Columnists > Voices

The 'wide' way

A widened heart views others with hope and possibility instead of with a severe, loveless accuracy

Issue: "Earthquake in Bam," Jan. 10, 2004

FOR ME EVERYTHING IS BIBLICAL. EVEN DISNEY'S Brother Bear, as pumped with New Age cliches as a Unitarian Sunday school class, is helpful to my piety. Each loincloth-clad noble savage, at his coming of age, is assigned a "totem," a pendant with one unique word on it ("patience," "love," "bravery," etc.) to be the focus of a lifetime, the mantra of the journey, the divining rod of discovery of the secrets of the universe.

It isn't a bad idea, to my thinking, that rather than Bible knowledge a mile wide and an inch deep, we contemplate the possibilities of the man on a desert island who's salvaged only one scrap of Scripture from the shipwreck and has to chew on it the rest of his life. I have a theory that almost any passage of the Bible is a doorway leading to every other passage eventually. Just master one and you've done all.

My "totem," I have lately decided, will be 2 Corinthians 6:13: "widen your hearts." I have never heard it preached on, nor given it much thought myself-which is qualification enough. Beyond that, it would seem at first blush to be more promising than, say, a verse on how to dispose of the offal of a bovine offering (Leviticus 4:11-12).

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The desert island will have to be a sort of Gilligan's Island for this to work, a place with at least a few inhabitants to rub up against, since the presenting problem, of course, is other people.

My guess is that Paul appears prickly to many of us. This may be his lack of adeptness in the art of shmoozing. Be that as it may, his letter to a church that's been gossiping along the lines of how "his letters sometimes evince a fine turn of phrase, but he isn't much to look at or such hot stuff when you meet him in person" is disarmingly childlike in its vulnerability. Somebody with a heart not "wide open" might dismiss it as either groveling or thinly veiled peevishness:

"We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return ... widen your hearts also.... Make room in your hearts for us.... for I said before that you are in our hearts" (6:11-13; 7:2-3). This is painful to listen to.

It wasn't till I decided to try opening my heart wide that I began to realize how constricted it is by habit, how narrow an opening I give people-either to get in in the first place, or to stay in. Lack of practice tells in almost every encounter. Other reactions are more knee-jerk, other yardsticks than "wideness" for evaluating persons rush in at the outset. "She's a bit off, isn't she," I mentally assess in the midst of a conversation. A preacher preaches Christ and I find 10 things wrong with the sermon.

(All the while, of course, my preference is that others would use the "wide open heart" policy in receiving me, and not my own more stringent categories.)

Paul's phrase, "widen your hearts," is so loose, so non-technical, so undefined, so ... wide open, as to invite-or coerce-some outlay of cogitation on my part. What it means to "widen your heart" I am evidently free to explore without restriction, since I am so unlikely to go too far with it that, as with other virtues Paul names elsewhere, "against such things there is no law" (Galatians 5:23).

I discover there are two ways of seeing my brother. There is the "merely human" way (1 Corinthians 3; 4)-a severe, loveless accuracy. A clinical fixation on the wart on his nose. A covering the sun with one finger, as a Mexican boy once told me.

Then there is the "wide" way. It sees possibility; it is full of self-knowledge; it "believes all things, hopes all things" (1 Corinthians 13:7); it regards the other as "a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17) and abandons the tired modes of "measuring" and "comparing" (2 Corinthians 10:12). It is the difference between mercy and justice, kindness and shrewdness, remembering one's own reflection in the mirror and forgetting. If I possessed it, then when I met someone who dislikes me (I may only be imagining it), I would say to myself, "Gee, I wonder if he's not feeling well today-got a touch of the flu perhaps." Or I would say to myself when the postman is surly, "My, aren't we humans a piece of work? Why, I was surly to a customer myself just the other day."


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