Life Changing?

I was reading through reviews of a book I just converted into an ebook and one of them said, “It changed my life.” My mind wandered for a moment.

Is there a book on my shelf that I would say that about, that by virtue of reading it, had had that kind of impact on me? Life-changing? No book, of course, literally changes your life unless you’re the author of a new best-seller. If the words of another have impact on our lives at all other than providing information or entertainment, they either change our perspective or confirm our prejudices, more deeply entrenching our beliefs around a subject.

I thought about my absolute favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Did it change my life, my perspective? Not really. It was one of those “Wow, somebody else understands how I feel” kind of books for me, a white girl in the troubled South of the 1960s as Nelle Lee had been in the 30s. A confirmation, in other words.

How about God is No Fool, the book of Christian meditations given to me as a Christmas present by my older sister when I was 12? It certainly influenced my views about spirituality during that just-about-to-move-into-the-teenage-years angst, enough that I sought out the author and asked for the rights to republish it 35 years later. But had it changed my life? No, it had simply provided affirmation of what I’d already begun to think and believe, given my then relatively short life.

Several other books passed through my mind—more recent ones. The Kingdom Within by John Sanford, The Active Life by Parker J. Palmer, virtually all of Fritz Buechner’s books. Nope—all confirmers.

I went back to work and banished the idea from my mind for the moment, but later that day, when I was taking a break, the image of another book came to me. At six years old, I had pulled it down from the shelf of a man who, in many ways, served as a surrogate father in my early days, and I had been surprised to find it there.

I’d always thought of Roy as a “hard” man, not the sort you necessarily wanted to crawl into the lap of. He’d risen to the top of a corporate ladder and fallen flat on his face after barely surviving a small plane crash. His voice was always stern, his words challenging, his face serious. As you might imagine, he had little patience for small talk—the events of his life turned most of my everyday complaints into minor annoyances. He never went to church during the time I knew him. Perhaps he never had. Yet the dust jacket was wrinkled and worn, so I knew it had been perused several times.

A precocious child and voracious reader, I devoured the book in a matter of days, planning to give it back as fast as possible. “Be sure to return it,” he’d barked as I left the small apartment in which he lived. And I did, but not before it changed my life.

The book was The Day Christ Died by Jim Bishop.

It wasn’t the part about Jesus’ life per se that would change my life. Born into a Southern conservative every-time-the-church-doors-were-open-we-were-there family, I was well-versed in that story by the time I was seven. Nor was it the historical information presented. Scholars today, 55 years after the book was first published, would argue with most of the conclusions of Jim Bishop’s research.

It was the other parts—a description of what would later come to be called Judaism and its practice, musing about what life was like in Jerusalem and surround in that period when Jesus walked on the earth, the sociological interplay of Roman culture and the “my god is better than your god” clashes—that got my attention, expanding the world view of a little girl who, for reasons that are hopefully obvious, had assumed without thinking that Jesus was a handsome 6’2” blue-eyed young Anglo-Saxon man.

I remember going to our 1959 World Book Encyclopedias and looking up the Middle East to get a glimpse of what he might have really looked like. Although I already knew about the Holocaust and World War II from family stories, there were only two Jewish families in our small town in south Georgia—owners, as one might expect, of the two department stores. I was friends with members of both families—a daughter in one and I were born just a couple of hours apart. I thought about our celebration of Christmas and was suddenly curious about what my “birthday buddy” did during what were then called the “Christmas holidays.” Until then, the word “Hanukkah” hadn’t even crossed my vocabulary’s doorstep.

From that day, I never again took the word of anyone else about what Jesus might have looked like, did, or said without considering the context of the world in which he lived and how what he looked like, did and said related to that world. I would never again blindly accept another’s religious or spiritual view as my own.

It only followed that the view from anyone else’s eyes would be affected by their experiences—experiences I might or might not have had, and that my perceptions about others, their motivations, their beliefs—even those closest to me— were at risk of being misperceptions unless I asked them and then listened carefully to what they told me. (That includes God, by the way.)

For a while after I read the book, the lonely child in me felt even more isolated than before. But as I grew up and older, I realized that beneath the different outer shells we wear, including the multi-colored, multi-shaped bodies we haul around, humans are humans, and we all have the same basic feelings,  responses, motivations, and needs for love and respect.

No one is greater than I am nor anyone else. No one is less, either. And nothing can elicit the fire of my anger faster than the arrogance of one who deems himself judge and jury of another’s behavior, value as a human being or his motivation without talking to him first.

We’ve all been victims of such judgment. I know I have. And imperfect as I am, I’m sure I have diminished others by judging them unfairly as well. Only one person in history, as far as I know, succeeded in defeating the judge in himself, though he was judged unfairly and executed as a result. I am nonplussed at how quickly we are “up in arms” over his mistreatment, yet rationalize the same behavior in his name.

That same fellow reportedly said something to the effect of “Don’t judge or you’ll be judged,” the mirror of something else he is recorded as having said. “Love others as you love yourself.”

What a novel idea. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you. Don’t judge others unless it’s perfectly okay with you if they return the favor. It’s a pretty good starting place. Of course, as with Jesus, there’s no guarantee that others won’t judge you if you don’t judge them, but there’s an almost airtight guarantee that they will if you do.

When Roy died in 1972, his widow asked me if there was anything of Roy’s that I wanted and the book was the only thing I could think of. Its dust cover is more tattered now than it was in 1963, just as I am. Memory has transformed Roy’s sternness into a tired resignation, his impatience into a trait I happen to share, and his penchant for getting up every time life brought him to his knees came to represent a courageous act worth emulating.

It’s funny what time and a change in perspective will do. Sometimes it changes your life. It can change the world, too. It did once, after all.

It’s not an accident that a lot of what I write has to do with spirituality and healing from a different point of view. That’s true of my two books: Simon Says—Views from a Higher Perspective and Andrew’s Eyes. Click here to learn more about them.

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