February 2022

Resisting the impatient desire to reform other people

Minding my own business does not mean that I don’t care about others. But this is different from thinking that I know what is best for them, writes Patty Fawkner.

“Mind your own business” is a taunt we hear from early childhood, and I am writing this article in an attempt to encourage myself to do precisely that. 

Down through the ages philosophers and religious leaders alike have counselled us to mind our own business.

“Justice means minding one’s own business and not meddling with other’s concerns,” Plato said around the 5th Century BC in ancient Greece. At roughly the same time in India the Buddha was teaching: “Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do; give it to what you do or fail to do.”

This teaching is reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching to take the log out of my own eye rather than busying myself with the speck in my brother’s or sister’s eye.

And then there is Jesus’ rebuke to Peter in a post-resurrection encounter when Peter asked what was to become of Jesus’ Beloved Disciple: “If it is my will that he remain until I come,” Jesus said, “what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22) In effect, mind your own business, Peter!

In possibly his very first letter, Paul wrote to members of the church in Thessalonika advising them to “make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). He ups the ante in a subsequent letter admonishing the disciples that “You are not busy working – you are busy interfering in other people’s lives”. (2 Thessalonians 3:11)

Fast forward to the 21st Century, and spiritual guides continue to offer the same advice.

Byron Katie is an American spiritual teacher and author whose CDs I listened to about 20 years ago, and whose practical wisdom has stayed with me. Katie, as she is known, says that there are only three kinds of business in the universe: mine, yours and God’s, and the only path to happiness is to stay in my own business. She defines “God’s business” or the universe’s business as anything that is out of our control – things such as the weather, an earthquake or when I might die.

“If you understand the three kinds of business enough to stay in your own business, it could free your life in a way that you can’t even imagine,” she promises. Katie believes that much of the anxiety and distress I experience in life arises from the fact that I get caught up in other people’s business, and the best way to being happy is to stay in my own business.

Any time I pass judgment, gossip, and think what someone else “should” be doing, I am in their business.

I can stay in someone else’s business in the most trivial of matters – making judgments about what people eat, prefer or wear. We’re all guilty of this. Another clue that I’m in somebody else’s business and not my own is when I start to compare. “Well, at least I’m not as bossy as her.” “I wish I was as popular as him.” Comparisons, both favourable and unfavourable, can be as endless as they are insidious. 

Staying in my own business doesn’t mean that I do not care for or about others. But this is very different from thinking that I know what is best for them and that I can change them or “save” them. Katie is very clear about the fact that my spouse, child, friend or colleague are equally responsible for their own business.

And staying out of God’s business doesn’t mean that I am not concerned about the climate, global poverty and injustice in the world, and I can work for change in my own immediate sphere of influence. But merely worrying about such things seldom is effective. 

Byron Katie’s work is consistent with research in cognitive neuroscience, Buddhist teachings and 12-step programs, even though it did not develop from any knowledge of religion or psychology. It is very reminiscent of the insights and wisdom of Thomas Merton:

One of the first things you learn if you want to be a contemplative is how to mind your own business. Nothing is more suspicious, in a person who seems to be holy, than an impatient desire to reform other people. A serious obstacle to recollection is a mania for directing those who you have not been appointed to direct, reforming those you have not been asked to reform, correcting those over whom you have no jurisdiction. How can you do these things and keep your mind at rest? (New Seeds of Contemplation)

My mind cannot be at rest if I continually deflect my attention away from myself by messing in the business of another. Can I practise the virtue of restraint, honouring the autonomy of another by resisting the urge to correct or to judge? Minding my own business can be an expression of deep respect – a truly loving act.

It occurs to me, it’s never too late to adopt a New Year’s resolution or perhaps a discipline for the approaching Lenten season. I am going to suggest to myself that I mind my own business. Could I invite you – certainly not presume to tell you! – to do the same?

 

 

Patty Fawkner

Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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