Tag Archives: Shadow

Jesus and the Fig Tree


When I was a boy, I always found this story about Jesus quite disturbing. There are renditions of this story given by Mark (11:12) and Matthew. Here is how Matthew tells it:

Matthew 21:18-22[3]
Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Obviously, there are many exegetical attempts to see this story as an allegory. Some scholars say that it was showing Jesus’ power over Nature. Others believe that this is an indication that the Jewish people were not bearing any fruit, and that the advent of Christianity would supercede the covenant of the Jews with God. In the story itself, Matthew and Mark have Jesus using the occasion to teach about the power of prayer: if one has enough faith, one can not only wither fig trees, but move mountains!

So much for exegesis. I wonder, however, if we could move beyond allegory, and see the story as a simple report of what happened. From this perspective, it seems to me entirely plausible that Jesus was just having a bad day! Maybe he didn’t sleep well the night before, and he was grumpy. He could have had a headache, or GI distress. If he had the power to wither the tree, he surely had the power to conjure a couple of figs.

Some people might find this interpretation irreverent, but I find it deeply consoling. If one of the greatest spiritual teachers of all time, a truly holy person of amazing depth and power, could have off days, then perhaps my times of missing the mark are not worthy of absolute condemnation. I quoted Marcus Aurelius in another post to the effect that when I am driven off course I should not become disgusted with myself, or give up, or lose patience, but return to the best in myself and love that to which I return.

I believe that owning our human imperfection is the gateway to compassion. If we can realize that we are standing on clay feet, we might be less likely to put ourselves above our fellow “human merely beings” as e.e. cummings has it. Most of us, I think, stumble through myriad quotidian failings laced with a few whoppers of a lifetime. If we can look without excuse at what we are capable of thinking or doing during our bad days, perhaps we would be better able to embrace our common humanity.

Finally, I wonder what might have happened the day after the events described in the Gospels. I like to think that Jesus had the grace to return to the fig tree and feel compassion for its withered heart. I can see him asking its forgiveness and breathing fresh life into its branches. This is a man I can admire and do my best to emulate: a man who can be irritable and selfish, but return again and again to his true and holy nature and do his best to set the world right and to reclaim his place in the family of things.

The Dappled Road Toward Wisdom

The inspiring thoughts of theoretical philosophy strike me as wonderfully bright, hopeful, and inspiring, but the journey toward maturity and wisdom also has a darker side. In order to understand this reality, I think we need to look squarely at the shadowy depths from which Wisdom emerges. “Bonno wa satori” says a Japanese Zen aphorism: enlightenment abides in our imperfections. Talk of the magnificence of Wisdom seems disingenuous when we look through the window of the lecture hall at the world outside, filled with real—and suffering–humanity. “Today, like every day,” says Rumi, “we wake up empty and frightened.”

From one perspective, I feel as though I have been living life in a series of interior rooms. I (my ego) began as a pinched little room. Now my interior room feels more ample, and its walls are often translucent and permeable, allowing the breath of life, sometimes at least, to have its say through me. After innumerable transitions–some harsh, some gentle—my inner and outer worlds are coming into alignment, opening onto vistas of a sacred world. How I got from there to here is the story I want to share.

Looking back over seven decades of life, I say gratefully that it has been quite a ride. I have a beautiful family and dear friends, and I am in the third decade of a loving marriage that daily exceeds my expectations. Over the years, however, I have made countless mistakes, but I have learned many helpful things from them. The famous Buddhist image resonates. Like all of us, I am a lotus flower growing ever so slowly in the mud.

The Executive Ego: a Room Without a View
I sometimes ask my students to imagine that their interior reality is like a secret room, and to envision what it looks like. Does it have bare concrete walls with no windows, and a toilet over in the corner? If there is a window, does it have bars? Are those bars meant to keep people out, or to lock oneself in—or both? On the other hand, might one’s interior room be like Andrew Wyeth’s Sea Breeze, light and airy, with the curtains billowing with fresh ocean air? Many people live in a version of the former, I am afraid, and they spend their lives trying to make that little room more comfortable, with expensive furniture and the latest gadgets. They think a bigger house gives them more interior space, but just the reverse is true. Often, the more money, position, or power one has, the smaller and more protective is the room of the soul. Many people know this at some level, but relatively few believe it enough to alter their lives. I don’t think it is our birthright, though, to spend our lives in a small protected corner of our selves. The creation of the solid walls of ego usually happens when we are very young, and then this room solidifies into an internal control center, whose beliefs, knowledge, values, thoughts and feelings, do their level best to run the show. When it is successful, as it often is, the result is a parody of what Georgia O’Keeffe calls “the livingness of life.”

During my first few decades of life I created a small, safe room, a tiny protected ego that was furnished with the religious certainties of the Catholic Church, American middle class morality, and ultimately a Ph.D. To use Plato’s analogy, I wore the chains of 1950’s conventionality, whose links were forged in the fear of abandonment, shame, and disapproval. These chains were of my own making in response to cultural and familial conditioning, and they most likely made perfect sense at the time. They had no locks, so I had to hold onto them with all the force of my young psyche in order to maintain their protective shield.

When the time was right, I married, found a secure teaching job at a fine college in Vermont, fathered two boys, and bought a house. Complacent and secure in the American Dream, I was convinced I was walking a wide paved road to promotion, tenure, fame and fortune. I was following the blueprint I had been given for a happy and successful life.

And then the bottom fell out.

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