Indifference and Kenosis: knowing how to say “no” because of saying “yes”

Management authors and books of spirituality stress that it is important to formulate a deep “yes” – to make a profound choice for a goal or a value in one’s life – before one is really able to say “no” to what does not focus on this profound “yes”. That means that people, who feel difficulty saying “no” to all kinds of invitations and calls, may be helped in their lack of focus by connecting to a deep “yes”, a profound choice they make for a life commitment and a crucial vision. Simplicity and focus arise out of this deep “yes”. Of course, questions may be raised as to what one says “yes”, and this “yes” may even be shattered by concrete life experiences in which one discovers other tasks or responsibilities. But, however this may be, strong people seem to be more people of “yes” than of “no”.

I find this, as a theologian, an important observation, and it may help to get a better grip on two important spiritual and theological ideas: indifference and kenosis. Divine kenosis is often interpreted in a “no” way: God divests Godself of divinity, humiliates Godself to come near to human beings. We tend to forget that at the core of this “no”, there is a deep “yes” of love. Mothers and fathers have to say “no” to a lot of things and opportunities, but the important thing is not that they say “no”, on the contrary: there is a profound “yes” to their relationship and their children that shapes their many “no”s. A “no” is so to say a crypto-“yes”. Don’t look for what has been left behind when you hear no, look for the powerful “yes” that allows for the “no”s. “Yes” is deeper.

Indifference is a term that is often used in an ignatian context (spirituality inspired by Ignatius Loyola). It is a key attitude in the Spiritual Exercises. Sometimes it is understood as an injunction to leave behind all kinds of attachments, disordered attachments, that is. Then, one focusses on these attachments and the difficulty to let go of so many things that absorb us too much: we have to gain inner freedom of all that could bind us. When approached in this way, there is a risk that indifference is understood as a profound “no”, as if the core of human life would be to say “no”. In the ignatian perspective, however, the “no” is conditional upon a very profound “yes”. When one discovers one’s deepest attachment, one’s deepest “yes”, one’s whole life receives a focus. Ignatius’ idea is that love does not distract but focusses. In a wonderful prayer former Jesuit General Pedro Arrupe formulates it as follows: “what you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything … fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything”. Our deepest “yes” is life giving and very practical as it shapes our attitudes and actions.

Certainly in my own life, but also in the lives of many people around me and even as a social feature, I have the impression that it has become difficult to focus on that one deep “yes” and that, therefore, it has also become difficult to make choices and to say “no”. It’s interesting that management guru’s point to that: they seem to remind us how important spirituality, the spirituality of the deep “yes” may be.

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