Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Our Best Versions (Relationships)

Last night as I was driving a friend home late at night, we chanced upon the comparison of Oxbridge, like what is the difference between Oxford and Cambridge. My friend said that Cambridge has better library resources in terms of ease of use and its modern convenient way of getting information. I countered by saying that Oxford is pretty strong in the humanities and philosophy. Cambridge on the other hand is better known for their sciences. Such stereotyping does little justice to two great English Universities, which have contributed tremendously to the academic industry and the world at large. Many of my professors from Regent College are from Oxford and Cambridge. In fact, the training and academic rigour at Regent is so deep that many Regent graduates have gone on to England for their doctoral studies. Telling Oxford and Cambridge apart is hard, simply because both of them are unique in their own special ways. Tradition may separate them. Technology might even try to differentiate them. Either way, it is safe to say that stereotyping or over-simplifying Oxbridge is to be shunned. Both are great institutions of learning and have excelled because of each other. I dare say that Oxford is what it is today because of Cambridge. Likewise, Cambridge is most excellent because of the presence of Oxford. We all need healthy competition and edifying co-existence.

Life together is an opportunity to do just that. Relationships among church members have to be developed healthily, intentionally and tenderly (H.I.T). Building healthy relationship is to help one another become the best version of ourselves. No man is an island. Neither do we do not exist in a vacuum. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together says it very well:
Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone. You are called into the community of faith, the wall was not meant for you alone. You carry your cross, you struggle, and you pray in the community of faith, the community of those who are called. You are not alone even when you die, and on the Day of Judgment you will be only one member of the great community of faith in Jesus Christ. If you neglect the community of other Christians, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your being alone can only be harmful for you.” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2004, p82-83)
Bonhoeffer then quotes Luther’s words in saying that “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer, they the community of faith suffer with me.” These words are compelling. As we live or die, we do it to Christ. If we live or die, we also do it with our neighbour. As much as Christ came down to die for us, we are expected to live and die for our neighbours. These words demarcate the perimeters of our life on earth, describing how to live for God as our vertical trajectory and how to live for neighbours as our horizontal frontiers. Christ is our ultimate guide, one who is fully divine and fully human. That is why when we follow Christ, we honour God and we respect one another both in life and in death. We cannot live for ourselves only. We can only become the best version of ourselves by being part of a community. In doing so, our presence can accelerate and encourage others to become the best version of themselves. This is the crux of a living relationship.

Lessons from Pleasantville
The movie ‘Pleasantville’ depicts a utopian society where everyone lives in a seemingly perfect world, where people behave in a similar manner, conforming themselves to specific rules and customs. Thus ‘similarity’ and ‘conformity’ are the twin methods to preserving a ‘perfect’ community. Using black and white footage in the 50s era, the director tries to push the show as a critic of conformity-pushers, that it does not last. Relationships are straitjacketed by such black-and-white rules that life is all about doing the right things and not doing the wrong things. The director, Gary Ross touches on racism, on the folly of extreme orthodoxy, a critique of an archaic view of a perfect world made via values of strict observance of rules. Relationships were built on restricted gender roles, and people agreeing on a common set of values.

One of the most beautiful scenes of Pleasantville is the slow and romantic drive from black-and-white world into a panorama of colour. If a relationship can progress from simply doing right-vs-wrong things into one that accepts one another’s strengths and weaknesses, that knows when to admonish and when to speak a word of encouragement, it enhances life with meaning and purpose. The movie tries to inject a multiple spectrum of different perspectives in order to break the innocence of a black-and-white society. On the surface level, it is a welcome relief, and any audience will immediately emphathize with the poor people locked and trapped in their own world of strict rules and 'boring' adherence to the laws of the land. At this point, I find the movie rather one-sided. "More than Cake" has some interesting lessons to learn from the movie.

Apart from this, the movie does have some disturbing references to that moment of sin at the Garden of Eden. It gets the audience on the side of permissiveness, promiscuity and a slap on the folly of plain innocence. It depicts God like that of a strict disciplinarian who insists only on right-and-wrong acts. Fight the Good Fight ministries have a rather interesting take on the subtle message of Pleasantville, a lot of it makes pretty good sense, especially the one on the part of glorifying sin. [As usual, note that these links does not imply I endorse them. The links are provided mainly for reference.]

The Greening of the Garden of Relationships
However, dismissing the movie totally is not recommended as it gives us a window into an emerging worldview that seeks to find its own identity. Too much authoritarian-style traditionalism repels the young. Too liberal a stance spoils the young. The challenge is to be able to reach out to people of this era in a manner that is respectful of tradition and yet mindful of the deep struggle for identity. Relationships are cultivated best in an atmosphere of trust and goodwill. Like a seed that is planted on good soil, it requires the warm sunshine of gentleness, not the scorching glare of forceful commandeering. It needs the subtle watery drops of care, not the impatient hosing of the seed, which may drown the young seedling, or wash away the essential nutrients of life. It needs the intentional attitude of tending the seed, not the purposeless scattering of many seeds for the purpose of accelerating production and growth for a quick sale of its produce. Relationships are not to be bought or sold at any price. We are all called to be gardeners in the plantation of relationships. Some will sow while others will water. Some will prune while others will tap. Some will harvest while others will reap. At every stage of the gardening effort, God will be there to give any form of increase. Relationships can be cultivated at any level. It might be tougher at some phases of life, but it is all part of growing. I like this quote that talks about appreciating one another when we can.
Present your family and friends with their eulogies now - they won't be able to hear how much you love them and appreciate them from inside the coffin.” (Anonymous)
What a wonderful reminder that we learn to appreciate one another while we still can. Speak encouragingly while we are still up and kicking and healthy. Say the words of love while we are together. For we do not know when our life on earth will end. We cannot simply assume that people will be there to shake our hand tomorrow, next week or next year. Life is fleeting and temporary. Indeed, most of us will say that relationships are critical in this life. Building good relationships seem almost always a given in job interviews or part of any job description. Even those who telecommute will need to know how to relate to others via the telephone or email communications. Most importantly, each person in any community must learn that they not only have a responsibility to themselves but to the people around them and the world at large. They are called to help one another become the best versions of themselves.

In Jim Stovall’s "The Ultimate Gift," the potential beneficiary of a huge inheritance, Jason Stevens, speaks of his learning about friendships. He relates the story between Gus Caldwell and his uncle Ted Stevens about a group of cattle ranchers whose ranches, though several miles apart, shared the same range. Each spring, all the ranchers will have to round up their cattle’s young calves. Each rancher needs a minimum number of cattle to remain in business. Gus, who was concerned that his friend Red might not make the numbers decided to brand a number of his own with Red’s brand. The following spring, at the roundup, instead of 30 cattle short, Gus found to his surprise he have almost 50 more cattle in his numbers! Only many years later did he learn that his friend Red also had a similar idea and did the same (even more) than what Gus did. Such friendship of giving to one another is a beautiful picture of a relationship that treasures one another.

Indeed, Oxford and Cambridge may be archrivals in the British academic scene, fierce contenders in the annual Oxbridge rowboat race (University Row Boat Race) and whose tradition of rivalry extends deep among faculties, students, alumni and supporters throughout the world. One thing that remains clear to me is that each of them has become the best version of themselves only because of the other. Does Cambridge bring out the worst of Oxford? Or does Oxford draw out the best of Cambridge? I believe healthy respect and an arm’s length admiration augers best for best institutions. Like any relationship, we need to discern when it’s best to come close and when it is best to stay away. Matthew Kelly, based in Australia, says it well in describing relationships as a synonym of making one another the best-versions-of-ourselves. I agree. The wonderful thing is that as we help others become the best version of themselves, we find ourselves strangely formed into the best version of ourselves. It is indeed not good for man to be alone. It is far better for one to help another, the best way he can possibly be and do. Like the wise Qoholeth in Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything under heaven and on earth. Relationships are cultivated best in knowing when is the time ‘to embrace and a time to refrain’ (Eccl 3:5b).



adolfo said...

It seems there’s a tendency among those who live to help others to neglect their own needs. As a leader in the healthy-living biz, I’ve known and worked with people like this for years.
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YAPdates said...

Thank you for your comment. While there are people, who like you say 'neglect their own needs,' I think the bigger problem is them not knowing what they really need. The bigger danger is them using others as a form of helping themselves.

This is not what my posting is all about. I am talking about relationships where one honestly and earnestly help another to be the best version of themselves. It takes courage. It takes vulnerability. It takes humility. There is no sure-proof way of caring for others with a guarantee that the helper will not be hurt or harmed. We just have to hope that the good in the person(s) will come forth as gold.



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