As I’ve shared before in this space, one great privilege of being a Marist Brother is the chance to take part in important conversations. A conversation is not important because its participants are highly regarded or because its consequences will shape the destinies of nations. Rather a conversation is important if it allows wisdom to emerge from hiding.
A young man I know was recently told that he sins most greatly when he fails to be truly himself. At the risk of sounding hopelessly optimistic, I must ask—isn’t that true of most of us? Anybody can fall into misunderstanding or commit an honest mistake; none of us has perfect judgment. We can say ‘oops’, make our apologies and move on, perhaps having learned some lesson in the meanwhile. Such errors do not threaten our sense of who we are.
By contrast, how many different ways are there to act ‘out of character’? Somebody can act while overwhelmed by emotion or impaired by a chemical substance. We often hear criminals torture reason in attempts to deflect their own guilt by blaming their enablers or even their victims. I don’t think we would take such pains to dodge responsibility for our worst actions if we did not have a keen sense that we are actually better than our misdeeds.
For a vey brief time in college, I dabbled in petty thievery. I never took anything of significant value—I think it was just a snack from the college bookstore on a couple occasions. I’m sure I told myself that it wasn’t a big deal given how much tuition money the school was getting from me; I might have even kidded myself that I was taking a radical stand against capitalist norms (I was in college, after all). I was almost certainly following the lead of a friend or two. My career in shoplifting was very short-lived however, because I knew deep down that I was not a thief. Being better than that behavior meant that I had to act better than that behavior. After all, I had a moral self-image to live up to that included a high degree of honesty.
Personal standards of this kind are important for changing bad behaviors before they develop into stubborn habits. As effectively as a strong self-concept can counteract moral degradation though, it can also stunt personal growth: I’ve come to believe that we are always greater than the self-image that we have. The danger of an unrealistically low self-image leading to poor decision-making should be clear enough. Even those with an inflated sense of self-worth are better than they think though. After all, narcissistic delusions attempt to compensate for an underlying insecurity that itself is not based in reality.
Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish theologian and philosopher, posited that it was sacrilegious to say anything at all definite about God, whether good or bad. Any attempt even to name God’s perfections would be so flawed by our inevitable omissions that the praise we intended would actually be insulting. As Ludwig Wittgenstein would state centuries later in a much different context, “That about which one cannot speak must be passed over in silence.” The analogy to personhood is that even if I actually believed myself to be the most intelligent and interesting person around, such a self-image would be unfair to myself, even if it were true, precisely because I am already more than even these exaggerated illusions suggest and am invited to personal growth in important ways that these inflations probably lead me to ignore.
In my training to become a spiritual director, we often talk about walking around in shoes that are too small for us. Recognizing more of my human goodness than I previously could may be a liberating step, but by the time I have been able to name my new self-concept, I have once again begun to outgrow it. We are not only meant to always become greater, but rather we are always greater in fact than we can recognize at the moment… though that greatness remains mere potential when we fail to act on it.
If this is true, how much harm is done when I not only limit myself with labels but do the same to others? When I fail to recognize a person’s growth because it is more convenient for me to remember him as the bigot he used to be? When I focus on the people she hurt in the past without seeing the ones she heals now?
It is hard enough for me to accept the challenge to keep growing beyond my own self-concepts without allowing them to limit me. Can I also release others from the imprisonment of the roles in which I continue to cast them as they continue to grow and evolve?
I expect that very few people will know this week’s ‘brain candy’ by name—more may recognize the tune. The most memorable line in the refrain (to me at least) is clearly a rebuke of race-based assumptions. Again, can we set people free of the way we see them? The ‘brain food’ is a bit of poetry that I would like to think has obvious thematic connections to this week’s post. Thank you, Uncle Walt!
Ear Candy: “7 Seconds” by Youssou N’Dour featuring Neneh Cherry
Brain Food: “Song of Myself, 51” by Walt Whitman
Come back next Saturday for a new post!