"Do I need to talk to someone special, or can I talk to you?" said the gentleman on the other end of the phone. In my friendliest customer-service voice, "I'm someone special," I replied, and the call improved from there.
After I hung up, I started thinking about the likely subtexts of the conversation, or at least its beginning. I suspect the man was really saying, "Are you going to help me, or are you going to give me the run-around?" He even inoculated himself against the possible rejection of my saying, "I can't help you, you'll have to talk to so-and-so," by beating me to it with his query about "someone special."
I think another subtext was, "Please don't make me explain what I want twice; if you can't help me, just pass me along to whoever can." We all know how it feels to tell our story over and over to people who are clearly not interested.
And from there I went on to deeper questions: Why should any of us assume that a fellow traveler on this earth is nobody special? Why should we imagine that others don't matter — or that they matter only insofar as they are of use to us — that their small trials and pains and triumphs aren't as all-consuming to them as ours are to us?
From somewhere inside, somebody said, "original sin." Yep, that's the one. But what does that really mean?
To me, it means, first, that I am mostly quite self-centered: what frustrates or irritates me is to be avoided or annihilated; what fosters my desires and flatters my sense of my own importance and power is to be valued to the exact extent that it does so. In the darkness of my inmost heart, there dwells a petty tyrant, a miniature Queen of Hearts from "Alice in Wonderland," who, if she could get away with it, would shout, "Off with their heads!" 20 times a day.
A second result of original sin is that I often don't have love and compassion for myself. This might seem to contradict what I just said about my tyrannical ego, but actually it feeds and is fed by it. I fail to appreciate others' specialness because I lose sight of my own specialness. I’m intolerant of others because I think I should be perfect and I can't forgive myself for being so much less than that. To forgive myself, after all, would be to acknowledge the truth of my imperfection.
It's the very fact that I am so much less than I think I should be — less successful, less beautiful, less powerful, less in control, less good — that makes the experiences of frustration, rejection and denial that are an everyday part of life so maddening. If I expect myself to be all-knowing and all-capable, anything that makes me confront the fact that I am not those things — not even close — wounds my fragile ego, and I tend to turn to anger or something worse (self-pity, self-hatred) to escape the hurt.
And why, for the love of heaven, why do I expect such absurd things of myself? Because I’m afraid, and I think being masterful and successful and in control is the way to protect my tiny self. You see, that inner tyrant is really about 3 years old (the Queen of Hearts is just a playing card, after all). She can be brutal, but only because she's terrified. When she's reminded that there's an adult — me — in charge, and that she is God's beloved little girl, she goes back to hanging out in her interior playroom and lets me get on with things in a slightly more civilized manner. Not that I can manage that on my own.
What really enables me to behave in a loving way — to remember that others exist, not as appendages of my need, but as utterly separate, unique and independent beings — is God. God, who loves me at my weakest, my ugliest, my most unlovable, and who shared my life in the person of Jesus, chooses me, and promises to be with me whatever happens.
God doesn't sugarcoat my unattractive parts. It is by expecting me to get on with the business of learning to give and receive love that God lets me know that, dimly burning wick though I may be, I have it in me to shine.
Of course, I’m someone special. So are you.