Reflections On “The [Other] Scarlet Letter”

hand with stone

2.    Strive To Be Less Judgmental And More Empathetic

Several weeks ago, while sitting in church, it occurred to me that I’ve long been fascinated by stories about adulterous women – actually two stories in particular, Nathanial Hawthorne’s timeless classic, “The Scarlet Letter” (1850), and the New Testament account of Jesus’ encounter with the adulterous woman, which I happened to be listening to at the time of my revelation – but not for the reasons you might think!  No, my interest in those stories stems from the light that both authors shine on two of the darkest and most destructive of all human emotions: shame and the lack of empathy and compassion we tend to have towards those experiencing shame, notwithstanding our own human frailties and indiscretions.

Chances are even if you’re not a Biblical scholar (which I certainly am not) or a person of faith for that matter, you’re at least generally familiar with the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman.  To hear John tell it, Jesus was teaching in the temple square, when a group of Scribes and Pharisees essentially dragged a woman, who, just a few hours earlier, had been caught in the act of adultery, and placed her before Him and the gathering crowd.  Suffice it to say, the Scribes and Pharisees weren’t seeking Jesus’ advice as to what to do with the woman, despite that being the apparent intent of their inquiry.  Indeed, as evidenced by their question, Jewish law was quite clear and unequivocal with respect to the appropriate punishment: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now, in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” Instead, they hoped He would respond in a way that was contrary to the Law, so that they could later use it against Him – and He certainly did not disappoint!  To the contrary, we’re told that Jesus bent down and began to trace in the sand.  When they persisted, He straighten and challenged the crowd saying: “Let the person among you who is without fault be the first to throw a stone at her.”  He then returned to the sand and, as he did, the crowd quietly began to disperse, one at a time, “beginning with the older ones” (LOL!) until Jesus was alone with the woman.  He then turned to the woman and said, “Woman, where have they gone? Has no one condemned you?” She responded, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither then do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

For purposes of this post, let’s set aside the theology of things.  From my perspective, even if the foregoing story was pure fiction – a fairy tale of sorts – it wouldn’t lessen the import of its message any more than the fictional nature of Hawthorne’s work diminishes its worth.  The adulterous woman had to be dragged into the courtyard because she was filled with shame and like most shame-filled people she feared (in fact, given the prevailing law of the day, she knew with absolute certainty) that if she shared her shame openly she would be judged unworthy (of Life!) – a judgment she almost certainly already had imposed on herself.  That is the nature of shame and one of the many reasons it is so insidious.  Would that she had known ahead of time what would unfold that day in the square – that she would not be judged for her transgression, that instead her shame, put on display for all the world to see, would be met with (and, ultimately, dissolved by) compassion and empathy.  Consider the implications of this – please!  I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the easier it is for me to relate to those “old guys” who were the first to put down their stones and walk away.  I’m here to encourage others not to wait until you’re old to understand the importance of “putting your stones down” and “picking up” empathy and compassion.  Because the truth is: When we are less judgmental and more vulnerable, which all of us have the capacity to be, we give others (loved ones and strangers alike) the “permission” they desperately need to be more vulnerable themselves and, eventually, to find the courage to release their shame.  Conversely, when we’re not, shame remains locked away deep inside the soul of its host or hostess and allowed to continue to do its dirty work.

I often wish John had added a post-script to his story.  One that let his readers know that not only did the crowd disperse, but that, the following day, one of its members invited the adulterous woman out for a cup of coffee at the Starbuck’s of the day and, after giving her a warm embrace, confided that many years earlier he too had done things he was ashamed of – and was glad to finally be able to get them off his chest with someone who could understand!

“I didn’t learn about vulnerability, courage, creativity and innovation from studying vulnerability.  I learned about these things from studying shame.  Brené Brown – “Listening to Shame”

Authoring The Owner’s Manual Of The Two Most Important Pieces Of Equipment You Will Ever Own

heart and brain programming

3.  Take Advantage Of The Fact That Your Heart And Mind Are Fully Programmable

It occurred to me last night that we take an awful lot for granted as 21st century inhabitants of this planet, even when it comes to the highly sophisticated pieces of machinery and equipment that are an integral and indispensable part of our everyday lives.  Take our automobiles, for example.  We get up every morning, turn the key in the ignition and assume that, as long as we’ve done the bare minimum (i.e., put gas in the tank!), they will transport us seamlessly from point A to point B.  Even more remarkably, we’ve come to assume that, should we get in an accident, those same cars will completely insulate us from all manner of harm, regardless of the wreck’s severity or foreseeability.  We make similar assumptions with respect to our laptops, notebooks, “i-whatevers” and  smart phones (i.e., as long as we’ve done “the heavy lifting” and ensured that the battery is charged, the expectation is that, at the touch of a screen or the striking of a few keys, they will instantaneously access people, information, movies, music videos, the “bargain du jour,” books, etc. around the globe).  And the truth is:  Far more often than not, these “things” do precisely what they’re supposed to do, with almost no input from their end users (that would be us!).  In fact, it’s only when they break down that we even begin to consider: just how incredibly complex these devices really are; the time, technology and talent that has gone into programming the intricate web of computer systems that enable them to do what they do; and, as importantly, the consequences associated with failing to routinely and properly service and maintain them.

Regrettably, we tend to have similarly assumptive attitudes when it comes to the most sophisticated of all “machines” known to man – our hearts and our minds!  Consciously or subconsciously we believe that they will perform precisely as they are intended and were “designed” with very little input, care and/or daily maintenance from us (e.g., periodically putting “food in our tank” and making sure we steal a little rest from time to time to “recharge our batteries”)!  And, I suppose, if mere subsistence were our goal, that “hands-off” approach might work, at least for some period of time.  But the truth is:  Much of the knowledge and many of the emotive principles that I have come believe are essential ingredients to relationship-building, problem-solving and living a happy, healthy are fulfilling life are not intuitive (i.e., they are not part of the “pre-loaded” software of our hearts and minds).  Fortunately, for us, however, unlike their mechanical counterparts (the intricacies of which most of us will never understand), we have the power to program our hearts and minds to maximize their ability to achieve each of those laudable goals.  Where our minds are concerned, we have the capacity (indeed, I would argue, the moral obligation) to learn – not only from books, but from our positive and not-so-positive life experiences, as well as from the wisdom and experiences of others who have traveled roads similar to ours before us.  We also have the ability to dictate the tenor, content and tone our “self-talk” and the perspectives we bring to situations and to the uncertainties and adversities that are an inescapable part of all of our lives.

The same is true of our heart (i.e., we can program it to facilitate the realization of its innermost desires) and I encourage and challenge you to do that by cultivating:

An expectant heart (i.e., one that is always open to possibility that something good will happen in your life);

An attentive heart (i.e., one that is sensitive to the world around you at all times and constantly on the look-out for “clues” that are intended to point you in the direction of the realization of your dreams and desires);

An adaptive heart (i.e., one that is willing to embrace a path and/or a desire that you might not initially have considered, but, due to a change in heart or circumstance, takes on a special meaning in your life);

A proactive heart (i.e., one that is committed to passionately pursuing all that is good);

A grateful heart (i.e., one that begins each day searching for until it finds something or someone it is grateful for);

A patient heart (i.e., one that appreciates the truth of the timeless adage that good things take time); and

A giving heart (i.e., one that realizes that, at the end of the day, our true beauty, our sense of self-worth and the fullness of our life is determined not by how we look, what we possess or how we compare, physically or otherwise, to those around us, but rather by the extent to which we empty ourselves in serving others).

I also urge you not wait for the life equivalent of the “Check Engine Light” to illuminate before beginning the process, because it takes considerable time and effort.  Start yesterday!

Come To Think Of It, Life Is (And Is Not) As Puzzling As It Seems


4.    Learn From “The Puzzlers”

I don’t know about you, but I always thought those who had a particular affinity for and were highly-skilled at putting together complex jigsaw puzzles were a little strange.  You know the folks I’m talking about – the ones who can dump out a pile of 10,000 tiny misshapen pieces of cardboard that all look basically the same on a table one day and two weeks later be proudly hanging a beautifully-shellacked finished version of the puzzle on their living room wall like it’s a piece of art!  In retrospect, however, I should have been envious of “The Puzzlers,” because, perhaps even unbeknownst to them, while I and the rest of my friends were spending Friday nights in bars and beautiful Saturday afternoons at the beach and on the golf course, they were hunched over puzzle at home, busy honing a skill set that, once mastered, would significantly increase the likelihood that they would live  a healthy, happy and fulfilling life:

a.  Puzzlers keep a “picture” of what they want the finished product to look like in the forefront of their mind at all times.  One of the first things any Puzzler worth their salt does, before even starting to put a puzzle together, is carefully study the image on the outside of the box.  In fact, many choose the puzzle because the image appeals to them either aesthetically, thematically or in its seeming complexity.  Ask them and they will tell you that it is imperative that they have a clear picture of their goal in mind before they start the often tedious process of putting the puzzle together and that they keep that image in front of them at all times.

b.  Puzzlers are not intimidated by the number of pieces that need to be put in place or the apparent complexity of the task. Too often in life we become overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks on our plate at a particular moment in time.  Viewed collectively, the tasks are intimidating to the point of paralyzing us. The Puzzler understands that the completion of the puzzle begins by putting the first piece in place and proceeding one piece at a time until the ultimate goal is achieved. At times, the process is slow, frustrating and painstaking.  Sometimes, for no apparent reason, several pieces fall into place in quick succession.  Eventually, however, each piece finds its home.

c.  Puzzlers understand how critical it is to first establish a strong foundation and well-defined boundaries.  Watch most Puzzlers ply their craft and, almost without exception, you will notice that they begin ensuring that the pieces that ultimately will form the borders of the puzzle are put in place first.  Even though the task is among the hardest aspects of completing the puzzle (mainly because the pieces used to form the boundaries all look the same), Puzzlers recognize that a strong foundation and well-defined boundaries are an essential first step to the eventual completion of the puzzle.

d.  Puzzlers know that all of the pieces of the puzzle are equally essential to the whole. Puzzlers understand a simple truth that we too often lose sight of as human beings:  Each piece of the puzzle has its place and each is an indispensable part of what ultimately will be the finished product.  Stated otherwise, no one piece of a puzzle is more or less important than the one that preceded it or the one that will follow it.  Too often, in life, we tend to give great weight to discreet events – usually negative ones – and, in doing so, vest them with more power over us than they deserve.  The next time you’re inclined to do that remember: Whatever it is, it’s just one piece among the millions of pieces that make you who you are!

e.  Puzzlers make wise choices, but remain flexible and ready to make others, if necessary.  As a rule, Puzzlers don’t like to dally. They identify a need, double check the goal, scour the landscape of available pieces in search of one that their instincts suggest will be a perfect fit and give every side of the piece they select an opportunity to fill that need.  If it does, they relish the moment and move on.  If it doesn’t, they simply make another choice, knowing that, eventually, they’ll get it right.  And so it should be with the puzzles of our lives: We should strive to make wise decisions, based on the best information available (and our instincts); give those choices every reasonable chance to succeed, but remain flexible and ready to repeat the process if necessary.

f.  Puzzlers appreciate the power of patience.  Enough said!