The Other's Mind and Heart
Our thoughts turned again and again yesterday (and today) to the sad news phoned to us by a college friend, that a woman, who for all the world seemed to have everything to live for, had taken her own life. I phoned another friend whom I knew would want to know and commiserated, that, after all, one never really knows what is going on in the mind and heart of the other soul. That thought was first articulated for me in a play by Christopher Fry years and years ago at, I think, Union Theological Seminary, in a rhetorical question that went something like, "Who knows what a neighbor suffers?"
A colleague in the United Methodist ordained ministry strolled around the grounds of the Annual Conference session each year hand in hand with his wife. They seemed so devoted to each other, so obviously affectionate. Tough only children like me looked at them going together east of Eden like Adam and Eve and felt a twinge of guilt, that I should and don't make a greater public display of affection for my beloved; and, if I did, then with the same total disregard for what others might be thinking. Then the love-birds suddenly and inexplicably divorced.
So much for judging a book by its cover.
In my senior year of high school I served the New York East Annual Conference Methodist Youth Fellowship as treasurer. We were officially installed one August evening at a campfire along the shores of Peconic Bay. Each officer was given a log to throw on the fire in an impromptu ritual of dedication. The president went first. He waxed eloquent before he tossed his log on the pyre. He likened the flames of the fire to the passion to serve in his own heart, the quietly rhythmic lapping of the waves along the shore to the gentle caress of the everlasting arms. Something like that. I was impressed. He did it without reference to any notes. I was depressed. How on earth could I, an impressionable sixteen year old, as inarticulate as John the Baptist's father before the birth of his son, ever find words for my dedication? So I approached the fire with log in hand and said something like, "Me too."
Fifty-six years later I can look back on nearly fifty years of preaching the Gospel and having the reputation as someone who is never lost for words. The aforesaid president of the Conference MYF spent four or five years in the Methodist ministry, switched to the Episcopal Church, and then kind of disappeared off the face of the ecclesiastical earth. Who knows what's going on in the heart and mind of another? Like Jesus said, "Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment." I take Jesus to mean by "right judgment" a due appreciation for the mystery the other soul presents to any outside observer.
In another place, the last chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts it more bluntly, "Do not judge," for the same reason, the inviolability of the other's soul.
Therefore, I find the readiness of certain elements of the Christian witness to deliver judgments on the rest of humanity, usually on the basis of whether or not they are "Christian," as a direct violation of Jesus' plain command. I lived (and thrived) in Brooklyn for nearly eighteen years as an alternative to this judgmental version of Christianity. And I observed that the basis of the judgers' judgment was simply, "Do you believe the way I believe?" But conformity of words and practice can mask what's really going on in another's mind and heart. Our souls are impenetrable mysteries to everyone other than the mind of God.
Which brings me back to the occasion for this essay, the death of a friend: I would not presume to guess why she did what she did, except that others who knew her well speak of clinical depression. I was given a glimpse of that anguish last December, when going "cold turkey" off the pain killer oxycoten following bi-lateral knee surgery. Barbara quotes me as saying in mid-withdrawal, "How am I going to be able to go on?" And I suffered that torment for only thirty-six hours.
I take that experience as God's reminder to me that on every other soul heaven has written, "Handle With Care."