Letting the Little Things Go

I was away in Berkeley last week at two wonderful conferences–the Association of Teaching Theologians of the Lutheran Church; and the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies.  Both of the conferences were stimulating and interesting, and Berkeley is, well Berkeley:  if you are an outdoorsy vegetarian like I am, it is an absolutely delight to spend time in the Bay Area.  Plus, I was able to fit in some catch-up time with a couple of dear friends.  So, all in all, a great week–even though I didn’t find time to write a blog post!

So, back in my office, and thinking about what I might want to write about this week, what caught my eye this morning is this column from “The Ethicist” in The New York Times:  The Towel Saga Next Door
If you don’t read this column regularly, you really should, because it is supremely entertaining, for one; and it also sheds very helpful light on human behavior.  And, I find that sometimes reading about challenging behaviors that aren’t my own–or related to me in any way–gives me enough critical distance that I can apply them to my own context in a very non-threatening, non-defensive way.  [Rather than, say, a disagreement with my husband, for example….]  This is one of those times.

So, in the first response to the issue of the “towel saga,” Kenji Yoshino writes, “I’m reminded of how much ethics is about letting the little things go.”  Oh, right–letting the little things go.
Now, before I say anything else, note the adjective “little.”  No one is advocating shrugging off domestic abuse, bullying, racist/sexist comments, etc., etc.  If you have trouble distinguishing big from little, that’s another problem; but, in general, you know what I am talking about here:  the failure to RSVP; the work exchange that was sharper than it needed to be; the overlooked “thank you”; the missed appointment; the snotty email.  Too often we jump to worst-case scenario in these instances, taking things very personally that actually have nothing at all to do with us:  a bad night’s sleep; a fight with a parent or child; spilled coffee in the car–whatever.  Then, we return tit for tat, escalating something that just as easily could have melted away, making life harder, more complicated and gloomier for everyone–including ourselves.

One of my colleagues, Don, who practices vipassana meditation, was talking about this very thing on Wednesday, reminding us how often we chew up mental and emotional energy rehashing past conversations in our head, or rehearsing conversations we’re planning in the future [very often these are negative conversations, mind you, which is why they are still taking up head and heart space].  Both of these things prevent us from living in the present moment, which is, of course, the only moment that we’re really alive.  It’s a very draining, stressful, non-productive, non-rewarding way to live.  [I speak from experience here–days taken up with that kind of energy are exhausting.]

Yoshino goes on to say, “We need a little more give in the joints to ensure one another’s human flourishing.  A truly ethical posture requires [a] generosity of mind and spirit….”  As someone who is not very flexible in general–and that is both physical and dispositional, frankly; this call to flexibility is a very good reminder to me.  In Lutheran terms, this is called “practicing the 8th Commandment,” and we all could use more of it.  I know I could.  It’s a good thought as I prepare for the beginning of a new academic year.

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