On Dying, Every Moment

Our readings for this Sunday can be found here.

New York's inner emptiness
Empty.

Jn 3:29
“The one who has the bride is the bridegroom;
the best man, who stands and listens for him,
rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.”

Both readings come this week from John; the first from the Epistle of John and the second from the Gospel of John. The Gospel quote above refers to yet another John: John the Baptist. Many volumes can be and have been filled with deciding whether John the Apostle is also John the Epistle (as it were) — and indeed whether John the Apostle is also the John who claims authorship of Revelations. But I won’t go into those questions here, as I don’t know a damn thing about it.

All I can say is that today I’m writing about John the Baptist.

John the Baptist, as we all know, was the “voice crying in the wilderness,” the preacher who ducked Jesus in the river and perhaps influenced Jesus’s religious thinking. What I find fascinating about John is precisely that sentiment embodied in the quote above. Like Jesus, John is also a religious man, with his own followers and ceremonies (the river-dunk being the best-known). Like Jesus, he is persecuted for his teaching by the powerful men of his day. And he consistently resists the attempts of others to place significance on him, referring back to the Word of God and describing himself as merely a vessel… just like Jesus.

He must increase;
I must decrease.”

This came up for me today as I was discussing with a group of people how to better give and receive feedback, particularly in regards to your own creative work. What we all suddenly hit on is that not only is it difficult to receive negative feedback on creative work — which might be explained away by saying that it took a lot of effort to produce that work, and we don’t want to feel the effort wasted — but in fact it is difficult to receive negative feedback about ANYthing we do.

Even if all we’re doing is washing a dish or taking the trash out, we don’t like getting negative feedback. We get defensive, we try to explain our way out of it, and we may even lash out at the person offering it — even if it is offered in a spirit of pure kindness.

Why is that? I believe we take umbrage at these criticisms because we believe too firmly in the continuum of the self. Which is to say: when someone criticizes our actions, we take that criticism as a reference to the present moment. When in fact we are no longer that same person, at all.

We believe too
firmly in the
continuum of self.”

There are literal biological ways in which this is true – the skin renews itself every 28 days, the blood every 4 months – but as it’s Sermon Sundays we need only concern ourselves with the felt reality of this statement. We are not an autonomous thinking unit with a clear understanding of an objective reality. We are a collection of twitching, blinking proteins and a constantly whirring heart. We’re a nervous, hunted animal with a couple sacks of air in our chest that need to be constantly filled and emptied, filled and emptied.

We are, then, nothing but the experience of self in the moment, and when the moment has passed that “us” is dead, that experience lost forever. There is no continuum of self and there is no discrete moment of self. Only the best man waiting for the bridegroom’s voice; no jealousy, no impatience, no need to be a better teacher.

Just listening… listening… listening… listening… listening… then great rejoicing!

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