Photo by Robert Phelps
20 February 2020
No One Tells Me What To Do !!
When I was a youngster decades ago, I had a grammar school classmate named Joey. Joey was possessed by a precociously wicked world-view, with a flippant, dismissive attitude toward all authority and a prodigal’s distaste for anything which challenged his version of “freedom.”
Joey cheated on tests, snuck food into class and gobbled Twinkies under his desk. He’d steal candy bars and comic books from the drug store. He’d tell straight-faced lies to his parents. He even lied to The Good Nuns (a sure ticket to perdition).
I once asked Joey why he did stuff we all knew was wrong and (to us Catholic kids) sinful. His answer: “It’s a free country, isn’t it? I can do what I want; it’s a free country…”
In his primitive manner, Joey twisted authentic “freedom” into a fallacious “right” to do anything he pleased. He lived as if he were subject to no laws or restrictions. His moral vision admitted no personal wrongdoing. His superficial charm and persuasive duplicity revealed no remorse for his misdeeds, no regret or concern for the consequences of his wayward deeds.
Joey was deaf to the moral voice of conscience, numb to human nature’s innate tug of decency and altruism. Anything he wanted to do – any urge or impulse – was a “right,” no matter what harm ensued. No restrictions. No restraints. He was addicted to irresponsibility.
In effect, his motto was: “I have the right to do wrong.” He had only one caution: “Don’t Get Caught . . .”
Now, many decades later, countless people accept Joey’s specious idea that a person is subject to no laws other than those he decides for himself. Freedom and liberty, morality and conscience have no binding force other than what each individual decides. Freedom means we say and do anything we wish. We can lie without guilt, offend and demean and name-call with impunity. We can pursue harmful ends with harmful means. We are righteously “free” to do what we choose.
The social and moral consequences of this outlook are frightening for individuals and for a society which uncritically accommodates such radical, ethically unsound ideas. In this view,
- Traditional morality and conscience are archaic and civility is irrelevant.
- Freedom and liberty are severed from their proper purpose, namely, to seek Goodness and choose what it requires.
- Liberty and freedom are used to do harm, to offend and to manipulate, as we choose.
- Culture is polarized; communication is self-righteously accusatory and hostile.
- Morality and law mean only what each individual decides.
- No common standards of behavior bind us as citizens, and we have no moral center to our culture.
- Conflict and hostility replace courtesy and empathy. Fact-less accusations are tossed wildly about.
- The Commandments are passé. Scripture’s admonitions? Tiresome! Respect for centuries-old customs of Western culture? Boring! The Christian virtues? Fuhgeddaboudit!
Constitutional guarantees and limits, legal restraints and even common-sense are rejected. Law, religion, history - even scientific evidence from biology and genetics - are the detritus of a repressive era, of no worth whatever. They’re diktats of outdated elites. Even aborting children is a “civil right” or a “woman’s health concern” or a “social justice issue.”
The Costly Consequences
This view defines the moral order as an offensive intrusion on radical individualism. Morality is imposed by an un-woke, power-yielding collective of homophobic, xenophobic, racist, misogynistic, hate-speaking, toothless, white-privileged men.
Everyone in our culture today is affected by such thinking. Why? Because (among other outcomes) these distorted concepts have profoundly diminished the value of human life and the validity of traditional marriage and family, which are the historic foundations of every stable culture … and this is only for starters.
So, we must ask: How can morality survive in such a radically selfish culture?
More than that, how can a morally-conscientious person survive?
What happens to individual conscience and the larger culture when each person is guided only by their aggrieved feelings and their errant urges?
Morality And Conscience
What does “conscience” truly mean? Why does morality count?
The basic meaning of “conscience” is “knowledge with others.” Conscience compels us to move out of our self-centeredness and pursue knowledge of right behavior -- not only for ourselves but for the benefit of others with whom we share this earth. In this context, “others” refers not only to loved ones but to strangers up-close and half-a-world away.
The moral content of the educated conscience not merely a set of arbitrary rules, imposed by a distant, power-sated deity. Morality is a reflection of God’s design for us all. Morality proposes a set of practical rules and admonitions based on the fact that we share this earth with countless others. We are accountable to one other, as well as to God.
Morality is God’s way of telling us how to get along with others, how to find the right way to behave so we can live in peace with one another. Conscience tells us that morality is not arbitrary or peripheral to life. Morality is essential if we are to treat one another with dignity and consideration, so that we might all be better human beings, able to love and to give of ourselves generously to one another, in peace and kindness, respectful of one another, grateful for the gift of life God has bestowed.
Conscience - rightly understood - is our well-formed, morally educated awareness which informs us about Goodness and then inspires our will power to choose to proper action.
Our moral education is a life-long learning process which gradually empowers mind and will, heart and soul. Our educated conscience then becomes the center of genuine freedom … religious and civil, personal and cultural.
The educated conscience comprehends the value of goodness and the harm of evil. Like any human skill, conscience also grows and deepens its knowledge over time, as we learn more about the true nature of life and the responsibilities of being a person.
Conscience increases our moral intelligence and refines our grasp of what is expected of us, of what Goodness truly requires of us, of what “justice for all” really means to us, of what charity demands of us, of what love for neighbor costs us, of what self-respect and self-restraint require of each of us, of what more we can do to extend virtue and Goodness in this world.
The well-formed conscience is not naïve or passive, not willfully ignorant nor evasive. It does not avoid hard reality nor alibi away its responsibilities.
As our educated conscience matures, we also mature -- and we understand the dignity and necessity of our becoming a truly accountable person. That’s why liberty -- true liberty -- is always directed to a morally good end. True freedom is never separated from moral truth. Why?
Because we do not create ourselves or the moral laws which oblige us. Neither do we create the inner voice of our conscience, that universal voice which, always and everywhere, whispers (sometimes vociferously) to us about right-doing and wrong-doing.
True Freedom Seeks Good
The natural goal of our choices and our behavior is a perceived good. Our behavior seeks a good end … or at least what we define as good. How we correctly determine what is truly Good is the key issue in our development as persons.
Some people knowingly – and errantly -- assume the authority to define evil as good, thus engendering a dangerously selfish life-style. To do this, they must blunt their moral responsibilities, silence conscience’s inner voice, rid themselves of altruism and empathy, and risk the loss of their ability to love and be loved.
Nonetheless, some people become so perniciously self-centered that goodness eventually means nothing to them, as their conscience is muted. The chronically selfish person learns to dismiss moral truths, to reject conscience’s inner voice and to studiously ignore the storehouse of moral knowledge which defines us as persons and dignifies human nature.
Such selfishness is contrary to Nature’s intent. Even those who learn evil at an early age, or those burdened with severe neuroses come, sooner or later, to know right from wrong, good from evil. They know what they are doing.
From Good To Better
A well-formed conscience is more than knowledge. It’s also a power which, as we mature, inspires us to choose what we know is right and good over what is wrong and evil.
A well-educated conscience energizes us, spurs us to action as well as to refection and contemplation.
But more --- as our conscience matures, Good will inevitably ask more of us. We will learn to be ever-more grateful and generous. Our growth in moral maturity will reveal to us the value and dignity in even the smallest human actions.
We will recognize the Godly power of good will and loving intention which inspires us to perform even small gestures of kindness and care; those acts of acknowledgment and civility and honor by which we extend gentility and dignity quietly to others … in ways which give them a moment’s revelation of Goodness Itself.
A reassuring smile to a fearful stranger is an example: a tiny gesture of value immeasurable .. a reminder that “I see you, and I recognize you. You are here, and you are not alone …”
In the sight of God, nothing small is truly small.
Maturity is the union of knowledge and will – the union of thought and behavior, of knowing and doing, of seeing and choosing, of insight and action, of intention and recognition, of generously giving of oneself – a union which grows and deepens throughout our lives.
It is this union which defines us as moral persons aa we move from doing to becoming.
It is charity -- love of others -- in action.
This is the heart of what we mean by moral choice, the generous act of our giving more than we are asked to give, of taking less than we are allowed to take.
It is the quality of the Divine to which we are called.
As Always, It Is Our Choice
Our human growth and development as mature persons depend on how open we are to hearing and to heeding these truths which conscience reveals to us.
Moral truths come to us through formal education and from learning of all sorts. We learn from others, from our reflections on our experience, and we learn from God, Who is behind all of this.
Even those who deny God’s existence or those who ignore the promptings of God’s echo cannot escape the inner voice of their own conscience, a voice which, many believe, is the whisper of God.
- Thus does God communicate His creation to us in our own created hearts.
- Thus does our conscience become the gift of His largess in our personal lives.
- Thus does He appeal to our humanity and usher us toward Goodness by revealing to us our own special path to His Goodness – with-and-through the “others” in our lives.
- Thus does He call personally to each - and to all - of us.
- Thus does God ask us to love and serve Him … with-and-through the other human beings all around us.
These truths were once widely accepted in our society. Once we shared a common awareness of right and wrong. We did not hesitate for an instant to allow our children to pray in school. We did not question the faith of our neighbors, nor did we indict them as “haters” for their traditions. We certainly did not entertain the madness of surgically mutilating our children or feeding them hormone-killing drugs. We were not ashamed to publicly express our gratitude to God for blessing our nation with liberty and justice for all -- even if our struggle to attain these ideals was sometimes hampered by our moral blindness.
Finally . . .
At the conclusion of his “Inferno,” as Dante ends his travels through Hell, he emerges from the depths, and tells us that he again sees “…those beauteous things which Heaven does bear; thence I came forth to re-behold the stars.”
In our struggles to do what is right and good, let us “re-behold” Goodness. Surely, as we struggle, we err and fail, fall and rise again. But to find meaning in our struggles, we cannot escape the fact that our hearts and souls are made for Goodness, no matter how long we evade this truth or how much we deny it.
Goodness awaits … often, despite our ploys to avoid.
In the last analysis, it is humility which unites us to Goodness. Humility urges us to admit and accept truth – truth about ourselves, about creation and our place in it, about our neediness as created beings to believe and to hope, about the fact that God, Who is Goodness, patiently awaits.
In the last analysis humility obligates us all. Humility obliges us all to see and hear the truth, and to speak truth, as well. We are obliged -- all of us -- to recognize truths beyond ourselves … truths within ourselves … truths which bind us all; truths which God has given us, truths which define us as His children.
In the last analysis, then, it is always God’s gift of humility which allows us to see that ….
There is a time when anguish and doubt
must give rise to hope.
Then strength and grace are to be found
in the silence between our soul's dark night
and the Light and Life which enliven.
Then does our hope move us to God,
and our search for His goodness
leaves us stranded in Him;
there, at last, with the gift of His vision,
to behold Him anew…
God Who, alone, is the Loving Cause of life
And the reason for it all.
5 February 2020
Choosing Legacy: For What
Shall I Be Remembered
When I was a very young child, my ever-loving parents would occasionally take me to various of their social events. Invariably, my mother would caution me beforehand not to pester, not to romp nor cavort like the child I was. “Sit. Sit still and listen,” she would sternly command. “Listen… Just listen...”
On one occasion, as we entered the home of a new neighbor, the husband greeted my parents, then greeted me … by name! He knew my name. He welcomed me … and his sincerity was -- to my child-self -- overwhelming.
The power of his acknowledgment was overwhelming to me. It was stunning that an adult knew my name. He knew who I was. He remembered me … and he treated me with goodness and dignity and genuine warmth which I remember to this day. (He later assumed a role in my life which greatly enhanced his credibility and caring -- but that is another tale, for another time.)
Now, so many decades later, I recall with affection and admiration that Good Man … and the power of his presence in my life. By my memory of his goodness, I celebrate his still-blessed legacy. And, many decades later, I still honor him, for he is well-remembered.
The power of his presence remains, and his legacy of goodness still touches my heart … for goodness is never out of season, even if, in these latter days, the power of human presence is rarely noted or goodness seldom revered.
The Power Of Presence
In quiet moments, with these reverent memories ascending, I am reminded, once again, of what goodness is like in human affairs; reminded that even the smallest gift of kindness elevates the listless soul and relieves the dark wonderment of life’s endless, unanswered questions.
I am also reminded that no human interaction is neutral. Even glances exchanged between strangers has an impact -- subtle but discernible -- on the mind and heart and emotions. Memory may not linger on these brief encounters but an impact, an awareness and, often, a reaction to the presence of the other, does invariably occur. Somehow, in some mysterious manner, we register the presence of one another.
Despite a plethora of contrary evidence, human beings possess a sacred potential which is a reflection of the divine. A sacred factor hovers at the threshold of every encounter between people. In fact, we possess the potential to reveal the divine in each of us … if we but look and see what is to be seen … then choose to make it so.
The power of human presence offers us a vision of Creation but it is a vision we must seek, a vision which we must enliven by our free choice. However, for many people, it is a vision often obscured by the vagaries of personality, de-sensitizing distractions, endless mind-cluttering detours and errant feelings which our lonely, rootless culture spawns.
Still, despite the snarky put-downs of skeptics and the all-too-abundant weaknesses of the flesh, some of us hold tenaciously to our belief that a sacred factor exists in each person, even if many people rarely advert to it or are oblivious to our innate human dignity.
Many of us believe that the reality of the divine is embedded in human nature and resides close to the surface in every human encounter, there to be found and brought to life. Moreover, that divine quality enlightens our spirit whenever we act upon the belief that:
- kindness is preferable to disdain,
- that care is preferable to indifference,
- that forgiveness is preferable to revenge,
- that patience is preferable to intemperate emotion,
- that we are, each and all, children of our Common Creator.
The Point Of It All
Goodness and forgiveness and all those “better angels of our nature” do not appear haphazardly in our behavior. Goodness does not result by accident or chance. Goodness is not a bloodlessly ethereal quality, not a phantom wandering aimlessly through the ethers. Nor do we create Goodness merely by dropping money into the poor box.
Goodness is, above all else, a divine reality, a quality which is sacred in its origins -- and sacred, too, in its human realization when it is revealed by the power of presence.
In human affairs, goodness revealed is a gift given to us by God; a gift freely given which we must not squander on selfish wants or foppish excess. Goodness is a means and an end, a path and a goal. It is meant to inspire us to choose freely to become what God intends by His act of Creation.
When we introduce goodness into any relationship, it is always the result of a free choice we make, of an action we choose. Goodness is then as real as pain we experience or rejection we feel or doubt we harbor or cynicism which sours the heart -- or the sustaining, unquenchable love we experience for our Beloved.
When we choose goodness and kindness and the panoply of our nature’s better angels, they become human realities with specific characteristics, discernible qualities and tangible human traits which we know as virtue. Yes, virtue exists. Virtue is real.
Then does Goodness have a face and a name. And our motive for our choice is not to promote our own ego, nor to role-play for the gullible, nor to wallow in the “feel-good” shallows of our dreadful Culture of Nice.
Our choice (as cliched as it may sound to some) is to do what is humanely sacred, to do what is divinely right – to do the morally right thing, to choose Goodness, to respond to that inherent spark of divinity which is ever within our choosing.
No Human Encounter Is Neutral …. BUT ….
“Nonsense,” some critics are quick to say. “These ideas are the ravings of someone unfamiliar with the struggle to get ahead, to get what’s mine, to succeed in this grubby rat-race, to do unto others before they do it unto me, yo………”
It’s true; some encounters are hostile, loaded with conflict and aggression. Rage and anger seem de rigueur in our culture. You gotta be hard, tough. Trust no one.
Most encounters are fleeting, seemingly irrelevant, superficial at best, with no apparent point or purpose. For example, we pass dozens of people dozens of times each day, but rarely do we advert to their presence, or they to ours. We rarely greet them nor are we greeted by them. We are busied with distracting cell phone chit-chat and a litany of obsessive irrelevancies. People are often last in our priorities. We listen to others with an eye on our screens and an ear attuned to our apps.
On the other hand, overly-friendly people are often assumed to be a bit balmy or simply tasteless boors. Social restraints forbid incursions into another person’s private space. Moreover, the discomforting truth for many of us is that our interest in others is very often stimulated only by a “what’s-in-it-for-me” outlook.
Yes, we can be a caring race -- but selectively. Why?
Because we are a vulnerable race, drawn instinctively to self-interest in its various forms and fashions, some heathy and essential, some indulgent and intentionally distant.
Happily, however, we are entirely capable of learning from our mistakes and recovering from our sins (if, that is, we any longer accept “sin” as a moral reality in human affairs).
- We are certainly able to grow beyond our hapless immaturity and choose wiser ways to live than estrangement and division … if we so choose.
- We are certainly able to rise above the lingering allure and assorted seductions to which we are heir … if we so choose.
- We are certainly able to give voice to that sacred gift within us -- that gift which animates the soul and taps at the conscience of every person … if we so choose.
The Real Meaning Of Choice
Self-encapsulated individuals often choose the pursuit of power as their life-style, savoring the two-edged pleasures of control over others. Some people even choose evil, and do so with unrepentant, repetitive clarity and full knowledge that their actions hurt others. Yet they proceed knowingly, and thereby taint their souls, sometimes beyond redemption --- but always by choice.
The truth is that we always have a free choice about what we shall do – here and now. We have a free choice about who we will become, about what legacy we bequeath.
But let us be clear: freedom of choice is intended for the pursuit of Goodness, not evil. Our freedom to choose is NOT about doing whatever we wish to do, not about living a life with no moral boundaries nor concern for personal accountability. And we are certainly not given freedom of choice so we can injure or demean others.
True freedom of choice actually means the freedom of each individual to choose the path of Goodness, no matter what the cost. The choice of Goodness makes us most human.
Finally . . . . .
We live in a zone of choice between the Ideal and the Real, with advocates and persuasions tugging at us both ways throughout our years. We are tempted as we struggle between the divine and the human. We can choose evil, BUT we are born to choose Goodness. We are not born to celebrate the worst of which we are capable, as individuals or as a race.
Thus, true freedom is the response-ability to choose Goodness, not evil. The choice we make is the defining response-ability which determines who-and-what we truly are. And in choosing, we determine our own legacy.
It is our power to choose and our power to think which radically define us as persons, as individuals, as human beings, as participants in the sacredness of Creation.
So, we can choose what sort of person we wish to become. Our choice reveals who we truly are and determines the legacy we intend to bequeath.
So, let us consider:
- If we but look at -- and see -- the beauty of life all around us;
- If we but look and see the gift of life which abounds all around us;
- If we but look and accept the Goodness which Creation constantly reveals all around us…
- we cannot but gratefully realize that Goodness is everywhere to be found, all around us.
Then will we also recognize that the point and purpose of one's life – i.e., the burden and the glory of our personhood -- is to freely choose the path of Goodness, to look and see that Goodness is also God’s gift within us – if we choose it and embrace it, no matter what the cost.
It is that free choice which answers the query: "Who Am I?"
It is that free choice which determines the values (or lack thereof) we possess, the patterns of life which we follow, the goals which mean most to us, the person we choose freely to be, the legacy we shall finally leave, the way we shall be remembered.
But our legacy is always the result of our free choice … always our choice … and always ours alone …………
18 January 2020
Mystery And Wisdom:
Life’s Abiding Realities
As years go by, the process of growing older has a way of nudging us toward the (sometimes painful but healthy) realization of how little we know about our own lives and about our own specific role in the vastness of Creation. And, if we are wise, we will listen to our sense of Wonder.
We are, of course, easily distracted in our individual search for clarity. We do stumble and deny and avoid certain fundamental questions. We may still argue needlessly or defend ourselves for no solid reason. Some of us even become chronically angry and jealous in ways which are unworthy and unreasonable.
But some people realize that getting older can actually help us traverse the maze of options (some good, others way off-course) which life affords. If we listen humbly to our wonderment and to the call to Goodness at its heart, we may realize the aging process is actually a grand gift, a doorway to the path of innocence regained … an invitation to personal Wisdom.
We all know that, as we age, our “successes” (such as they are) surely fall behind. No more ticker-tape parades or pursuits by eager autograph hounds. No more feature stories in Fortune Magazine. Our lesser tendencies – to exaggerate, perhaps, or to back-slap with too heavy a hand or to worry about appearances or to seek approval all too readily – these all fade away, in favor of a less grandiose vision of who we really are … and, hopefully, a far more honest, humbler, giving sense of self.
As we age, we are better – and wiser -- when we are deliberately less self-centered, more openly probing, more candid, more empathic to the needs of others, more ready to listen than to ignore, more truly forgiving of our own stumbles, more grateful for friendships which last, quicker to respond to altruism without reward, blessed with a Spouse who loves us still…...
As we age, we also begin earnestly to question whether we spent our years worthily. In so many ways, our accomplishments are still unknown by so many people; people who are enmeshed in their own reverie, pondering the nagging wonderment of what life and living are all about.
To some of us elders who ponder thusly, the words of Isabella (in “Measure for Measure”) make much sense: “…but man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he's most assured.”
The Lingering Why
As we age, some elders do a profit-and-loss study. They come to realize that their great loss over many years has nothing to do with market quotes or estate planning or insurance costs. No, they see their great loss is their inability - or unwillingness - to embrace the inescapable presence of Mystery in their lives. They come to realize that Mystery rests at the heart of our struggle to seek and find Wisdom, whose first mandate to us is that we admit we really know so very little.
As elderhood pushes our aging envelope, our health gradually begins to fail us. Our “friends” are fewer, our children grow up, aloneness edges in .. and eventually, inevitably, we all recognize we are not the center of the galaxy.
Age will surely have its way with us. We will be moved one day to admit that we possess no power to fully control anything in our world. But Wisdom wisely reveals to us that all of this -- and more -- is to be accepted not with curmudgeonly spite or outdated pride or hopeless resignation, but with profound gratitude and quiet, abiding dignity and a statement to the world that it is a wondrous gift simply to be alive, to yet pursue Wisdom.
Wisdom further teaches us to greet the Unknown not with rage and complaints, but with the ageless grace of grateful Wonder. Wonder enlightens us sufficiently so that we admit our lives are precious, divinely-given gifts. Our lives are gifts beyond all other gifts. They are gifts beyond all our understanding …. gifts which have been given -- to each and all -- freely. For this gift, may our gratitude be ever forthcoming.
Some dissenters find the concept of Mystery unacceptable and intrusive. They find Wisdom’s insistence on gratitude unwelcome, discomforting, offensive, intellectually off-base. “I am,” they say, accountable only to myself. I am my own master, my sole creator,” goes their tinny mantra.
Some of these dissidents look to Science for all the answers we need in this life. Science studies the Mysteries around us and within us, then reports its findings. “What else is there, for God’s sake,” the dissidents ask…..
Indeed, science reveals ever so much about our universe that is riveting in its stunning reality. Some examples:
- Cygnus X1, the first identified Black Hole, is a hefty 6000 light years away from Earth.
- The speed of light is agreed upon as 186,000 miles per second (give-or-take a mile or two);
- A Black Hole four million times the mass of our sun lies at the center of our Milky Way;
- Billions of galaxies exist in the universe (yes, that’s billions);
- Dark matter and dark energy comprise better than 90% of the observable universe … but what is it?
- There is a vast range of electromagnetic radiation, of which our area of vision is but a quite smallish fraction.
These and other beguiling Mysteries -- such as the fluctuating vagaries of gravity and quasars and quarks, and an array of inexplicable realities -- continue to confound us as “Out-There Mysteries” of Creation. They have existed for billions of years, but they remain entirely beyond our comprehension, beyond our making --- yet we are part of that Creation, part of that “star stuff,” as Carl Sagan used to say.
More than that . . . in addition to these “Out-There Mysteries,” we are also confronted with the “In-Here Mysteries,” the list of personal wonderments summed up in the question, “Who Am I?”
In truth, we stand before Creation and before our Creator as the weakest of creatures, dependent totally for our bodies which give us breath, dependent utterly for our souls which give us our lives and the energy which sustains us all our years.
Bonhoeffer’s Moral Exemplar
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Methodist Pastor imprisoned by the Nazis, wrote his poetic response to that perennial question of “Who Am I” days before he was murdered in prison. He was just 39 years old, killed weeks before the end of World War II:
"Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell's confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as through it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing
My throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine,
Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine."
To be sure, Bonhoeffer based his life -- and his death -- on the example of Jesus Christ, Whose name and ideas are today so blithely attacked, so readily trashed. But He, and Bonhoeffer in His stead, offered incarnate witness to Goodness, and to the belief that one cannot speak of moral values unless one is living these values in one’s own life. Christ as Moral Exemplar.
Finding The Path
Living a virtuous life as prescribed by Wisdom is difficult. But doing so is also a noble standard, really the only reliable standard for our credibility as persons who are true to our word … true to the highest traits of Human Nature, true to the Mystery, the Wisdom and the Wonder of our creation.
Indeed, we do not bestow dignity upon ourselves. Our task in life is to recognize, honor and nurture the inherent dignity we already possess as creatures of God, then to assist one another to find and follow -- together -- the paths which God’s Wisdom opens to us.
The message and the ground rules – the “In-Here Mysteries” – are clear. There is no mystery whatever about what is expected of us … as individuals and as a race of created beings in search of our Creator.
And, as we learn to search our hearts with honesty and humility, the answers to our wonderment about “Who We Are” and why we are here become clear, and so does the price of Goodness which we must pay … for our victory already achieved.
7 January 2020
Denial And Its Corollaries:
America’s Flourishing Addiction
Life’s Little Tyrannies
Remember when you were a kid, and a playmate said to you, “Bet’cha can’t climb that tree…” and you emphatically replied, “Can too!!” Then up that tree you went, scraping your knees and cutting your fingers … just to prove you were a fearless tree-climber.
We all have stories like that. Even as kids, we learned that our egos were -- and are -- powerful, feisty, vulnerable, easily aroused, ready to respond to challenge or threat by fighting or fleeing. And our most immediate ego-response is Denial: we deny the validity and gravity of the threat -- no matter how true it may actually be.
I first felt Denial’s feisty compulsion to defend my ego when I was an eight-year-old, pretending to be a tree-climbing hot-shot. One of my classmates called my bluff and, foolishly, I took up his challenge … even though I was fearful of heart, stubborn of mind and weak of will. I knew I was definitely not an adroit climber-of-trees. Not me. No sir. No ma’am. Not me. No way!!! But Denial still had its way with me.
Why? Because I cared too much what others thought of me. The threat of my sullied notoriety amongst my taunting playmates was too much for my ego to bear. It pushed me hastily into a state of blind, stupid Denial. So … up, up that daunting tree I went – only to fall from a reckless height, injuring my back, requiring hospitalization and weeks of slow recovery.
And, to add to my self-styled humiliation, my attempts at Denial were infamously related to other classmates, and greeted by a barrage of whispered giggles occasioned by my self-inflicted dishonesty. How my weak ego did betray me … and, thus, did I painfully thud my way into grade school ignominy – a wretched state for a third-grader.
Learning The Hard Way
On the bright side, my act of Denial taught me a life-lesson: Denial may work for a while, but it becomes the eventual doorway to other falls from grace, some of which cause much avoidable hurt for many people.
I realized that Denial requires us, knowingly and willingly, to practice self-deception. That’s a heavy load to bear for anyone with a conscience. Yet even as adults, some people use Denial and deception with ease and aplomb, sometimes for decades.
But why do we use Denial? Because (so we believe) the opinion of others -- what they say and think about us -- deeply affects our ego, our self-image, our emotional safety, our reputation, our social status.
And why is that? Because we gotta look good to others -- at least that’s what our fragile ego says. So, we deceive ourselves and others, and follow the bad advice of our wayward ego … and are lessened for it.
Let’s look at three aspects of Denial and ponder its cost to us, to our families and to our culture.
Personal Terms And Outcomes
First of all, Denial is our personal attempt to avoid unpleasant truth and justify falsehood. We distort reality, stifle facts and deflate evidence. We try to convince ourselves that our problems are not real, that truth is only what we say it is, that language means only what we decide, that right is wrong, that wrong is normal and more desirable than honesty.
Denial is a handy cover-up, a manipulation of logic which replaces truth with fiction. Its perverse utility seems effective when something we value is challenged, even if what we value is morally wrong, medically risky, physically harmful and blatantly untrue.
Denial buffers us (however superficially) from the contradictions in our bootless pursuit of ego-centric superiority. It’s our way (often embarrassingly ineffective) of dismissing anything which might make us seem less admirable, intelligent, courageous, superior, sober or enviable. It’s a psychological Potemkin Village, camouflage for our fragile ego, a surrender to deception -- and a horrid example to others.
Clearly, some personal truths do indeed chafe our egos and make us look foolish, weak or needy – often, because we truly are. But, in truth, we are all foolish, weak and needy at times. But Denial deflects such embarrassing truths as it tries to sanitize our personal lives, choices and behavior -- our tree-climbing facility.
IN addition, there’s more – much more – to consider beyond personal issues. There’s also the social and cultural impact we must ponder …..
Second, some people have a need to be seen as confrontive cultural warriors, aggressive agents for social change. They dread the slightest suggestion that they’re unconcerned about social causes. They use Denial as a weapon, often with hostile vigor and an arsenal of baseless, condemnatory accusations of others, voiced with reckless intolerance.
In this context, Denial in recent years has been used by social militants with frothy righteousness. But their abuse of logic and language contorts traditional moral guidelines, religious beliefs, legal rights and accepted restraints of civility, courtesy and the common good.
Many of their “causes” are framed in the angry argot of “victimhood” and “civil rights,” mis-labeling their causes as “moral issues.” They employ frivolous accusations of “male domination and toxic masculinity,” “white privilege,” “heteronormativity” and other invented categories, including dozens of self-defined pseudo-sexual labels which burst the boundaries of risibility.
For example, a biological male claiming to be a “woman” contradicts scientific evidence, medical fact, history, morality, tradition and common sense. The claim is indefensible … yet much of our culture accepts it as fact and denies the evidence, with grave harm even to young children.
The public misuse of Denial has undeniably profound social impact with grave medical, religious, educational, familial and moral consequences. This misuse causes incalculable suffering.
The Addictive Element
Third, Denial has an addictive potential. Some people become hooked on Denial; it can become an unhealthy, addictive habit.
Denial may start small, with seemingly insignificant little lies and evasions -- but the Denial Process is thereby energized. And, as we know, the ego-fueled thoughts, feelings and behavior ignited by Denial are quite powerful, even in childhood and well beyond
Addiction, by definition, involves closed-minded defensiveness which very often spawns protective avoidance, haughty cynicism, flippant and sarcastic dismissal of other views and, when pushed, an aggressive, retaliatory response.
Reliance on Denial gradually nurtures true addiction as it deepens with repetition. Our character and moral vision are compromised. Our flight from reality and our avoidance of accountability become a life-style. Antagonism comes easily but it’s often muted behind caustic pseudo-humor or silent, stubborn avoidance of even benign confrontation.
In fact, some people become so addicted to Denial that they brusquely avoid anyone who disagrees with their self-protective scripts, including close family. And, in the process, Denial’s habitual avoidance of truth prolongs immaturity and undermines psychological stability.
Why mention maturity and psychological stability?
Because maturity and stability, not power or prestige or adroit Denial, define healthy adulthood. The following traits of mental, emotional and moral stability indicate healthy growth in maturity. Maturity is properly fostered when:
- we outgrow reliance on the need to shave the truth, tell lies and deceive ourselves and others;
- we do not unduly deny or needlessly hide anything about ourselves which is true; we “man-up,” even if it hurts;
- we grow beyond the childish compulsion to portray ourselves as anything other than as we truly are;
- we overcome the need to hold grudges, control others, seek revenge or punish those who confront or threaten us;
- we stop kidding ourselves about the limits of our talents;
- we are no longer intimidated by our own vulnerabilities;
- we honor the dignity and shared humanity of others in family and society, even strangers whose pain and need are unknown to us;
- we no longer resent people who offend us, nor do we harbor memories of conflict nor dream of revenge;
- we admit we can learn from many persons, so we listen with humility rather than attacking or dismissing their views;
- we do not seek perverse delight in demeaning others;
- we respect truth and evidence, even when it hurts.
These traits indicate a healthy soul in possession of itself, a heart in sync with the arc of the moral life. But people addicted to Denial are adversely controlled by their need to look good, to impress, to live a delusion of superiority. In fact, their pretense at independence is actually a form of dependence, since delusions start with one’s self.
Addicted persons become “fixated,” which means they stop growing emotionally. They get stuck -- fixed -- at a dysfunctional level of development. They may be singularly proficient in a specific area, not unlike the savant who excels (often spectacularly) in one arena of behavior but cannot maintain candid, stable relationships, even in marriage and family.
Furthermore, Denial also reinforces the erroneous belief that nothing is amiss. There’s no need to change, no need to listen to others, no need to rely on anyone. Emotions and loving self-disclosure, given-and-received, are avoided. Humility is weakness. Love and intimacy are kept at arm’s length.
As addiction settles in, the person believes he has no character flaws or unsightly wrinkles, no hormones out-of-place. He can control his needs and makes no bad decisions. His self-image, flawless and unmarred, lurks in pristine focus, providing unsullied energy for his mythically faultless life. Praise and adulation are his due. The rest of the world flaps and falters -- but says nothing, as enablers are expected to do.
In this scenario, he is the main character (often, the only character), deserving attention, reward and applause; always ready for his close-up, with the expectation that others will recognize his stardom and be silent -- as intimidated enablers are expected to do.
He hides from himself, covers his eyes and numbs his soul to the truth. His self-delusion is bad enough. What’s worse is his inflicting it on family and concerned friends in the community, who stay silent -- as exhausted enablers are always expected to do.
The Value Of Community
“Community” always means human beings -- people -- united by a hallowed sense of kinship and mutuality, with care for one another, even for strangers a world away, as well as family close by.
“Community” is radically defined and universally circumscribed by our God-given responsibilities and rights with one another. These mutually-binding, God-given responsibilities and rights are the bases of all morality. They originate beyond us and exist in our DNA.
We are born to be members of a morally-inspired community……….
- Our moral nature is our God-given road map to making right choices.
- Our moral selves are the core of our identity as persons and members of the human community.
- Our freedoms exist only in the context of responsibility before rights, duty before privilege. The reverse is pandemonium.
- We are free to do what is morally responsible and necessary, not what our selfish urges and raw instincts push us to do.
- Our rights come from our Creator, the Divine Origin of all rights.
- Our human dignity comes from respecting the limits of our shared human nature, not from exploiting or disregarding them.
We exist within a variety of “communities” where we interact with others who seek specific, if temporary, goals. The needs of community often overrule individual urges and personal desires … and rightly so. This is even more essential in the family, which is the original community for all human learning and development.
The lesson is obvious: some goals are larger than any individual. Therefore, we must all give something to the community before we have any right to expect or demand anything.
To deny this principle is to deny logic, human nature, common sense, history, Revelation, experience and reason – sources of evidence which Denial simply cannot erase, even as it struggles to obscure the truth.
Affirming The Point Of It All
Denial in our culture now runs deep in education, religion, family, school. It is no longer applicable only to the areas of substance abuse (which clutters our country and costs billions).
Responsibilities come before rights – but our culture now turns that natural law on its head. We now celebrate “civil rights” without responsibility. The meaning of “freedom” has been derailed. Rampant individualism and moral relativism reign.
The point is this: none of us is ever free to do as we wish. We cannot act any way we desire. Furthermore, we cannot fall back on Denial to avoid our God-given responsibilities to one another.
We are born into “community” which, by the laws of God’s nature as well as human society, demands limits, sets restrictions, applies restraints and metes out punishment for irresponsible behavior -- or used to.
History reveals that rights without responsibilities results in moral chaos and disaster. Closed-minded individualism always spawns relativism and promotes conflict, polarization and the aggressive eradication of opponents by law … or, in time, by violence.
And, of course, the less we believe in God and honor the guidelines of His Revelation, the less all this matters. Without God as the Origin of our rights and responsibilities, life is indeed chaotic.
Finally . . . . .
Personal freedom is never without mutual limits. Denial would have it otherwise.
Human community demands personal and social truth. Denial would have it otherwise.
Individual maturity is defined by our readiness to love and to be loved. Denial would have it otherwise.
Human flourishing relies on self-restraint … not for fear of punishment but for the dignity and rights of others. Denial would reject that truth.
As human beings, we are a conflicted breed. Denial cannot alter that.
Yet we are given our lives as a gift, born to pursue the noble mission of investing our lives with kindness and goodness, even if it means self-sacrifice. Denial cannot erase that.
We are also born into frailty and error. As Solzhenitsyn reminds us, the thin line between good and evil runs thorough the human heart. Denial cannot obscure that truth.
We all fall into the Denial trap and run from truth … more than we want to admit – and that’s precisely what Denial is all about:
- avoiding the fact that God does indeed exist,
- finding ways to numb the yearnings of our hearts,
- ignoring the deepest needs of our souls, i. e., the truth of who we are, and what our lives are really for – why we’re here.
The encouraging fact is that we always have a choice about acting with generosity. Since this is so, I often wonder what our lives would be like if we adhered to the marvelous notion that homage and fidelity and our very personhood might be at their strongest if we choose to respect the God-given truths of our moral heritage and humbly honor our duties to God and to one another.
I cannot help but wonder …. and hope.