Beyond Envy
Talk by Tom Baker

February 28, 2010, Delivered to the Christ Unity Oceanside

The best thing that hearing confessions as a priest did for me was to cure me of envy. Before hearing confessions, I was someone who always wanted to be someone else: the star quarterback with the beautiful cheerleader girlfriend, the great surgeon, the winner of the lottery. In college I wanted to be the president of the United States, in the seminary I wanted to be the pope, or just the president rector who everyone respected and talked about all the time: What is Father Daniel doing tonight? Did you hear what Father Daniel said about the pope’s encyclical? We think Father Daniel knows more than the pope about most things. I had the fantasy of one day waking up as Father Daniel. Then the day came when I woke up and I had become Father Tom Baker the day before, and almost everyday for the next ten years I would hear someone’s confession. What I had not counted on was that the kind of people I envied came to confession with everyone else. The distinguished judge, several women who had been cheerleaders, several former quarterbacks, a surgeon, people who drove BMW's, lived in enormous houses; the lucky, the privileged, the admired, the envied; it was like People Magazine came to my confessional and talked off the record about what they thought of themselves. I was stunned. Over and over again I was stunned. The distinguished judge felt suicidal, one former cheerleader was bulimic and was afraid to go out of the house, the surgeon had no friends, another former cheerleader had breast cancer. And all of them confessed real sins. I kept waiting for someone to come to confession who had a life as good as it looked. I waited 10 years as a priest and 16 years as a therapist; I have never met them. I am completely over envy. That is until last Sunday.

On Sunday Morning, a television show, I saw the story of an elderly blind man who lived in a small village in India. He was blind. He was about my age, or a little older and had lost his sight in his early twenties from a parasite. He had been a school teacher, but as a blind man he could not teach so he got a simple job grinding flour. I was expecting him to be a lonely isolated man, daily fighting despair and the specter of lost opportunities, lost and alone in a life plunged into darkness. I was ready to be sad. And glad I wasn't him; an example of envy in reverse. Then the camera followed him home and we met his family: a wife and four children, his brothers and sisters and their children, their grandchildren everywhere. The extended family all lived together in a small, bright house. It was a very happy place and he was a very happy man. He said that when he lost his sight he decided it was God’s will that he be blind and that he work at what he could and raise a family. I was reminded of the African boy with AIDS who said, "Do whatever you can with what you'd got in the time you have." Said happily, said almost as a tiny scripture to the world. But then the camera followed the blind man around town and to work and what I saw filled me with envy. Everywhere he went there was always someone watching over him, walking near him ready to hold his arm as he stepped over a curb, ready to call out a warning if he got too close to the flour grinder, ready to shoo away the pick pocket; he was a man with constant guardian angels. All day, wherever he went someone was watching him, sometimes it was just a child; he was never crowded and he was never alone. Why did I envy him? My vision of myself, my positive vision remember was to be the president, standing at his desk, making a decision alone. As the pope, praying, heroically praying, for the world, alone.

I think of my hero. Even as a grown man, my hero has been Tiger Woods. Ever since I was eight years old I have been trying to play golf well, and I have failed repeatedly and at some expense. Yet I have kept at it. Golf is a game in which you are essentially alone. Only you really care about the shot you make; as long as you keep moving and don’t hold anyone up, your triumphs and tragedies are basically your own business. So all alone I have tried to be better. So when Tiger Woods named his yacht Privacy and told the public to leave him alone I understood. He's a golfer. But more recently as word of his numerous sexual liaisons have come out, I saw a man struggling in secret with enormous loneliness. Not just desire, not just temptation, but a terrible loneliness in which someone was always watching but not with an eye to help. It is tempting to simply diagnose Tiger Woods as a celebrity sex addict, out of control bi-polar superstar, pampered narcissistic personality, yet that’s simply the modern way to condemn someone, pronounce them broken and sweep the pieces into the trash. But I don't think Tiger Woods is broken. I think he is a man who got used to being alone, he got good at being alone, he made it look easy, even fun until recently, when it just looked crazy. It might be tempting to think of Tiger Woods as not at all like you and me, but I think maybe, like all those people whose confessions I heard, Tiger Woods is very much like you and me but in a version that is hard to miss and hard to dismiss. In the days before these scandals there was a commercial in which children, boys and girls, would look into the camera and say, "I am Tiger Woods." The commercials were enormously compelling because they supported the American Dream that says anyone can grow up to be a winner, a star, celebrity. They will never show those commercials again. Yet now they are truer than ever. We are all Tiger Woods. We are all lonely and struggling with what to do about it. We are all the blind man in India. We all have large challenges. Sometimes what happens to us seems too enormous for us to go on. We are all each other at one time or another. I remember doing something in confessions that was sort of natural. When someone would confess a sin I would say something like, "I’ve done that" or "I have trouble with that sometimes." And then there would be an expression of surprise or even shock, "You Father?" And it would be so calming for me to say, "Sure, I'm human too." I got over envy but I got into what I would call a kind of divine empathy and it always relaxed me. It relaxes me still. One day after Mass an old woman presented me with a big rosary she had made out of wood. It was beautiful, carefully crafted and polished. She put it around my neck like a necklace and said, "Father if you weren't a priest and I was a lot younger I would want to put my shoes under your bed." I think I looked uncomfortable at first and then I relaxed and said something I don’t remember to the effect that I was flattered. The spirit of what I said was simply, "Me too." Jesus pretty much said just that to everyone he met: to Mary Magdalene, "Me too," to Simon the leper, "Me too," to Judas Iscariot, "Me too," to you and me, "Me too." I have come to think that true peace comes to us when we are open to being everyone in the world. When I am no longer ashamed of seeing through every set of eyes in the world then I am ready to see the world with the eyes of Christ.


© Copyright Tom Baker 2010