I really like what I read in The Wisdom to Know the Difference by Eileen Flanagan this morning. Flanagan is a Quaker. It is a Quaker belief that there is that of God in everyone. She writes, “If we look for ‘that of God in every person’ – treating people with compassion, rather than judgment – it can change the dynamic between us.” She quotes Rabbi Erin Hirsh who worked in a men’s maximum-security prison who said, “It is my responsibility to go through life looking for that spark of holiness in someone. If I don’t find it, it’s not because it’s not there; it’s because I haven’t done my job.”
Flanagan shares several examples of where she treated individuals with this special way of seeing. In each case, something shifted and what could or should have been a negative encounter, it turned out to be positive. Her attitude was perceived by the other person and they, in turn, responded in a positive manner. I found this true when I taught perenting in the Morrison County jail. I assumed that each person who attended my class loved his children and wanted to have a good relationship with them. I knew that many of them were plagued by addictions and some had done horrendous things. I was not naïve. But I believed that the spark of God in them had been in some way buried and by assuming that it was there and treating them with love and respect, the spark would grow brighter.
It can be much harder to see the spark in someone who is close to us and may be pulling our emotional strings or someone who has hurt us in some way. Yet what I stated above about the inmates and the jail is true of those who seem to be my “enemies”. Seeing “that of God” in others may not always create change in a visible way, Flanagan writes. “Most of us have no idea what ripples we’ve created, whether positive or negative, but as surely as a boat leaves a wake, our actions have an effect that may continue out of our sight. We may open a door for someone…and never learn whether or not they went through it.”
This is where faith comes in, trusting that God will “make good of all things.” Sometimes people talk about “planting seeds” when they say or do something that may not show any visible effects immediately. I like to see myself as part of a community of lovers. An inmate in my classroom at the jail, for example, may not seem to respond to something I said, but the other staff members at the jail, the minister who comes to offer services, the AA community that holds meeting – all of these plus any other “lovers” that come into their lives…together we form a whole that may chip away of a shell that hides this divine spark.
AA members will say to a newcomer, “Let us love you until you can love yourself.” In order to do that for someone, we have to see that self in the other as precious and worthy of love. The spark of the divine will grow into a flame when it gets the oxygen of love.