How to get along with people

In 2010 and 2011 I was a full-time volunteer with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest in Montana and Alaska. I can’t recommend the program enough if you’re looking for a post-college service opportunity.

Volunteers lived in close quarters, usually without internet, cell phones, or television. Your housemates were your entertainment. If you couldn’t get along with them, you weren’t going to have a very good year.

A book commonly passed from volunteer to volunteer was titled The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, by Scott M. Peck. The introduction, a story called “The Rabbi’s Gift,” served as a guide to getting along with each other:

The Rabbi’s Gift

“There was a monastery which had fallen upon hard times. Once a very great order, it suffered a loss of spirit so that there were only five monks left, all over the age of seventy. Clearly, it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was an old shack to which a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used to come for hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was nearby in his hermitage. “The rabbi’s in the woods! The rabbi’s in the woods,” they would whisper to each other.

Agonizing over the death of his beloved monastery, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the rabbi and ask if by some chance he could offer any advice that might save the dying order. The rabbi welcomed the abbot in his shack, but when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he explained. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town — almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.  So the old rabbi and the old abbot wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah, and quietly spoke of deep things.

The time came when the abbot had to leave. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me, that will help me save my dying order?”

“No, I’m sorry,” the rabbi responded, “I have no advice. The only thing I can tell you is the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned, his fellow monks crowded around him, “Well, what did the rabbi say?”

“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving, it was something cryptic, is that the Messiah is one of us.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s parting words.

“The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone he probably meant Father Abbot. He’s been our leader for more than a generation.

But then he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows Thomas is a man of light.

Certainly he couldn’t have meant Brother Elred. Elred gets crotchety. But come to think of it, Elred is virtually always right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred.

But surely not Brother Philip. He’s so passive. But then, Phillip is always there when you need him. He just mysteriously appears at your side. Maybe Philip is the Messiah.

Of course, the rabbi didn’t mean me. I’m just an ordinary person. But suppose he did, suppose I’m the Messiah. Oh God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for you, could I?”

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off-chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off-off-chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was located was so beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to the monastery to picnic on its lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the chapel to meditate. As they did, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something compelling about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently — to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came started to talk more and more to the old monks. After a while, one asked if he could join them. Then another. Then another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order, and thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.”

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