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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Politics of Pride, Death and Family...

Selling his soul to the Devil...
In one of my most memorable movie lines, at the end of Devil's Advocate, just when it looked like Keanu Reeves' character, Kevin Lomax, was going to get a fresh start in life, after all the mayhem, death and destruction caused by his selfishness, lust and greed, Al Pacino's character, aka Satan, taking the form of a reporter, coaxes Reeves into giving him an interview, saying, "This is a story that needs to be told.  It's you. You're a star," which hearkens back to where the movie started; a little known defense attorney trying to make a name for himself and pursuing all the things that St. Thomas Aquinas once said are man's substitutes for God; money, pleasures, power and fame. 

Lomax looks at his wife, looks back at the reporter and says with a smile, "Ok., Larry.  Call me in the morning," and walks away.

As the young attorney and his wife leave the scene, the reporter becomes Al Pacino, who looks into the camera, smiles broadly and says, "Vanity.  My favorite sin!"

Vanity, which at its core, like all sins is rooted in pride, the sin that led to the fall of man in the Garden of Eden and continues to plague and destroy souls, marriages, families and societies.

Yes, I know.  Most people today abhor any thought of sin because it reminds them of sin's consequence; hell!  And, they prefer not to think about hell, since it means having to change their ways, almost as much as thinking about death.

Last week a friend told me about the estranged relationship her husband had with his parents, despite living about ten blocks away from them.  For no apparent reason, except for stubbornness and pride, they hadn't spoken to each other in over a year.

I was thrown aback.  My friend and her husband have two little kids.  A year has gone by and they haven't seen or talked to their grandparents!

I said to her, "I have to take your husband to a retreat," and before she explained how difficult his parents were, I told her, "It doesn't matter what may or may not have happened.  We are called to honor our fathers and mothers and sometimes have to swallow our pride because one day, they are not going to be there and then he will regret it." 

Several weeks ago, I was making a similar point at a men's retreat.  I was giving a talk about the need to nurture the relationships with those we most love and approached my talk where most people think life ends; death.   

I got the idea from a phrase Peter Kreeft uses in his book, Before I Go; "Momento mori," which is a Latin phrase meaning, “Remember death.”

The cusp of my talk was this; life is short and extremely volatile.  We are all just an accident, an illness or a random act of violence away from checking out of this world at any time. Therefore, we really have to make an effort to mend, heal, forgive and restore our relationships before it's too late.

Pride is like a decease that festers and grows, if we let it.  It's that little voice in our ear that says, "It's not your fault.  They are the ones that have to call you.  They are the ones that did this or that.  They are the ones that were disinterested and let the days, weeks and months go by.  Why don't they call?  Why don't they apologize?" (For more, see C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters)

Bad intentions; Jake on the warpath...
And, it's easy for that year to turn into two and then into three and so on. Sometimes, the people involved forget what started the fight in the first place but they have too much pride to say I'm sorry; too much pride to appear weak in the other person's eye; too much pride to let the other side win (in their mind). So, they wait, ferment and rot inside, until the day comes when somebody dies and then they wonder why they wasted so much time. (Of course, if you're Joey LaMotta, who's brother, Jake LaMotta, aka Raging Bull, beat the living daylights out of you in front of your wife and kids in your own house, it may take a little longer but forgive we must, not so much for the person we're forgiving as for us.)

Although, I never had a bad relationship with my parents, I can identify with my friend's husband because I myself wasted a lot time absorbed in my own life.

For many years, I neglected my father and mother. 

I loved them dearly.  I was just too busy; too busy working, too busy hanging with friends, too busy playing baseball, too busy on vacations, too busy watching the Mets, too busy watching Seinfeld, and so on.  A week or two could easily pass by, if not more!, without me as much as picking up the phone and calling to check how they were doing.  They were the ones that usually had to call because; I was too busy!

During a retreat I attended in 2006, one of the guys talked about his relationship with his parents and how for many years he resented his dad for not being able to provide all the things his friends had and he wanted; again back to vanity and pride.

His father died unexpectedly and then he regretted all the pain and grief he had caused his old man; all the disrespect, all the anger he had shown, all the sleepless nights and turmoil.

It was a contrast in humility.  All the father had done was work hard to provide for his family, sometimes taking on two jobs to ensure his son would attend one of the top schools in Miami, even if it meant sacrifice and struggle.  And, all the son had done, as he explained it, was to reject his blue collar dad and curse him under his breath because of his pride for not having the fancy car or money, like most of his friends.

His pain and regret were evident and very moving, however, there was also redemption and hope in his story.  After his father's death, his mother was left alone and he did not want to have the same regrets when she died.  So, he started spending more time with her and one of the things he started doing, which left a profound impression on me, was to stop by his mother's house everyday on his way to work to have a cup of coffee.

I started doing that.  
The binding power of cafecito...

Almost every morning, for the past about nine years or so, whether I’m running late to a meeting or not, I sidetrack from my way to work and spend at least 5 minutes having Cuban coffee and sharing in brief conversations with my parents.  

My friend, whose husband hadn't spoken to his parents, asked if I can help her in writing a text message to her mother-in-law, which I gladly agreed.  

Since I didn't know the lady and wasn't tainted by all the baggage that may have led to the deterioration of the relationship, I wrote from a faith and outsider's perspective; whatever happened happened, it's time to heal.  It's time to put the past aside and focus on reconciliation and restoring the relationship.

There were several exchanges after that.  The mother-in-law said she wanted to move on but kept bringing up unresolved issues.  And, again, I answered with the same, "let's get past the blame and focus on the future."   

A day or two later, after a couple of more text exchanges, which I didn't take part in, my friend shows me a message that came from her husband to his mom stating something along the lines of, "Mom, I love you and I want you to be part of my children's lives."

It was pretty powerful stuff.  A year of animosity and strife appeared to be melting away and a new air of peace and reunification loomed.  

It's a lesson we can all learn from, but, in our humanity, we would be wise to stay alert, since that same vanity that resurfaced in Kevin Lomax's life at the end of Devil's Advocate, can raise it's ugly head at any point in our life as well.  

The key is to catch it, understand it is the sin of pride, remember that our family members are not going to be there forever and humble ourselves for the sake of love...  

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