As I write this, I have a four-foot deep, mud-filled trench at the back of my house, the contractor is banging loudly as he finishes the siding, and my electricity panel looks like a hedgehog with loads of wires sticking out into fresh air. Needless to say, we’ve had no power all day. And tomorrow the drills will arrive to dig up the concrete in our front patio. If this sounds like one of those home reno movies we all laugh at – it is.
I should have guessed about the level of frustration that goes with renovating when we went to our City offices for a building permit. There, the sign on the desk read “Offensive and abusive language is unacceptable in this office.” The official told us about the anger, threats and insults she has received. And after being sent running for yet one more approval, I could see why. It was tempting to give in to frustration and upset. But instead I said, “We just really want to work with you on this project.” She appreciated that. And this one comment took our relationship in a different, more peaceful, direction.
Some situations in life – like renos – provoke the ‘worst’ in us: frustration, rage, and fear. We’ve all experienced them. But it’s more than that. We have become a society of intolerance, rash judgment and ready insults; where rudeness and criticism are thrown around regardless of who they hurt. And where we react to life’s challenges in ways that are often unkind, even dangerous.
Not Just “Nice Ideas”
Over the past nine months, this small reno project became (for me) a microcosm of how the human mind works when faced with decisions and challenges. Every day there were opportunities to react. Yet early on we asked ourselves: What kind of thoughts and emotions do we want built into our walls and home? What memories do we wish to live with in this home? And how we reacted became a conscious choice.
I’m particularly grateful to what I’ve learned in Christian Science for this, because what matters there is how I practice my faith, not just the beliefs I hold. For me, that is what my religion is: a practice where I make choices every moment about how to deal with daily life – and renovations!
Here briefly is what I discovered about the practice of gentleness, even when I did not start out feeling that way:
1. Being respectful, kind or understanding are more than just ‘nice ideas.’ They take work, and discipline of mind, heart and tongue; deliberate choices to be civil and caring when things get rough. Following Christ Jesus’ example was often a great inspiration.
2. What mattered more to me than being “right,” or airing some frustration I felt, was feeling centred and finding peace within at the end of each day.
3. Gentleness is a great ‘defense’ against reacting in difficult situations. Being gentle with myself stopped my own self-condemnation in its tracks. It also stopped conversations from becoming abusive and critical – and turned me towards thinking about what I could do for others (like baking pies for the guys who worked on my house).
4. Being “gentle” doesn’t mean one can’t be firm or stand for what is right. In fact, it helped me to stay centred and make better decisions.
5. Even when I did get angry at times, it allowed me to pull back, re-center and begin again – with forgiveness for all (including myself) as my intention, and practice.
In the big scheme of things, with terrible tragedies, oppressions and sadness facing people around the world, renos are pretty small potatoes. But what they are is a testing ground, a place to hone our skills.
Finding calm and gentleness in the midst of human life is definitely a challenge. Yet how can we expect others to control their emotions, if we ourselves have not yet learned to do so in the small things of life? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves a similar kind of question every day: What kind of world do I want to build, create or live in? Because it’s not going to happen without a choice; and it definitely won’t come without practice.
The ways we react each day become a part of the way “the world” reacts. And what I learned from my renovations was that graciousness, kindness, patience, and gentleness must begin with me.
Published on Spiritually Speaking in the Times Colonist March 9 2011