious use and too precious and feminine in everyday conversation – it just didn’t resonate with me.
And quite honestly, it’s not a word that seemed to resonate with the people around me either. Sixteen year old Catholic school girls don’t talk about grace; they talk about boys and clothes and favorite books. I never once heard one of my college friends refer to grace while we were studying for exams or ordering pitchers of beer at the local dive bar. And in our twenties, my Catholic friends were still lying to their parents about going to church every Sunday.
It was almost inappropriate to refer to religion out of context. As if using words like faith or grace would push you into the territory of proselytizing bible thumpers. It just wasn’t done.
Grace, faith, church…just a bunch of have to’s that no one chose to discuss let alone prioritize.
Now at age 41, I can talk about pretty much anything with anyone. And I have a far more diverse assortment of friends and acquaintances. Some of my friends like me, don’t attend church. Others have grown more devout over the years. And no, they’re not all Catholic.
I have friends who feel comfortable referring to God in casual conversation. And that’s fine with me. Because I understand that they consider their faith to be one of the best and most beautiful things in their lives. So if they want to tell me that Jesus was there for them in a time of need, I don’t feel mildly embarrassed and unsure of how to respond. I just accept the words in the spirit they are given – with the best of intentions. By sharing these thoughts with me, they are showing me the best of themselves. They are giving me the best of themselves. How could that be inappropriate?
So it was completely natural for me to sit with a grieving friend and listen to her thoughts about God’s plan in her life. And in the midst of this heartbreaking conversation, she said something that changed everything for me.
She was talking about her feelings of responsibility. How she believed things would have happened differently if her husband had been there to change the course of events. And how grateful she was for the grace he showed her by not looking for someone to blame. She speculated that she may not have been strong enough to do the same.
After a moment of incredulity that she would think blame had any place in such a tragic accident, this one simple word – grace – filled the room. If you think about it, everyone makes this choice on any number of levels, every day. And for a while now, I’ve been giving considerable thought to what I choose. I just never had a name for it. Suddenly, I did, and I could say without hesitation that if put in the same position as her husband, I would choose to show grace.
Not because I’m such a fantastic person of course, but because I’m hopelessly flawed and so often in need of the forgiveness and understanding of others. Aren’t we all… How can she be so selfish? How can he be so cruel? WHY would anyone say something so insensitive? Every day there is a reason to be hurt or insulted or outraged by the words and actions of others. But the concept of other people is subjective. And I remind myself that I have often been the one unintentionally hurting, insulting and causing outrage. Who am I to assume intentions? Why not offer others the benefit of the doubt instead?
Now I don’t have to run through the complicated reasoning behind choosing to forgive or understand or assume good intentions. I just say “grace.” Maybe not with my outside voice…but that one word is a definitive reminder. A declaration. An incantation.
We put up with a lot of have to’s in life and I know that this concept is very much in that category for some. Turn the other cheek…take the high road…give it up to God. There are unlimited personal versions of what is largely considered a trite platitude. But giving it a name and seeing it as a choice has put it in a new context for me. What was once a sigh inducing “have to” is what I now consider to be the best part of me. The best I can give anyone. I can show them grace.
Sure, I get mad or feel offended sometimes. I lash out in anger. I even place blame. But it’s momentary, because at the end of the day, I don’t like feeling that way. I hate the idea of someone carrying the weight of guilt on their shoulders. Life is hard enough – why not cut each other a little slack?
Initial perceptions don’t always match true intentions. And people usually have good intentions. That should count for something, right? Destination notwithstanding, they do make excellent paving stones…. And maybe my choice to see things this way – my grace – can help to reroute that descending road. I’d rather believe the angel on one shoulder than the devil on the other. What the hell – it helps me sleep at night.
One of my favorite movie quotes is in The Big Lebowski. The Dude says, “You’re not wrong Walter. You’re just an asshole.” Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in ideas and principle, that we forget about people. We forget that it’s so easy to stumble over that line we’re so quick to draw in the sand. So easy to say the wrong thing – to do something so incredibly stupid. And to not even be aware of it. Why is it so hard to forgive or understand or just assume that no harm was meant?
Why not be more mindful of this choice? Why not choose to not be an asshole? Give the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions. Choose kindness over principle and forgiveness over justice. Let people give you the best of themselves, regardless of your personal beliefs or habits. Consider the perspective of others. Consider the fact that to everyone else, you are “other people.”
I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer, but I don’t think it’s too late to choose happiness. For me, being happy doesn’t come easily. I fight for it. I choose to look for the best in others. I stumble and fall short sometimes, but I choose to get up and try again. I choose to let go of the past. To give second chances. To keep moving forward. To see possibility in the future. To say that today was a good day.
I choose to accept that sometimes I will be an asshole. And to not judge others who make the same mistakes. I choose to say I’m sorry or I forgive you. To say that it’s okay – I’ve been there. I understand.
To say that just meaning well still counts. That just being here is a miracle.
To say that I couldn’t do any of this without other people. To say thank you.
To say grace.