Photo by Robert Phelps
Commentaries and observations about the conflicting moral beliefs and psychological issues facing our culture.
New essay every week
"AWAY WITH WORDS"
You will receive an email announcing future posts to "Today's Ideas."
Your email address is safe with us, it is held with strict confidence and is not shared.
Sign up now
7 February 2024
A Few Lessons Learned
We are told that “age has its prerogatives,” one of which (true or not) is that we Elders (not “Old Folks,” please) are worth listening to. The assumption is that we Elders have accumulated a measure of Wisdom over our years.
Happily, I qualify as an Elder. My “four-score-and-ten years” is a pleasantly Lincolnesque way to acknowledge my length of days and lay claim to the assumed Wisdom knocking about in my head.
So, for what it may be worth, I here summarize several of my hard-won life-lessons. Some folks will surely disagree with me. Nonetheless, I rely on the patience of my readers … as I herewith express some insights I’ve absorbed during my fleeting decades.
I learned long ago that there are unpleasant aspects to everyone’s personality and behavior. We all have personal quirks and foibles, fits of temperament and defects of character to which we are sometimes blind, often by choice.
Everyone knows about them … and maybe we do, too, but we don’t want to admit it. They’re painful to acknowledge, and we get sensitive about our foibles, so we protect ourselves from the truth, often for a lifetime.
Why? Because our egos do not wish to admit faults. In fact, our egos are attuned to defend us against threats, both real and imagined. Nature equips us to protect ourselves from perceived (note: perceived) dangers, hostile slights, barbed insults and ill-meant ridicule, as well as dangers to limb and life.
Perception is crucial. Our values, our beliefs and our personalities are formed by our perceptions. When we perceive a threat (real or imagined), this automatically ignites our stress response and triggers in us a variety of “fight-or-flight” reactions, both physical and psychological. We do not think about it – it just happens because our perceptions (right or wrong) are so deeply ingrained.
Perception Is The Key
Our instinct to protect ourselves from threat is innate, instilled by Nature. It’s healthy, beneficial, intended for our survival. BUT the ways we perceive, define and evaluate people and events can either be 1) healthy and appropriate, or 2) unreasonable and unhealthy, even toxic to mind and body.
As we get older, the range of our perceptions widens. We learn (emphasis on learn) to perceive an array of threats, but some of our learned perceptions distort reality and can be harmful. Thus, our mis-perception of what is – and what is not – a threat becomes problematic, even dangerous, when we “perceive” threats which exist only in our mind, not in reality.
Too often we see what isn’t there or we mis-read reality and mis-interpret people and events. We make rash judgments and trigger a response which is entirely inappropriate to the situation, costly to us and/or hurtful to others.
Our distorted perceptions can even spark violent episodes in which we harm ourselves and others.
- Racial prejudice is an example of distorted mis-reading about our shared human condition.
- Anorexia is another example of a distorted perception which infects about three million Americans annually, not to count loving family members wounded by another’s needless suffering.
Something else I’ve realized is that we are, by nature, learners. We start learning very early as our mind evaluates the events in our lives and the behavior of others.
We learn from parents, brothers and sisters, neighbors, teachers and others we don’t know, including Nature’s endless wonders. Everyone has something to offer; as my Sainted Mother used to say: “Even the worst of us can serve as a horrible example.”
Some of what we learn is factually true, based on objective reality. But some of what we learn is false and fanciful, based on mis-reading reality or mere wishes or fleeting feelings or outsized egos which thrive on distortions and stubborn denial.
The Contagion Effect
On a wider scale, some gullible people are lured into groups which stifle criticism, deliberately distort reality, strangle independent thought and reward irrational thinking.
This is a populist form of group psychosis wherein passive people are persuaded to accept toxic ideas. The distortion of reality becomes a norm which group pressures reinforce.
This “mob-mentality” thrives on denigration of outsiders, eschews contradictory logic, bolsters fragile, defensive egos and affords members an excuse for dismissive judgmentalism, baseless accusations, even violence.
Given what we know of this mob-mentality and its ruthless application throughout history, it is obvious, yet unpleasant to say, that "mental illness" is not isolated to clinical cases or mental wards. It is also obvious that human nature is fundamentally flawed and, so often, psychologically precarious.
It is also unpleasant, even distasteful, to admit that this flaw in human nature, when slyly exploited, prompts people to eschew common sense and rationality and, worst of all, to abandon their moral sensibilities.
When this happens, social rules and cultural heritage are jettisoned in favor of unstable opinions and reckless emotions. Facts, truth, civil and criminal laws are ignored. The cautionary admonitions and prudent deliberations of moral sanity are lost. Propaganda eclipses common sense. Religion is eventually persecuted.
All of this is often subtle at first, incredulous to many people who find it difficult to believe that manipulative evil is truly at work.
This is why we need the Objective Moral Order, established by God, our Creator, and revealed to us in human nature as well as through Scripture and ongoing Revelation.
The Moral Order
At its core, the Moral Order specifies behavior which is good or bad, virtuous or corrupt, according to standards set NOT by humans, but by our Creator.
The Moral Order applies to three aspects of our lives:
- Our relationship with God and the respect we display to His Creation;
- What we choose to do with our own lives, the kind of person we choose to become; and,
- How we treat one another and the nature of the relationships we thereby create, even with strangers.
Why does an Objective Order make sense? Because human beings are innately moral creatures. Morality is the foundation of who we are as a race.
Being human means 1) we have a conscience, and 2) we have choices. We can choose to honor the God-given limits of our freedom and accept our responsibilities to God and one another, or we can choose to reject our moral obligations and satisfy only our distorted perceptions, self-serving feelings, urges and impulses.
Clearly, we are most human when we honor the Objective Moral Order, exercise self-restraint and heed the mandates of our Creator, reveled to us, first of all, through our own human nature.
Morality Is Fundamental
I have also learned that every human action and every human institution exist within the framework of morality - of good or evil. Certainly, gradations are often involved, to be sure. But morality overshadows all else, including politics, education, marriage and family.
The greatest personal struggle we face is the tug-of-war between our self-centered egos and our conscience, as we strive to sustain our moral character.
Some people do become indifferent to morality and live in a state of fickle neutrality, in which the overriding consideration is to be “nice.” This involves not offending anyone, not ruffling feathers nor sounding “holier than thou” -- and certainly not being so gauche as to mention archaic notions such as “good” and “bad” or “sin” and “virtue.”
So … we can stifle conscience’s natural yearning for goodness and choose the lesser path until moral ambiguity ensues, and nihilism becomes our life’s option. And, when moral ambiguity does become the norm, common language banishes words and ideas which offend, such as the fact that evil does exist.
But the fact remains that choosing goodness over evil is not a matter of social niceties or the right mood or benign feelings. It is an act of submission to God, our Creator, a deliberate choice and, often, a costly one.
- We do indeed have the power to make conscious and deliberate choices for goodness and virtue, in accord with our educated conscience.
- Evil and sin are also deliberate choices of words and deeds which harm others, and which violate God’s laws and the common good.
The Gift Of Wisdom
There are many ways to honor the Objective Moral Order. The most practical guidelines are the Theological and Moral Virtues:
- The Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity (Love for God and neighbor), and
- The Moral Virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.
What’s the point of these virtues as guidelines for our behavior?
The point is the attainment of Wisdom. Wisdom is the practical outcome of these Virtues.
- Wisdom bestows consistent moral insight shorn of self-serving delusions.
- Wisdom sees life as a gift from God, our Creator, but a gift which may come at a great price.
- Wisdom awakens us to the Divine Presence in everything around us – water we drink, the stars we behold, leaves on trees, even pain we are asked to endure.
- Wisdom enlightens us to the fact that every moment and every encounter with another person is an opportunity to express these Virtues.
- Wisdom allows us to see life gratefully, not fearfully. Why?
- Because Wisdom assures us that we are Beloved of God, that God is our Friend, an eternal Friend who says to us: “Be not afraid; I am with you.”
Wisdom also imparts clarity and determination, as it reveals to us that:
- It takes humility (e.g., regard for truth, openness to others) to admit we are wrong.
- It takes fortitude to maintain altruism and empathy even when we are treated poorly.
- It takes courage to apologize when we offend another.
- It takes great patience to give others the gift of listening intently, even when they do not respond.
- It takes maturity to realize that psychological and spiritual health are achieved only by acknowledging truth and coping with our own humanity as God’s children.
- It takes Faith and Hope to recognize the unifying power of life when lived in obedience to God’s loving expectations.
Wisdom bestows the clear and certain realization that the greatest gift we receive is the Virtue of Charity. Charity is not be confused with feelings of affection nor the expectation of consolation (as Mother Teresa discovered). Charity is, once again, a choice to be loved, then to trust God and love others as we are loved. It is a choice to forgive rather than to harbor revenge and hatred, to express our concern for others either directly or in silent prayer … even for those who treat us with disdain, those we call “enemies.”
Finally . . .
Clearly, then, our distorted perceptions of God, of life, of one another … and of ourselves … may serve us quite badly or exceedingly well. And even if people insult or snub us, so what? Maybe they are simply thoughtless or have coarse manners … or maybe their comments are true and hit too close to home?
I learned these lessons long ago, so I’d like to think I’m less ignorant than when I was only sixty - but my ego keeps butting in. Consequently, even in my elderhood, I’m learning there’s always room for improvement.
And, as my Sainted Mother also used to say, “No one’s perfect … yet.”