Several weeks passed, and the young man was summoned for the first fitting of the new suit. He tried it on, and realized that it seemed to be pulling across the shoulders. “No problem,” said the tailor. “You just need to bend sideways a bit more.” Another week passed, and it was time for another fitting. The young man had never actually had a suit made to measure before and did not want to appear too critical, so he hunched himself into the jacket. This time one sleeve was clearly longer than the other. He pointed this out to the tailor. “No problem,” said the tailor. “You only need to hold the shorter sleeve down a bit with your hand, and then they will both look the same length.” Again, the young man did not like to argue, so he complied with this bizarre suggestion.
Finally came the trousers. Getting into the trousers was such a struggle that the young man could not rightly see how he was ever going to be able to walk in them, but the tailor surveyed him, admiringly. “My word, sir, but you cut a fine figure indeed in this suit.” The client smiled wanly and limped across the room, trying not to look too closely at his reflection in the mirror. With reluctance, and in deep disappointment over the suit project, he paid the bill and hobbled home.
On his way home, people in the street turned to stare at him, as he struggled to walk in the lopsided trousers, his shoulders painfully crooked, and holding one sleeve down with his hand. “Poor guy,” said one of the bystanders. “What a shame that such a young man should be so deformed. But how lucky he is to have such a skillful tailor!”
This story came to mind again recently when an old friend called me for a chat. I have known her for years, and she is one of the wisest people I know, as well as being one of the kindest and truest of friends. Because she has suffered all her life from the effects of a spinal malformation, she has had to spend much of her time lying flat on a mattress. I have often seen her dealing with meetings and conferences in this position. She is a religious sister, and this year has been offered some sabbatical time. She was telling me about how she is using it.
“I have always known,” she told me, “that our journey with God is about body, mind and spirit. But I have tended to neglect the ‘body’ bit and focus on the intellectual and the spiritual. My body was more of a burden to be borne than a blessing. Then something told me that this should change, so I decided to give my body a sabbatical as well.”
This thinking has led her to spend several periods of intensive exploration with a spiritual guide who is also a practitioner of the Alexander Technique. So my friend’s spiritual and physical exercises are becoming intertwined, to the great benefit of both body and soul.
But what was really exciting for her, as she told me all this, was that her guide and mentor had explained the root causes of her chronic back pain. “You see,” she told me: “I have this malformed spine going through my body like a crooked rod. Now I discover that all through the years my muscles have learned to adjust themselves to this distortion and have forced themselves into unnatural postures in their attempt to keep me together and semi-functional. My mentor is teaching me, slowly and painfully, to re-educate my muscles to take up the positions and functions that nature intended. It’s very hard work, reshaping what has been out of shape for so long, but it really is helping.” She paused for breath, then continued: “But Margaret, what a parable!”
What a parable indeed! How readily we conform ourselves to the deformities and distortions of our lives and our world, rather than facing the pain and the discipline of living true to who we really are. The result is chronic inner discomfort, or worse.
There is indeed a crooked spine running right through our world today, and perhaps there always has been. Its deformity has been shaped, since humankind first became self-aware, by the human tendencies toward greed, materialism, self-aggrandizement and the thirst for power. While we are not personally or totally responsible for this systemic distortion, we do have choices. We are like my friend’s muscles. We have adjusted ourselves to a distorted system instead of struggling to live true to ourselves, and thereby challenge the distortion of the system. Challenging crooked systems is costly and painful and requires time, discipline and courage. It may demand that we confront what is out of order in our governments, our religious systems, our workplace or our family relationships. It will certainly demand that we examine and try to correct what is out of order in ourselves.
A few questions to address during Lent might be these: Am I feeling uncomfortable with the way things are in me and around me? Could it be because I am struggling to make myself conform to something that is not true either to myself or to God? If so, am I going to keep on forcing myself into this bad suit, until I cannot walk straight any more? Or will I fire the tailor?