Reading through my journals from my first two years living in South Asia is embarrassing. The first year, especially, was more often difficult than enjoyable. Much of my frustration and anger became directed at the leaders responsible for guiding me through the process. They were strangers, at the time, mysteriously placing me in uncomfortable situations that ground every last reserve out of me. There are pages that lapse into nothing short of hatred.
On this side of the experiences, I can see they were doing it for my benefit. To keep me from making the same mistakes they had, to show me the path to longevity. At the time, I resented it; now I would thank them. As I prepare to help other new people arrive, I respect even more what it cost my leaders to help me get my bearings here.
The novel Gilead is written as a memoir from a dying pastor to his nine year old son. He’s desperate to write to his son the family stories and lessons he will not be there to share in person.
He expounds in the very middle of the book on the fifth of the Ten Commandments, to “honor your father and mother”. He sees honoring your parents as a way to learn to fulfill the larger command to honor everyone. Once you’ve learned the discipline of honoring by honoring your parents you will also be capable of honoring everyone else.
He rejects the idea of “honoring” meaning not going “out of your way to defy [authority]” since “that really cheapens the notion of honoring… It would not be anything beautiful enough or important enough to be placed right at the center of the Ten Commandments”. Instead, honoring is a way to set apart something “so that their holiness will be perceived”, a way to be led into the “sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object”.
In the parent-child relationship, he says, the parent is the greater mystery because “so much of our lives has passed”. They are the child’s first experience with people “who usually labor and are heavy-laden, and may be cranky or stingy or ignorant or overbearing” – people who do things incomprehensible to the child.
As he applies this principle of honoring to the boy’s mother, his wife, he alludes a great sorrow and courage in her indicative of immense previous hardship. He urges his son to live with great gentleness and kindness towards his mother because of this understanding of her history.
In urging this attitude towards his mother, the pastor is, by extension, urging this attitude towards all people. Honoring one another means living in light of the awareness that they are a great mystery to us. That they have lived much of their life, thought most of their thoughts, outside the realm of our understanding. In respect of past sorrows and hardships which we may know nothing about, we are called to live with those around us from a posture of great gentleness and kindness.
Too often I judge someone more quickly than my limited understanding should allow. Too often I must retract unkind or harsh pronouncements when the reality of another person’s being created in the image of God is forced upon my consciousness. As I slowly learn to honor those I do not understand, I’m growing more aware of the sacredness of the mysterious people around me.