Love thy neighbor, even the more talented pretty one

August 20, 2012

Danielle Tumminio

Danielle Tumminio

[Episcopal News Service] This past month, Hulu released the second season of the British television show, “Rev.,” a kind of Vicar-of-Dibley-ten-years-later story about a male priest in inner-city London.

But unlike the “Vicar of Dibley,” “Rev.” has a bite to its humor, as demonstrated by one of the latest episodes, in which the protagonist, the Rev. Adam Smallbone, gets a new curate named Abi Johnston.

Rev. Abi is young and smart. She rearranges the vestry with the skill of a consultant from The Container Store. She confidently leads services and starts an initiative to grow the congregation.

The archdeacon found her dissertation riveting.

She’s polite. And pleasant. Indeed, Abi is polite and pleasant to a fault and so energetic that Adam wonders if she suffers from manic-depression.

She does not.

At one point in the episode, Adam watches Abi weave her fingers across the piano and prays, “She plays the piano as well, of course she does. Why have you sent this woman, Lord? I should be able to love her but I can’t. I’m jealous of her because she’s cleverer than me and kind and hard-working and she brings the liturgy alive and she fills the church. I bet she speaks Hebrew as well. And Aramaic. Why do I find her so irritating? …I’m going to try to love her. Love does not envy. [Pause] I want her to go away. Please make her go away.”

My husband and I laughed—and cringed—as we watched this episode of “Rev.” We both knew the phenomenon of the Abi: There was my husband’s “frenemy” (friend + enemy) from college and the girl from my high school who was valedictorian, had an adorable boyfriend, played in the national orchestra, was state champion in the decathlon, and still slept eight hours a night.

How do they do it? We wondered. And why is it so hard to love them?

That, of course, is the question that we as Christians must ask if we are to fulfill Jesus’ mandate to love our neighbors. But such love is hard won. Many of us try all sorts of inner cognitive manipulation to allow us to love an Abi in our lives.

Case in point: We might remind ourselves that an Abi is flawed and imperfect, just as we are. By virtue of being members of God’s created humanity, this person has weaknesses. That’s humanizing, we reason. That makes it easier to love. But while it’s true that all humans are fallible, here it’s merely justifying. We’re lessening the very real accomplishments of others in order to make ourselves feel better. That’s not really love.

Or how about this cognitive manipulation: We try to distance ourselves from the Abi types, wagering that if we don’t interact with them, then they’re not really neighbors who require love.

This, however—this isn’t real love either. It’s simply avoidance, because what we’re really doing is saying, “If I stay away from my Abi, then it doesn’t remind me how imperfect I am.”

Which is, of course, what this is really all about.

I would wager that ultimately, the reason Abi types are so hard to love has nothing to do with their skills or achievements but rather has a lot to do with how we perceive our own imperfections. In other words, when we encounter an Abi, we turn inward and ask ourselves, “Am I lovable if I’m not as smart/creative/energetic/efficient/fun/relaxed/rich as Abi is?”

We fear the answer is no. No we’re not.

And that, I think, is the greatest cognitive manipulation of all, because if God promises one thing, it’s that we are God’s beloved by virtue of our creation. Nothing interferes with that. So when we believe that our flaws and our imperfections make us unlovable, then we are distorting the essence our relationship with God as much as we are distorting our relationship with our neighbor.

I’d like to say that an Abi wouldn’t feel so threatening if we all just had a little more self-confidence, but I think that’s too naïve. We have to change how we treat our neighbors too, because the reality is that we live in a competitive world in which we are judged for all sorts of things at all sorts of times. Very little in our lives goes uncalculated, unmeasured. Our job performance, our weight, our grades, our children’s grades, our gray hairs, our cars, our clothes, the type of cell phone we own, the books we read (or don’t read), whether or not we recycle, how many times we say “like” in a sentence….

It’s daunting how very little is out of bounds.

No wonder so many of us envy neighbors who seem to have what we lack.

I can’t help but imagine how different our world would be if we started breaking these judgmental barriers down, if, we started with, “I love you,” instead of, “I judge you.”

Of course, that’s exactly what God does. No matter what flaw we present, we are always God’s beloved—which doesn’t excuse us when we can do better, and it’s not meant to condone our mistakes, but it does send a loud and clear message that nothing we do makes us unlovable.

And that realization, I think, makes it just a little easier to love an Abi when she crosses our path.

– The Rev. Danielle Tumminio lectures at Yale University and is the author of “God and Harry Potter at Yale.” She currently serves as an interim associate at St. Anne in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Statements and opinions expressed in the articles and communications herein, are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of Episcopal News Service or the Episcopal Church.

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