Monday, July 22, 2013

What Other People Think

mountain caves outside my retreat house

Yesterday morning I was listening to an NPR story about attitudes in the workplace. A young man was being interviewed about how he conducted himself in his work environment. I almost fell off my chair when I heard his response: "At work, everything I do is pretty much based on the opinions my colleagues have of me." 

I wonder how many people get up every day and live their lives based upon what other people think of them,  always seeking the approbation and probably the praise of others? 

After hearing that young man's response yesterday, my mind immediately went to those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers, my spiritual ancestors in my own desert life. They moved out into the wilderness and lived together in mountain caves, not to avoid others or because they didn't like other people. Rather, they moved out to the edges of the culture in order to live at the fringes of what other people thought.

In his comments about those 4th century desert monastics, Lane Belden put it this way:

The desert monks were hardly naive despisers of culture. What they fled was not the external world but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior,  frantic in its effort to attend to a self image that always required mending.

The world renounced by the desert monks was the tendency they found within themselves to seek the  praise of others, being dependent for their wellbeing on the favorable responses of their milieu.

The Desert Mothers and Fathers would often talk about the indifference of the desert. They lived in a  vast expanse of space, under the brilliant enormity of starlit skies, within towering mountains of stone and they realized that, in reality, this fiercely beautiful landscape paid little attention to them. It basically had no opinion about them. 

This milieu in which these monks lived gave them a deep insight about the opinion of others - a person with a big ego thinks that other people are always forming opinions about her or him, but most of the time, most people aren't paying that much attention to you. 

Jesuit priest, Anthony De Mello says:

After I turned 20 I worried endlessly about the impressions I made and how people were evaluating me. Only sometime after turning 50 did I realize that they hardly even thought of me at all. So often people presume themselves to be at the center of everyone else's attention, performing for an audience that isn't there.

I wake up every morning amid the awesome enormity of a vast magnificence and I know that I am very small and the world is very big. I do not need and no longer desire the praise of others to bloat up my ego. I know, in fact, that most people hardly think of me at all.  As my ego shrinks, I find my "self." 

I am so grateful for the lessons that the desert teaches me and for my spiritual ancestors who continually show me the way.

 It's all very freeing.

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