When I went to California several weeks ago with my husband, there were a couple of days when he had to work, so I drove into downtown San Francisco and piddled around. I'd hate to say these days were my favorite part of the trip, but I forget what a luxury it is to have a day with no demands. I don't have to be anywhere, or home by anytime. I don't have to push or pull anyone around with me. I can eat when I'm hungry, sit when I'm tired, pray in silence, browse at will, and call it a day at the perfect time.
Downtown, people ate in restaurants, shopped, strolled, talked on street corners (on their cell-phones mostly). It occurred to me that most people live this way all the time, just taking care of their person--feeding it, putting it to bed, walking it around without all the hangers on. I parked at the Japan center, and walked around the corner to the Cathedral for the noon Mass, and it was almost entirely working people on lunch break standing solitarily and scattered around the enormous sanctuary. There are a couple parishes at home as well, that always draw a large lunch crowd--downtown workers, dropping in.
It's funny to think about what cues envy on any particular day. What minuscule trigger is going to sour the perfect gift of a day? One day I might be in a fit of green about other women being able to get dressed in Anne Taylor suits every day to go to work. Another day, this day, it was that other people's lives seem not as complicated as mine. Other people don't have to notify an army and shunt small bodies off to other caregivers in order to leave the house. They drop in. They take off. They just run out to get something.
Browsing the thrift stores on Fillmore, I saw a small family on their way to work and school. A mother, father, two dogs, and one child walking together to their prospective days. The woman wore a fashionably hand-knit stocking cap, vintage looking military trench coat, and dynamite boots. The dogs were small and groomed, likewise the child and the man. I wondered what it would be like to be a family in San Francisco, as cross-country transfers are always possible (though not probable), within my husband's company. It seems like a good city in which to get dressed, though dressing alone, much less dressing well, is not my family's forte. It looks like a good city in which to drive a small car, or be a pedestrian, which, with five kids is mostly out of the question. Other people's lives are not as complicated as mine.
And so this day of complete freedom and independence brought only awareness that other people seem to have more of it.
There are hidden costs to every fine style of living--this is my first line of reasoning to combat envy. There's a hidden cost in addition to the multi-million dollars invested in the house on Russian Hill, hidden costs for the tidily groomed, petite family. I may have a complicated life--but these people, surely these people are living quiet lives of even more desperate desperation. Ha HA! I chose Indiana! I chose children, lots and lots of children! And grandparents nearby to watch them, so I can go to San Francisco and look down my nose at Californians! Ha HA! I am not like them--with their two dogs and one child!
Ingratitude is the beginning of sin. Give into it and soon you're mired in envy. Soon you've made the object of envy your enemy. Soon you walk around sneering at strangers and twirling your phylacteries, being glad (though not quite thanking God) that you're not like them. There is always a devil outside the door of the sanctuary. Don't thank God for the gift of a perfect day--be glad you're smarter, and more self-sacrificing, and more…whatever else it takes to put you back on top.
After Mass at the Cathedral I walked past the Consulate for the People's Republic of China. A line had formed around the corner: people requesting visas, etc. In front, on the sidewalk, three women stood praying, faces to the sun, eyes closed, legs apart, and hands crossed in front of them, still as could be. I had seen them on my way to the Cathedral, not taking too much notice, since they sat, at the time, in Lotus position facing the street. Nice to see people praying, I thought. Attend the church of your choice. That's what I'm on my way to do. But I saw now, that they were praying in front of a banner, documenting with graphic pictures, the injustices of the Chinese government--restrictions on religious freedom, torture of its own people.
The women had been sitting there for hours in complete silence, begging for freedom to worship God in their homeland, while I performed cost benefit analysis on other people's wealth, and other people's responsibilities. Sometimes I don't want to be edified, and other people's good behavior increases my insolence. But the only acceptable response to these three women was to open up a line of prayer and unite my intention to theirs. Only the rich practice fasting. The poor fast every day. Here is a poverty and deprivation I have never known, sitting silently on the sidewalk, praying, begging for freedom to worship God.
I drove by Mission Delores on the way home, one of the old Spanish missions (the one in the movie, Vertigo), and kneeling in front of the old wood-carved statues, I wanted to offer again all the prayers said at that altar over the centuries. We have sinned, Father. Hear again the prayers of the old ones. Unite my prayers to others' since all my needs have been met, and I tend to squander even the call to gratitude. Hear the prayers of needier people than me. Begin with the women in front of the Consulate, and include all of those suffering hidden costs in their lives.