These words are from Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World, by John O’Donohue in conversation with John Quinn on Irish radio (p. 158). They stopped me in my reading tracks. I knew, as we all do, that everyone has a point of view. What O’Donohue’s remark highlights is that everyone’s point of view is dynamic. It’s moving. It’s breathing. Sometimes it breathes with the Holy Spirit. And it can twist and dive and veer off in unexpected directions. So every conversation involves visible humans and their invisible inner conversations.
O’Donohue’s remark also sharpened my awareness of my own internal process of observation. Lately, I’ve been making a greater effort to listen to other people (difficult) and to listen to my own internal dialogue (easier, but humbling).
I’ve discovered how often my internal dialogue is about judging my actions and comparing myself to others. Some of this is related to how my mind works. I’m analytical by nature. My mind likes to define, sort, and order. Another part has to do with simple social behavior. Humans are constantly monitoring how they fit into groups. It’s normal to be aware of our position in the group structure. At the most basic level, it’s a survival behavior.
Then there are the spiritual stumbling blocks. I hear myself judging and condemning others. I hurt myself by ruminating on my own shortcomings. Too often, I refuse to give grace to people who are struggling. This is the eye that must be plucked out. In Matthew 5:29, Jesus says: If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
To put it mildly, this is disturbing imagery. Of course there are multiple interpretations of it. A call to sexual purity seems to be a common interpretation, particularly as Jesus comments on adultery in the preceding verses. However, the larger context is the entire Sermon on the Mount. In this long text, I believe Jesus is trying very hard to show the urgency of seeing and living in a totally different way, and why forcefully removing any obstacles to that is worth all the pain it may cost us.
He starts off his talk with the Beatitudes. He wants to show people how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. To me, the violent imagery in Matthew 5:29 means the change must go deep. We have an eye that leads us to see, and then act, in ways that alienate us from our fellow humans. If it hurts to change our way of seeing, so be it. We want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is right there, open to us, but we have to be able to see it. We have to act decisively to change the way we see.
So, our own internal dialogue is no small matter. Then, there’s the other person’s internal dialogue. The person I’m speaking with may be busy with an internal argument that started decades ago. I can’t know what the other person may be going through. They may be so occupied with this internal dialogue (or battle) that they can’t focus on what I’m saying. They’re not doing this because they don’t like me, or because they don’t want to talk to me. It’s just that pausing their internal discussions would involve multi-tasking they aren’t up to. So, I need to give them grace and try not to get tangled up in my own internal dialogue about how other people relate to me.
Having all this in mind, I hardly know if I’m brave enough to say “hello” to anyone. “Hello” is not only a greeting between two people. This simple word can be the beginning of a conversation that involves all the other people who have had an influence on our thoughts. Let us enter into that conversation gently.