English clichés are difficult for me. Even though I learned my dominant language as early as the age of 5, I find that English's foundational binaries cheapen the deep human experience in its diversity, complexity, and unboundedness: light/darkness, young/old, black/white, good/bad.
When I hear "take the high road" or "be the bigger man/person," I'm supposed to think that the low road is not morally good or that being the smaller person is weak -- and that between weak and strong, you need to be strong in order to prove you are right, not wrong.
These binaries give us the illusion of certainty. They give us the permission to hide behind one choice that can be or is directly in opposition to another reality we hold dear. We convince ourselves that as easy as this decision is (to take the higher ground), most people do not because the action itself is difficult, and the consequences require a vulnerability to the unknown that can be paralyzing.
When I was a chaplain at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, our director, Dr. Michel Shields, taught us to take the low road. She encouraged us to limit distancing ourselves from the patients. In fact, we were trained to go right to the heart of the matter, their feelings. "The shortest distance between any two people is right here," as she would gesture from her heart to another.
The low road meant being willing to companion someone as they experienced the bumps, stalls, traffic and road blocks of daily living. In most cases, daily living's provocative strains and challenges were not sensationalized with triumphant trumpet playing or Trump-ette blasting. Daily living measured each moment, each second, each breath, each painful sigh. The low road does not include a clear and fast route; instead, it is most often times ignored, looked over, dismissed, discounted.
Suffering cannot be avoided on the low road.
This suffering is relentless. Like a thriller filled with certain unexpected moments, suffering with others intrigues us to the point of wholeness as our deep longing for unity subsides for even the slightest of moments. When we cannot fix, cure or solve, we long to be there, be among, be a witness. We long to dignify someone else's experience by simply standing, sitting or being there.
Serving as a chaplain was one of the most difficult choices I have ever made. But it wasn't the pain and suffering that made it difficult, it was my own reluctance, defiance and propensity for pride that created much distance between me and the clients. My desire to always be right or to always do the right thing or to be understood as doing well, being thoughtful, and performing care kept me on the high road -- moving fast and remaining unwilling to allow myself to enter into the chaos of others for fear that it would delay me or ask something of my time, energy or resources. I might have been right, but my conscientious arm-folding kept me closed to the very experience of humanity that could redeem and unbind me from my ego.
Why do I keep my distance? Why do I hide behind fixing, curing or solving, when, in reality, all that was asked of me was to be present, listen, support, assist in advocacy?
If I truly understand myself to be in the image and likeness of God, this Christmas time presents an opportunity for deep reflection and ongoing adjustment of my understanding of myself and my relationship to the Holy Trinity. St. Ignatius' contemplation on the Nativity is beautifully outlined in his Spiritual Exercises. He invites the retreatant to imagine the divine majesty or the holy Trinity looking down upon the earth, filled with people living in opposition of God's will for them. The divine persons decide to intervene in the pain, suffering, judgment, etc., by sending the second person, Jesus, to earth so that we may all be redeemed.
Can I do this? Can I do this today in a world that is broken by terror, judgment, abuses of power and a constant re-certification of who is at the center of human experience or who remains at the margins?
Christmas is not just about Jesus. Christmas is about God's willingness to take the low road with us: from observing from a distance to entering our reality through the most incredible of ways -- through an engaged peasant girl who then had to flee her homeland and beg for a place to stay yet was refused proper shelter.
Christmas becomes a moment when I celebrate the reminder of God's saving grace, not through the most sensational and powerful stories of brute strength or rude candor, but through the daily experiences of plain and simple human suffering that may actually go unnoticed, ignored, looked over, dismissed, discounted.
This kind of presence is true in chaplaincy work from hospitals to prisons. In fact, when considering the urgency of healing a broken world, Bryan Stevenson explores his own relationship to justice and redemption in his memoir, Just Mercy. He writes, "Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each person's humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own." Stevenson goes on to say that, "Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."
Yes, we are remembering the birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world. We all know the story -- he lives, is crucified, and resurrects. But we must not stay distanced from the Paschal Mystery. We must enter into the daily living of his life via the low road, get close to the suffering of his betrayal and death, and then live out his resurrection.
*An earlier version of this story attributed the wrong author.
[Jocelyn A. Sideco is a retreat leader, spiritual director and innovative minister who specializes in mission-centered ministry. She teaches bioethics, feminist theology, Christian sexuality, and Christian Scriptures at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif. Visit her online ecumenical ministry, In Good Company, at contemplativecompanions.org. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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