A few years ago, my husband and I took an anniversary trip to England. By sheer luck, we had enough airline miles to make the long trip in first class. It’s the first time I had flown first class and the luxury was grand: a four-course meal (ordered from a menu), fresh-baked cookies, my own Bose headphones and a seat that converted into a bed with the push of a button.
Swathed in airline luxury, I felt almost sorry for the poor minions back in coach, crammed together eating rubbery chicken on plastic trays.
“Wait!” I told myself. “You were once a poor minion. You still are a poor minion, simply a fraud who worked her way into first class.”
This is the conversation I had with myself somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s one I’ve had with myself many times since. It's so easy to set ourselves apart.
We do it all the time — we set ourselves apart by the clothes we wear, the boots on our feet or the car we drive. We segregate ourselves by education level, our country of origin or how many organics we keep in our fridge.
Working parents set themselves apart. So do stay-at-home parents — people who shop at Target and people who shop at Wal-Mart.
Wealthy, educated, famous people set themselves apart. So do the less fortunate.
The trap in setting ourselves apart is thinking we stand in either an entitled or enlightened place. I often joke with my husband that the world would be a better place if everyone went jogging once in a while. Also, if they were writers. In other words, if everyone were exactly like me we’d achieve a global Karma.
The other danger in setting ourselves apart is when we begin to make excuses for our actions, for the things we buy and for how we treat others. The writer Michael Lewis gave an address at Princeton last year where he talked about a study done in Cal-Berkeley’s psychology department. The researchers took groups of three students and put them together in a room, randomly assigning one person in the group as the leader. Their task was to work through a particular moral problem.
Halfway through the experiment, a tray of four cookies was brought in. Four cookies. Three people. It would make sense to break that fourth cookie into three pieces, but that’s not what happened. Inevitably the randomly assigned leader snatched up the fourth cookie and ate it with gusto. The leader, who did no extra work and was really no different from his or her peers, felt entitled to that extra cookie.
Here is the challenge: In some ways, we are supposed to set ourselves apart, otherwise Jesus Christ would not have advocated for organized religion. He expected Christians to be different, yet he reviled pride and hypocrisy. He sat with the sinners. He broke bread with the wealthy and the poor. The Pharisees exhausted themselves trying to figure out his strategy. He had none, except to let them know that all people were equal in God’s eye.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are "set apart" in callings, meaning we are given an assignment apart from being a member of the congregation. This isn't a chance for us to posture authority on others, but an opportunity to grow, teach and learn from others. Our job as Christians is to recognize our potential without ever feeling entitled. None of us deserve that extra cookie.
During the Holy Week, I always think back to the years I spent living in Miami. Our neighbors were mostly Jewish. On Saturdays, they walked to synagogue in hats and prayer shawls. During the Feast of the Tabernacles, I used to crack my windows and listen to their wailing songs late into the night.
On Passover one year, I spent the morning dyeing Easter eggs with my little boys. We went to the park in late afternoon just as the Passover worship finished at the synagogue. A family with five young children stopped at the park to burn off some energy, and my son struck up a friendship with the youngest son.
Mid-way through their play, this little Jewish boy with a yarmulke pinned to his hair offered my son a Matzo cracker, the cracker traditionally eaten at the Passover meal. My son, with hands stained bright blue from dyeing Easter eggs, accepted the cracker and the two sat down together to feast.
If Christ could help us understand the proper way to set ourselves apart, I think it would look much like this toddler meal of unleavened bread.
We would gather on life’s playground with our vastly different beliefs, whether rich or poor, educated or illiterate, with hands stained or clean, and break our crackers for the entire world to share.