For along the way the disciples had been discussing among themselves who is the greatest. And Jesus sat down and called the Twelve and said to them: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, stood him in their midst, embraced him, and said to them: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me. And whoever receives me receives not me but the one who sent me.”Mark 9:34-37
I have a friend who defines “collaboration” as “an unnatural act between non-consenting adults.” I think that most of us know the truth underneath this ironic statement. True collaboration, whereby a humble listening and generous conversation opens up to true inspiration and so spiritual creativity, is very rare in our experience. Instead what we tend to call collaboration is merely a form of competition, by which the loudest, most intransigent, and most powerful person’s ideas dominate.
So in today’s gospel the disciples are discussing, and no doubt arguing, among themselves who is the greatest. Jesus then tells them that it is the one who is last of all and servant of all that will be first. This is a continual theme in Jesus’ teaching. The leader must be the servant of all and if we are to lead we are to practice taking the last place at table. We are very familiar with this teaching, but we can readily miss its depth. For while the example of taking the last place or of washing the feet of others address external behaviors, today’s passage speaks to the requisite interior dispositions and the conversion and reformation required if we are to be able to act as servant and become truly collaborative.
In Jesus’ world, children are merely possessions of adults. They are not really persons in their own right. So, it is helpful to read today’s gospel through this sociological lens. He is teaching that one practice by which we can learn how to be a leader, how to be first in the kingdom, is by receiving those who are discounted and expendable in our own cultures. We are to listen deeply to those who are usually not part of the conversation. We are “to work with them” to create a society and world in which their deep desires and aspirations are also to be brought to light and to incarnation. This overturns our tendency to raise ourselves up and to be competitive with others. In the world of competition it is necessary that there be those who are less than we are. For us to excel in wisdom there must be idiots; for us to excel in competence there must be incompetents; for us to excel in virtue there must be sinners. But Jesus says, receive those whom you have marginalized and you will learn how truly to be first, to lead.
The power of Jesus’ action in today’s gospel, however, is even greater than his social and cultural challenge. It is also a very difficult challenge to interior transformation. The culture of Jesus’ time was able to relegate children to such a “non-human” role because of the universal truth of children’s vulnerability. Most of what is arrogant, violent, and competitive in us springs from our defensiveness about our own vulnerability, about the pain and need of the child in us. Much of the “personality” that we build for ourselves is a reaction to our fear of our own need, a defense against how vulnerable we truly are. The reason truly gentle human beings are so rare is because true gentleness requires our having appropriated and reconciled with the child that is always with us and in us.
Most of what constitutes our false self is our over-reaction to our sense of vulnerability, our own sense of being threatened by others. All of us suffer to varying degrees from dissociative identity disorder. The greater the gap between the needy vulnerable child in us and the “self” we present or even inflict on the world, the more serious our dissociation. Paradoxically enough, many of the most powerful people in our smaller and larger worlds are the most dissociative. As Jesus makes clear, this has always been true. For the degree of force by which we control the world and others is largely the result of the force required to repress the needs of our inner child. Ordinarily, it is not the caring persons who most give form to our communal settings, but rather the most forceful.
For many years, I was fortunate enough to engage in therapy with a very skilled therapist. Some years into the process, I had a very clear image of myself as an infant uncontrollably raging and crying. The infant was sheer rage and sadness. At this moment the words of Jesus in today’s gospel became so much more real to me. ““Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me. And whoever receives me receives not me but the one who sent me.” Much of my anxiety in adolescent and adult life was the result of my fear and refusal of this infant. And in that dissociation from my own most inner self, I was dissociated from Jesus who was present there.
So human society and culture, as we create it, is largely a place that excludes this child in each of us. The “Kingdom,” the new life and world that Jesus brings, is to include the child in us, for the only way to receive Jesus is to receive the child. The more we receive, accept, and then incorporate the child in us into our current form of life, the greater our capacity for collaboration over competition.
Most human languages have an expression upon meeting each other that is akin to the English “How are you?” And, for the most part, all accept the convention that we don’t really want to know the answer. It’s “just an expression.” What kind of community would we have, however, if we did want to know the answer? What if we each had the inner spaciousness to receive our own inner child and to attend to the child in the other? Then we would be relating not by force or competition but by caring and compassion.
Our greatest potential for creativity and generativity lies in the life and desires of the child in us. This is why any true collaboration requires a willingness to work together in shared vulnerability. In this sense, the inner work and the outer work are not in conflict. To speak of caring for our own inner child and learning in this way to respect and receive the child in others is often seen in our culture as navel-gazing or self-absorption. Of course, we are very capable of self-absorption. But what Jesus calls us to is very different from that. For, “whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” If we come to know the love for our vulnerable inner child, what we come to know is “a love common to all.” So, we live that love we have come to know and receive in the world and toward others. Loving others is not a willful act but rather a response of a will transformed in the love we have come to know and to believe in.
There is no true spiritual community that is not a space for receiving the child in each of us. Community is very difficult. There are few institutional communities, religious or otherwise, that are not essentially constituted by relations of force and competition, that are not places of continual assertion of one or another’s dominance and superiority. That spirit can even be channeled into relationships whereby we “take care of” others. But, taking care of and caring are not the same thing. Love and care require mutual openness and vulnerability. Many apparently powerful people in society, those who are most dissociated from their own inner child, often are greedily searching to be taken care of. Strangely enough, those who most refuse to receive the child in them never succeed in becoming truly adult and responsible. They remain undeveloped children who, unable to know intimacy and love, seek only to be take care of.
Thich Nhat Hanh, among others, writes at length about how to practice receiving and attending to the child within us. For this is not at all easy for us. If our personality is not to remain dissociated, we must deliberately and consciously relate to the child within us. We can care for that in us which is wounded and was not adequately cared for when we were infants and children. At least initially, however, this can be very difficult. And so, Hanh says, we well might need a community of others who are also doing this work to support us. While ultimately the child in us needs to be received by ourselves, we may well need the help and support of caring others to have the strength and courage to face those powerful needs and feelings of our inner child.
To take good care of ourselves, we must go back and take care of the wounded child inside of us. You have to practice going back to your wounded child every day. You have to embrace him or her tenderly, like a big brother or big sister.
We must listen to the wounded child inside of us. The wounded child in us is here in the present moment. And we can heal him or her right now. “My dear little wounded child, I’m here for you, ready to listen to you. Please tell me all your suffering, all your pain. I am here, really listening.” We have to embrace that child and, if necessary, we have to cry together with that child, perhaps while we are doing sitting meditation. We can go into the forest and do that. And if you know how to go back to her, to him, and listen like that every day for five or ten minutes, healing will take place.
Among us there are people who have practiced this and after a period of practice there has been a diminution of their suffering and a transformation. After practicing like that, we see the relationship between ourselves and others has become much better, much easier. We see more peace, more love in us.Thich Nhat Hanh, Reconciliation, p. 70