Sunday, 30 January 2011

Breaking The Chains Of Low Expectations

"They brought forth to the Children of Israel an evil report on the Land that they had spied out, saying, "The land through which we have passed, to spy it out is a land that devours its inhabitants! All the people that we saw in it were huge! There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant from among the Nephilim; we were like grasshoppers in our eyes and, so we were in their eyes" Numbers 13:32-33

Let me embark on a little light speculation. What was Zacchaeus, mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, like? What can we make of his personality? Well all we are told is that he was small in stature and that he was a wealthy tax collector in Jericho, actually he was chief tax collector in Jericho. Now that last piece of information tells us quite a bit about his personality. Perhaps his small physical stature gave rise to "small man syndrome" and led to him having an insatiable desire to succeed? The political situation of his time, Roman occupation of the Land of Israel combined with highly corrupt local lackeys, most of whom wintered in Jericho, provided him with an opportunity to increase his wealth and status. Yes he would be considered a traitor by the overwhelming majority of his people and perhaps even by his family but the people who matter would rely on him and reward him handsomely. He would be an important somebody. What must he have felt the first time he knocked on the door of a poor family and demanded the exorbitant taxes demanded by the ruling powers? No doubt he would have had some pangs of guilt but then inevitably he must have overhead someone calling him a scoundrel, and subsequently the pangs of guilt were crushed under the weight of indignation, rationalisation and the false flattery of false friends. As time went on, and as he became more and more successful and as he took more and more money from the people to line the pockets of the despotic king and emperor and a little extra no doubt to line his own pockets, his name in the close knit community of Jericho became synonymous with wickedness and crookedness ultimately the very opposite of the name Zacchaeus (innocent). Having been labelled as a traitor and cheat he probably became trapped in that identity, a classic example of a "self fulfilling prophecy", or in the more ancient wording of King Solomon:

"For as he thinks in his heart, so he is" Proverbs 23:7

And then came that fateful day that Jesus of Nazareth came to Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. A crowd formed in eager anticipation of seeing a man whose reputation for goodness and healing preceded him. Our friend Zacchaeus having heard that Jesus was in town wanted to catch a glimpse of him and see what he was like. He probably did not particularly esteem Jesus' reputation for goodness, and no doubt assumed that such a holy man would want nothing whatsoever to do with a sinner like himself. No doubt all the good and pious men of Jericho had already made it clear to him, that the God-fearing keep a great distance from wickedness, and presumably he assumed Jesus would also want nothing to do with a reprobate like him. But still curiosity got the better of him and being of small stature he climbed the tree as we are told:

So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today" So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner". Zacchaeus stood there and said to the master, "Look, half of my possessions, lord, I will give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much". Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the son of man came to seek out and to save the lost" Luke 19:4-10

What exactly happened to lead to such a turn-around of Zacchaeus? I believe that it was two principle factors. Firstly he was inspired by Jesus' example. Here was a man, a good and righteous man, who was prepared to be tarred by association. Who was prepared to have his reputation sullied as a fraternizer with sinners, all for the sake of showing kindness to a man whose life as lived up until now, was the very opposite of all Jesus stood for! And he, Zacchaeus, could not even refrain from stealing from the poor in order to increase his wealth and the wealth of a corrupt and illegitimate leadership. This contrast no doubt struck him and inspired him to change. Being in the presence of greatness often has a way of shaming us into improvement.

But even more importantly than this, the sudden turnaround was to my mind, the product of Jesus having changed Zacchaeus' self image. And he did this through love. If this holy man thought him so worthy as to wish to be invited to his home and spend some time with him, then perhaps he is not as irredeemably beyond the moral pail as others thought! Jesus' actions smashed a hole in Zacchaeus' self image, allowing him to glimpse his potential for goodness and true greatness. And seeing that opportunity he immediately took this inspiration and made it real by promising to give away to the poor much of his wealth and pay back what he had taken. Someone showed faith in him and he rose to demonstrate that he was deserving of such faith.

Self image is hugely powerful. As King Solomon pointed out in the verse I mentioned earlier, in a very real sense we are what we label ourselves as being. This self-perception is immensely powerful and can lead to huge success or terrible pain. Having read some of the works of the celebrated psychiatrist Aaron T Beck, the father of Cognitive Therapy, I see that this very idea is also a strong factor in clinical depression and anxieties including phobias. A person suffering from depression has often at root a self perception of themselves which is very low which leads quite naturally to feeling of sadness and deep desperation. Likewise a faulty self-perception can lead someone to feel incredibly vulnerable and frightened. This was the situation of the spies sent by Moses to scout out the Land of Israel. In their eyes they viewed themselves (incorrectly) as weak as grasshoppers, and as a result were viewed as such by others.

We have seen this past week the power of altered self-images in the events unfolding in Egypt. The events in Tunisia opened the eyes of millions of Egyptians. Whereas before they saw themselves as frightened victims of a powerful despotic dictatorship, the events in a fellow Arab country, caused them to see themselves as powerful and in charge of their own fate. They saw their regime as vulnerable, and with this change of perception fear was lost and the protests began. This new self image will not be easy to shift and up against this powerful force I doubt that even Mubarak will be successful. Positive self perception can lead to spectacular endeavours such as in the case of Richard Wright. This amazing man was the leading light of the Unitarian Fund, the missionary society set up by Robert Aspland in 1806. He travelled many hundreds of miles all over the country, many times on foot, in order to bring the Unitarian Gospel to towns and villages far and near. In many places he was passionately opposed by ministers of orthodoxy who were terrified that members of their congregations might be drawn to the Unitarian "heresy". He put up with all these hardships because he was convinced that he was in his words a "soldier of Christ". He understood himself to have as his prime purpose in life, the spreading of the simple truths of the Gospels, and this drove him on even when undoubtedly he like us had a little voice in his head saying "why bother, you are only one man what can you achieve".

I was saddened this week to hear during a radio debate concerning education, person after person reinforce the culture of low-expectation that has plagued our teaching establishment and our wider society for many years. The discussion centred around the English Baccalaureate, and a feeling by many that it will lead to a devaluing of the humanities and arts. One lady said that as children today are from the "gameboy" generations they have very small attention spans, and therefore to focus on academic subjects would be wrong, instead education should focus on those subjects that are more easily grasped. We must, apparently, adapt education to the "reality" of short attention spans! What ever happened to trying to elevate children's knowledge? If attention spans are a problem why, instead of resigning ourselves to this situation, do we not try and remedy it? What exactly is wrong with trying to give all children a basic grasp of academic subjects that will be useful to them all? Voice after voice was extolling the value of vocational learning in opposition to academic learning, which in the opinion of one caller, would lead to more kids becoming bankers which is something that apparently we don't want!! But surely even vocational work requires the basic skills of good communication and maths. Providing children with good knowledge of the 3 R's gives them choice. With this knowledge should they wish, they can enter the academic field and attain careers that subsequently become available. And if they choose to enter into vocational training, they will be well equipped to excel in this area too. Youngsters who lack these basic education skills are denied choice. Why are we allowing a diminished understanding of our children's abilities to take root?

This low-expectation also applies to behaviour and moral conduct. It is assumed that youngsters will just behave in unruly ways, that they will drink excessively etc. Suggestions that children should be properly disciplined and that efforts should be undertaken to prevent unruly behaviour and under-age drinking and sex, are dismissed as unrealistic and sinister by educationalists and social theorists. The mockery that is often pored onto those (religious) parents and youngsters who advocate abstinence until marriage demonstrates a low-expectation mindset. Young people amazingly can refrain from drugs, booze and sex. They can exceed in learning and concentration each at their own level. To believe otherwise let alone to intimate to youngsters that one believes otherwise will forge the chains of a collective self image that will condemn young people to mediocre expectations and increase behaviour that is decried as regretfully inevitable.

The same goes for us as individuals. How often do we sell ourselves short? How many of us have justified our laziness, our selfishness, our grumpiness and a host of other acts of wrongdoing by saying "That's just how I am, I can't do anything about it"? How many of us have felt unable to reach out and help others because of a feeling of "I'm not brave enough to do that", or failed to take on a project at work or in the community because of arguments like "I am not able, clever, interesting, popular or talented enough"? We should all be aware that the potential for growth and improvement is always with us, and that we can become much more than we are now. This is not to say that we should have an inflated self-image. We should be truthful with ourselves about our abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

To assist us we should keep before our eyes the example of those who have excelled in personal, moral, religious conduct. Many of us have relatives or friends to whom we look up to in admiration, many of us have had our lives touched by inspirational people. And even if not, then one can turn, as did Zacchaeus, to the example of our teacher Jesus. By meditating on the goodness in others, we can develop a desire to emulate it.

In our interactions with others we must be sure to always broaden their self-perception and not God forbid limit them. Recognition and praise for the success of others should be on our tongues. Feelings of jealousy must not prevent us from celebrating the success of those around us, and we must try not to fall into the trap so particular to Britain, of finding pleasure in the bringing down of the successful. For after all, others failing does not make us more successful. When the need arises in our role as parents, employers or even good friends to rebuke, we should do so in a way that does not create the ingredients for negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Jesus himself had harsh words to say about those who diminish a person in his own eyes;

"And whosoever shall say to his brother "raca" (empty one) shall be in danger of the council, but whosoever shall say; "you fool" shall be in danger of gehnenna " Matthew 5:22.

Ultimately our potential can be seen in the grace and love of our Creator who bestows upon us all that we need to triumph in our own personal journey to greatness. The Jews have a custom to recite a prayer at the very moment of awaking in the morning:

"I thank you Living and Eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness"

How beautiful and how useful it is to start each day by reminding ourselves of The Only One's faith in us! Yes yesterday we might have failed, yes yesterday we did not make the most of those gifts God had given us, but in His mercy our Father gives us another day of life, trusting that today we will do better. Being aware of this how can we not but strive to do better? If you read nothing else, I suggest you read the Chief Rabbi's essay on the book of Job, which so eloquently and convincingly demonstrates that the prime question of faith is not our faith in God, but His faith in us.

Let us start the week by aiming high remembering that while it is no indictment of man not to be perfect, it is an indictment of man not to want to be perfect, and that all the Supreme One expects of us is our best effort.

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