Have you noticed how some people seem invested in ugliness? A visit to Facebook or the evening news is evidence enough. But sometimes it comes knocking at your door. Today an old friend told me he had been “cleared” to discuss the chaos that was going on in his religious group. I said, “I’d rather not—people are people and I try not to get upset over how they (we) behave.”
Honestly, it’s hard enough to keep an even keel with my own loved ones without hearing the gory details of another group’s problems.
So what’s a Christian to do? Is it possible always to focus on the true, the good, and the beautiful? It’s a good thing to practice, because those three words describe God. Here’s how St. Paul said it: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). Considering the conflict and rejection Paul endured, if he can focus on what is virtuous, maybe we can, too.
As the next political campaigns get started, it’s good to think about how much of our psychic and emotional energy we’re choosing to invest in what is false, bad, and ugly.
It’s often tempting to dwell on the negative in other people, especially when it reinforces our own feelings of superiority—the “evil twin” in us loves being outraged that someone else has done something we would never do!
What if there is ugliness in front of (or inside) me?
What are we to think of situations that are not beautiful and people whose beauty seems hidden pretty deep? Do we deny the ugliness, pretending everything’s fine? No.
When we see or feel ugliness, we can do what Jesus does: bring truth, beauty, and goodness into the midst of it. In today’s gospel, the apostles are hiding for fear of—one priest says they are hiding partly for fear of meeting Jesus after betraying him! But when Jesus enters the upper room, what comes out of his mouth is not recrimination, but “Shalom.” Jesus brings healing—brings truth, beauty, and goodness—in the form of forgiveness. We have the chance to do that at every moment, too.
Now, we can have a wrong idea about what being a peacemaker is, or what it is to focus on the good. I’ve been in leadership positions in which I had to dismiss an employee to protect the organization from someone who was demoralizing an entire team. Bringing beauty and harmony to conflict isn’t always pretty. But if we keep our eyes on the eternal God, we can avoid both extremes of either denying or adding to the ugliness. Prayer makes that possible.
Focusing on the true, good, and beautiful helps us make prudent choices to avoid, heal, or overlook ugliness. Avoiding ugliness can mean not adding to ego-driven controversy or not visiting the “whip-up” websites that fuel division. We heal ugliness when we forgive, or offer a word of hope. We overlook ugliness when we remember that we are sinners and bring an attitude of gratitude. Or as St. Therese of Lisieux put it, “Everything is a grace.”
No one can force us to be resentful or vengeful or impure. Jesus told his followers, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles a person….The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy (Mat 15:11; 18-19).” Unless we decide to take another route. Unless we practice bringing Jesus’ beauty to our relationships every day.
If we avoid exposing our hearts to ugliness, we are more likely to bring healing to conflict and mercy to our own and others’ faults. We are more likely to imitate Jesus, hearing his “Shalom” deep in our hearts.
God is eternal and everything causing us grief is passing away. So when someone texts me saying, “I want to talk about a group of people you don’t even know who are fighting with each other,” the lyrics to an old song come to mind: “My heart just ain’t gonna buy it.”
Beauty is eternal, ugliness is passing away. To focus on the eternal is to focus on the beautiful and to see the potential of beauty and harmony in every situation and person, no matter how difficult it seems at the moment!