There’s a Buddhist parable that runs something like this: One day as the Buddha was sitting under a tree, a young, trim soldier walked by, looked at the Buddha, noticed his weight and his fat, and said: “You look like a pig!” The Buddha looked up calmly at the soldier and said: “And you look like God!” Taken aback by the comment, the soldier asked the Buddha: “Why do you say that I look like God?” The Buddha replied: “Well, we don’t really see what’s outside of ourselves, we see what’s inside of us and project it out. I sit under this tree all day and I think about God, so that when I look out, that’s what I see. And you, you must be thinking about other things!”
There’s an axiom in philosophy that asserts that the way we perceive and judge is deeply influenced and colored by our own interiority. That’s why it’s never possible to be fully objective and that’s why five people can witness the same event, see the same thing, and have five very different versions of what happened. Thomas Aquinas expressed this in a famous axiom: Whatever is received is received according to the mode of its receiver.
If this is true, and it is, then, as the Buddhist parable suggests, how we perceive others speaks volumes about what’s going on inside of us. Among other things, it indicates whether we are operating out of a blessed or a cursed consciousness.
Let’s begin with the positive, a blessed consciousness: We see this in Jesus, in how he perceived and in how he judged. His was a blessed consciousness. As the gospels describe it, at his baptism, the heavens opened and God’s voice was heard to say: “This is my blessed one, in whom I take delight.” And, it seems, for the rest of his life Jesus was always in some way conscious of his Father saying that to him: “You are my blessed one!” As a consequence, he was able to look out at the world and say: “Blessed are you when you are poor, or when you are persecuted, or suffering in any way. You are always blessed, no matter your circumstance in life.” He knew his own blessedness, felt it, and, because of that, could operate out of a blessed consciousness, a consciousness that could look out and see others and the world as blessed.
Sadly, for many of us, the opposite is true: We perceive others and the world not through a blessed consciousness but through a cursed consciousness. We have been cursed and because of that, in whatever subtle ways, we curse others.
What’s a curse? A curse is not the colorful language that comes out of our mouths when we get stuck in traffic or when we slice our golf ball the wrong way. What we say then may be in bad taste and highly profane, but it’s not a curse. A curse is more pernicious.
Cursing is what we do when we look at someone whom we don’t like and think or say: “I wish you weren’t here! I hate your presence! I wish you’d go away!” Cursing is what we do when we are affronted by the joyous screams of a child and we say: “Shut up! Don’t irritate me!” Cursing is what we do when we look at someone and think or say: “What an idiot! What a jerk!”
Cursing is what we do whenever we look at another person judgmentally and think or say: “Who do you think you are! You think you’re an artist! You think you’ve got talent! You don’t, you’re full of yourself!” Notice in each of these examples that what is being said is the antithesis of what the Father said to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my blessed one, in you I take delight!”
If any of us could play back our lives as a video we would see the countless times, especially when we were young, when we were subtly cursed, when we heard or intuited the words: Shut up! Who do you think you are! Go away! You aren’t wanted here! You’re not that important! You’re stupid! You’re full of yourself! All of these were times when our energy and enthusiasm were perceived as a threat and we were, in effect, shut down.
And the residual result in us is shame, depression and a cursed consciousness. Unlike Jesus we don’t see others and the world as blessed. Instead, like the young soldier looking at an overweight Buddha under a tree, our spontaneous judgments are swift and lethal: “You look like a pig!”
Whatever is received is received according to the mode of its receiver. Our harsh judgments of others say less about them than they say about us. Our negativity about others and the world speaks mostly of how bruised and wounded, ashamed and depressed, we are — and how little we ourselves have ever heard anyone say to us: “In you I take delight!”
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.