This may not seem a big problem or a spiritual problem, but it's affecting every part of my life. I'm married with three growing children, and between work and home-life I never have a minute I can call my own. That's not so bad, but what gets to me is the feeling that I'm taken completely for granted. I know this sounds old hat and I'm a bit ashamed as I see it now on the screen. I'm not actually looking for sympathy. I'm asking if there is some way I can adjust something so that this doesn't continue to impact on me in the way it has been doing. Can you say anything that could help? Michael G.
Dear Michael, It's good that you can put it out there, on the screen or wherever - rather than biting the bullet as so many men feel they have to do. When we lock up such things over a long period they become the stuff of large-scale resentment.
There are two things that I can pass on to you. 1. I can't help but remember the advice the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh gave to a young man who asked the very same question that you asked. I don't have a copy of the book, which I read many years ago, so I can't quote his reply, but I remember the substance of it.
The time you spend playing with your small son in the evening, he asked, is it time spent only for him? Is it not also your time? If you are one with him, it is also your time. Your life is not on hold while you are playing with him; you are living it:
it is your time. If you say it is not your time, then you have somehow divided yourself from your son. Likewise the time you spend with your wife, is it not also your time? In fact all your time is your time - if you don't divide yourself from what you are doing. That was the substance on his answer. It would be hard to improve on that. And it works! I have found repeatedly that it puts me back in the right place when I have wandered far away. And it's not a shallow rule of thumb; it goes all the way down. It challenges the ego, it makes the "dying to oneself" of the Gospel a practical reality - and a joyful liberating one.
2. About being taken for granted. Another monk, Thomas Merton, translated some texts from Chuang Tzu, a Chinese sage of the 3rd century B.C. Again, my copy of the book disappeared, just days ago, but I have some recollection of a few passages. One in particular may be of use to you. If you step on a stranger's foot in the marketplace, he said, you make a profuse apology and you give an explanation: "I'm so sorry, this place is so crowded!" But if you step on your brother's foot, you just say, "Sorry!" and no more. No more is needed. Now if you were to step on your own son's foot, you would just smile or tousle his hair; there is no need for words, because the relationship is so close; it's like stepping on your own foot.
If your people seem to take you for granted, think of all the other things they also take for granted: the walls of the house, the roof, the solidity of the earth, the constancy of sunrise, the turning of the seasons….all the strong stable things in the world. It may not be right, in a particular case, for someone to take you for granted, and they may need to be taught appreciation. But from your side of it, being taken for granted need not be a problem. The ancient monk recalls us to the Gospel: dying to oneself. But it's practical and workable: to die to oneself by becoming like the walls of the house, or the roof over one's family. Or the ground they walk on…! I hope these monks may have cast some ray of light to help you, Michael. Thank you for your letter.
God bless you.