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A proper perspective

Softening, Reconciling and Forgiving | Wednesday, September 18, 2013

One of my favorite hobbies is shopping at thrift stores. Growing up here in South Bend, I think I have been to just about every Goodwill and Salvation Army in the area, as well as the new Saint Vincent de Paul store on State Road 23. I have been very fortunate to often find the exact item that I have been looking for – a suit, leather boots, dress shoes, belts, shirts and sweaters. The items are not perfect by any means, but they are certainly suitable and are about as good as anything I could buy new. This happens to me so often that I wonder if there is an element of providence in my thrift shopping.
Certainly there is a great amount of luck involved in thrifting and I appreciate thinking of thrifting mathematically in terms of probability. But given the high frequency with which the exact item I seek emerges, it is difficult to pin this on mere chance. This past summer for example, my brown leather dress shoes fell apart and I needed a new pair. Sure enough, I went to Saint Vincent de Paul and found a pair of high-quality, leather-soled dress shoes that were in great shape. Chance or providence? I’m not sure, but I sense that part of my ‘luck’ in thrifting is a product of my expectations going in. I never expect to find what I need. So when these things emerge – and fit! – it is easy to see them as small blessings. 
Our experiences are more often than not shaped by our expectations. This applies across our lives. If we have improperly ordered expectations, we are going to be frustrated with reality. To expect perfect relationships, an easy 4.0 GPA or offers from every job to which we apply would be improperly ordered and reality will almost certainly disappoint these expectations. But this disappointment does not exist only in the realm of our frivolous desires. On a deeper level, expectations frustrated by reality often beget a great sense of despair and anger. This is the sort of anger that accompanies the unexpected death of a loved one. It is reasonable to expect your parents to live through your college graduation. But what happens when this does not align with reality? What happens when we are confronted with an untimely death?
My father was born with a congenital heart defect and required open-heart surgery when he was six years old. That surgery had a 50 percent chance of survival. He beat those odds, but with the hypoglycemia and seizures he experienced as he got older, my father was told to expect to live to be 40 years old. He lived to be 50 and he was blessed with three healthy children. It is not difficult to see God’s hand in all of this. Nor is it difficult to see the many blessings that are a result of my father’s time on this earth. In order to see these gifts, a shift in perspective is required. Instead of ‘only living to be 50,’ it becomes ‘being blessed with 10 years longer than expected.’ Nor can we expect any of the great gifts with which we have been blessed such as life, health, talents, family and friends. These are incredible gifts that cannot be taken for granted.
This perspective shift allowed me to better understand and deal with my father’s passing. It continues to be a great lesson. In Genesis, man is made in the image and likeness of a loving Creator who “knit us in our mother’s wombs.” When we understand that we are created beings our expectations become properly ordered. Everything that we have can be traced back to our Creator. In this sense we can see God moving over all, “softening, reconciling and forgiving” as Zosima teaches us in the Brothers Karamazov. This orientation towards gratitude leads us to more fully appreciate God’s sacrifice of his only son. Thus, on the one hand, we are filled with a great sense of wonder at our creation and a great sense of unworthiness – “What is man that you are mindful of him?” But on the other hand, in Christ we have the greatest assurance of God’s love and this is our greatest hope.