Sometimes you just can’t win.
My friend recently lost both her cats to illness and old age, and I’ve been trying to be supportive of her… but some days that’s more difficult than others. If I say, “maybe you need to grieve your loss before you adopt a new cat,” she snaps back about how lonely she is. If I say, “you’re a person who needs to have a pet,” she’ll accuse me of not allowing her space to grieve.
Like I said, sometimes you just can’t win.
You can feel that notion simmering just under the surface of today’s Gospel reading. Jesus, too, seems to feel there are people who just won’t get it. “You didn’t like John the Baptist because he didn’t eat or drink; you don’t like me because I do eat and drink.” I can picture Jesus smiling a little ruefully as he watches people perform the mental gymnastics necessary to try and impose order on a world rife with cognitive dissonance.
Our brains aren’t crazy about cognitive dissonance: we want predictability. My friend, I reason, can’t have it both ways; yet somehow she does. We want patterns. When we can’t find them, we invent them. Even if it means performing the aforementioned mental gymnastics.
It had been decided at some level that John the Baptist was to be dismissed out of hand. A crazy man living in the desert, pointing to Scriptural antecedents to his mission? He eats—locusts? No, no: if we’re to have a new prophet, let’s make him someone presentable. (Never mind that figures like Jeremiah and Amos and Isaiah in their day weren’t exactly the people you wanted to bring home to meet Mummy.)
Along came Jesus, and for a while he was presentable. He gathered something of a following but then he started doing uncomfortable things, too. Hanging out with the wrong people. Talking about forgiveness and love and prayer and peace. Challenging the way we’ve always done things. So he couldn’t be judged acceptable, either.
And because both couldn’t be true, people struggled. There was no one criticism that could apply to both John and Jesus. And when people struggle to make sense of their world, they sometimes behave—badly.
I’ve been there. Recently, even. I live in a country that feels very out of control indeed, ravaged by a mysterious virus and climate change and still dealing on its streets with its sins from the past. Feeling less and less control in the major facets of my life, I’ve begun asserting it in the smaller ways, becoming petulant about the grocery store not stocking my favorite brand of bread and annoyed when a client questions my work.
Jesus is looking at the unsuccessful ways in which we try to make sense of things we don’t understand, and what he’s seeing is childishness in the way some adults subsequently behave.
Listen to the news. Spend time on Twitter and Facebook. Check out what your neighbors are talking about. So much of the social commentary of our age is like the children shouting in the marketplace—transitory, inescapable, momentarily engaging but ultimately shallow. It draws us in because it gives us a sense that there may be one event, one theory, one candidate, one vaccine that will make all the bad things go away. I go on Facebook and listen to people who believe the same things I believe, saying the same things I’m saying, and we’re all ultimately just children in the marketplace, calling to one another with our petty grievances and limited worldview.
Is that who we want to be? How old do we sound? Six, seven, eight years old? Bickering instead of finding solutions, because it’s too difficult to balance all the contradictory information we’re given every day. Easier to have a tiff on Twitter, a meltdown on Facebook. Easier to demonize those who have different beliefs, different priorities, different backgrounds. “I’m right and you’re wrong…”
Jesus would say not, I’m afraid. In fact, what Jesus is doing in this brief passage is holding out a hand to us, making us an offer. Come with me, he says, and experience fullness of life. Let go of the pettiness and the petulance. Look ahead to the Kingdom. Grow up.
Grow up. I’m telling myself that, even as yet another grievance rises in my head. If I don’t like what’s going on in the world, the most powerful way to change it is to change myself. Stop the pettiness, the arguing. “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
If I can take the time, today, to let the surface chatter go and to listen for God, who speaks in the depth of my heart, then the cognitive dissonance recedes. I realize it’s not on me to make sense of the world, just to respond to it—to have a part in making it a better place for everyone. As a Christian, I can connect with a lasting, truer message than anything I’ll find on social media.
And when that happens, everyone wins.
Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.