You Got Some Case or Tell Me What You See

Rev. Steve Schlissel - May 10, 2017

What do you see in this picture of Verdinah Jeanne (Schlissel) Brann on her 4th birthday? Whatever your answer, if it includes blonde hair, blue eyes, cute, pretty, birthday, cake, and so on, I’d be checking those boxes along with you. But to Grampa’s eye, there is considerably more herein to behold. And, though it may sound strange at first blush, all the things reaching my eye which didn’t make it on our short list can be summed up under one heading: perfect self-possession.

I must quickly make a plea that my language not to be heard as Grandfatherese, but as bearing a real relation to what we both behold. Therefore, please understand that by “perfect,” I do not mean neo-platonic, abstract perfection, not an ideal floating high above the ether. Instead I mean perfect in the sense of REALIZED, i.e., following the Biblical notion, where “perfection” connotes realization/manifestation of that which had first dwelt as potential. The seed is the potential, the tree the perfection. Moderns might be tempted to think of it as a program once written, now executed.

But there is another qualifier: In Verdinah’s “perfect” self-possession, I do not imagine we are beholding the final stage, but only a full, and fully legitimate, portrait of what self-possession gone right LOOKS LIKE at the completion of the first human four-year cycle. Given the duration of cultivation, we have here optimal expression of the trait in question. Let me explain why I think this is actually the case.

We begin with simple indicators. The dictionary speaks of self-possession as a personal calm stemming from a confidence born of control of one’s feelings. Put another way, each of us knows himself as naturally inclined to FOLLOW only those leader-candidates whose apprehension of circumstances is substantive while betraying not even a hint of Chicken Little; people who know what’s happening, what should happen, and how to get there unflustered.

Now, lest you hastily conclude that descriptions such as this have no rightful place in a 4-year-old’s C.V., I should tell you that Verdinah’s conception of a perfect fourth birthday bash was “doing Chinese with a cheesecake to follow. And not Junior’s. That’s fine for three or five. For my fourth I’m picturing Lassen & Hennig’s of Montague Street.” (Not verbatim.)
Let’s remember that guard rails belong in places where it’s just too easy to go wrong, to go over the edge. Similarly, the specificity and subtle refinement conveyed in Verdinah’s preference could easily be imagined as prompting motorists (readers) to overcompensate, to either brake hard and fast or to jerk the wheel because of a (mistaken) conviction that we are talking not about self-possession but about spoiled rotten. However, those tempted in that direction should pause to express gratitude for guard rails: you nearly went over the edge. Recalling at all times that context is king, we can say with a high degree of confidence that Verdinah’s 4-year-old ideals became table perfections NOT because she is spoiled but because she is self-possessed and loving.

The simplest way for me to illustrate why this is so requires that I address a query to the menfolk reading this. Guys, I ask you to recall your a’courtin’ days with your now Mrs. Do you recall how, when you inquired, “So what would you like to do tonight, honey,” that–INVARIABLY–the answer you received was, “What do YOU want to do?” OK. Depending on this or that, not too bad. But let’s say you conscientiously helped things along by replying, “I was thinking a movie might be nice.” And that’s when the trouble appeared for sure on the tracks. It was just around the bend when, in response to your “What movie would you like to see?,” you were told, “What do YOU want to see?” Then, no matter how hard you tried to explain that what you WANTED to see is whatever SHE wanted to see, she became committed to and lodged inside an impenetrable circle. You tried explaining that what she wanted to see was the variable in play, what you needed to learn, for that ALONE could inform your preference. The worst form of this problem occurs in relations where courter and courtee REALLY like each other, for then the woman is playing off the same standard–with a little extra. You see, she ALSO wants to please you, as you wish to please her. But she, being smarter than you, wishes to learn MORE than the answer to such a fundamental, stupid question. If there was nothing more to it, she’d tell you, “El Cid,” just to shut you up. However, her circle is far more irritating than ours, o guys, because she has more complex mechanisms. As far as self-consciousness goes, she, like Jesus during the incarnation, voluntarily limits what she knows she knows in order to serve a higher purpose. So, while you see it as a battle between two people where each is simply trying to please the other, she has long since detected in the confrontation an opportunity to LEARN about you, and your taste in movies is just a start. Yes, your honest admission about wanting to see “Porky’s Fat Revenge” is bio material. And she’ll be able to work your revealed tastes into a hundred subprograms she’s prepared to launch as needed. But if that was the whole of it, after hearing your choice, hers would change from “Whatever you want,” to “No way. “BUT, she wants to learn more from and about you than you are even aware CAN BE learned from that exchange. How about whether you cared enough to self-subordinate to what you had reason to believe she would prefer? Or add, whether you had enough sense and testosterone to actually do it, AND to lead her to the choice you thought you were making which was only her choice-cum-quiche.

In a minefield like that, where danger inhabits every step, every guy secretly BEGS GOD for his intended to be imbued with “Verdinah-spirit.” “Can’t you just TELL ME what you’d like to see?” It is not because Verdinah is spoiled, but because she is self-possessed and LOVING that she laid out clear answers about her preferences to empowered inquirers. Actually, as any male reader will tell you, hers is more an expression of submission than selfishness. Leaving your skepticism to the side for the time being, however, let me proceed.

All that I report as being visible in this photo can be corroborated by a careful, studious look at Verdinah’s face. Each student has five minutes, beginning NOW, to do that.

Good to have you back. My careful look left me in mind of Maria in West Side Story. When she met Tony at the Dance at the Gym, they were each blasted with a dose of love-at-first-sight powder. Overwhelmed, Tony soon voiced his suspicion that Maria was merely joking about loving him. Her reply is perfect: “I have not yet learned to joke about things like that.” I submit that we are presented with that same spirit in this photo. Are we looking at a self-centered, gloating manipulator, better called self-satisfied than self-possessed, or at a delightful, delighted, elated, grateful 4-year-old heart of candy and honey? She has not yet learned to put a face like that into the service of abuse. Give her time, will you!?

But seriously, I will conclude my observations with assorted comments, bolstering the visual we both see by the evidences I (but not you) daily see, because of proximity; i.e., geographical–not filial. You understand.

Perfect self-possession in a 4-year-old is not a fruit of self-obsession but of covenant/other-orientation. While it includes “comfort in one’s own skin,” that comfort arises out of Verdinah having come FIRST to understand herself as one enmeshed in a FAMILY. On her train, the best booths and berths have been permanently reserved for FAMILY, and that includes all siblings and all cousins.

When that “enmeshed” self is alive and healthy, it manifests in what is perhaps a surprising form: comfort in being/playing alone. Every person, of course, must seek to work into his life both self and others–with all the attendant claims of each. When self is unduly exalted, the resulting self-centeredness is manifested in various indicators which unite to declare, “All rooms ordinarily reserved for OTHERS are ‘occupied.’ This hotel has No Vacancies.” But because there is really no one else at the Inn, when she’s alone, she feels it as boredom, or a compulsive desire to get amusement, or stimulation. In contrast, children whose rooms have been happily given to others tend NOT to FEEL ALONE, even when they are physically alone. This leads to the ironic reality of other-orientation manifesting itself by contentedness at playing alone, while the self-centered heart knows no such peace.

Beside such lateral manifestations, perfect self-possession cannot be present apart from a keen sense of the Lawgiver AND His Law. I can’t think of many other children who greet the world with such a keenly honed expectation of encountering an order in every and any sphere. Everything exists as part of something larger, and every part, to serve its role in the larger, arrives with a bevy of ought’s. If Verdinah should happen to think about, say, locksmiths, she would conceptualize it with the ends (lock and key) meeting in the middle (the locksmith). Every problem can only be solved with a PERSONAL solution, and every problem IMPLIES a solution. If there is a lock, there is a key, period. This indisputable conviction, planted as presupposition, is the “key” to contented silence in a crowded, even noisy, room. It is easy to mistake the outward behavior, sitting quietly and looking, as of a kind with the ennui born of evil which currently occupies every crevice of the Public Square and every TV program guide. But there is a great difference between sitting quietly and sitting passively. Verdinah looks and listens, remaining incredibly busy by filling out mental flashcards matching problems with solutions and shading in the human delivery system God has appointed for each. No passive mind could tell what it thought a perfect 4th birthday party looked like.

If you doubt any of my conclusions, then show your sense and charity by allowing the picture to settle all controversy. Look at it carefully, just once more: Is this not the very picture of perfect self-possession–godly, righteous and full of justified faith–as it ought to appear on one’s 4th birthday–such an obviously important birthday? To ask the question is to find the answer.

Your honor, I rest my case.

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