Self-Analysis: A Beginning
Yesterday I added to my “Why Be Catholic” series with an entry on “Reason”. Among other things, I pointed out how prone we are to intellectual failings because of our fallen human nature, failings that include sloth, prejudice, passion and, let’s face it, befuddlement. The point in that essay was the need we have for Revelation to give us a secure framework within which to reason, and also the need for grace to purify, illuminate and strengthen both our motives and our intellects. But the weakness of being human ought also to concern us at an even deeper level.
As a general instance, it may be both easier and more fruitful to stress befuddlement rather than sloth, prejudice or passion. Let me give an everyday example, drawn almost at random from my own life. Since today is the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, I was determined to go to Mass, but I did not want to attend the 8:30 am Mass in my own parish because that is the Mass the school children attend each week, and so it tends to be both very crowded and a bit long for a work day. I chose instead the 9:00 am Mass in a neighboring parish. To get to this Mass, I would have to leave home at 8:40 am, plenty of time to catch up on email and get started on other daily business chores before I left.
I was remembering the time by thinking “I have to leave 10 minutes after my normal daily Mass starts.” Don’t ask me how these things happen, but what ended up getting fixed in my mind was not the time 8:40 but the time 9:10—ten minutes after the start of the Mass I planned to attend. So I worked diligently and with my eye on the clock until 9:10 and then, responsive to my spiritual intention, I jumped in the car and headed out. About half-way to the church, it suddenly dawned on me that Mass would be over by the time I arrived. My mind was a half-hour out of sync with reality.
I console myself that this kind of thing happens to everybody now and again, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling uncommonly stupid. This is befuddlement pure and simple, no hidden agenda, no secret desire to skip Mass, no last-minute effort to finish work I didn’t really have time to do—no fault of any kind as far as I could tell. Just befuddlement.
One of my fictional heroes, Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, would say that this “gives one furiously to think,” and I sometimes find myself thinking rather furiously just to figure out where I have gone wrong. Poirot was immensely proud of both his mustache and his “little gray cells,” but even he, when he realized that the had missed a key point during an investigation, could exclaim: “Triple imbecile that I am!” We are all, I think, triple imbeciles rather frequently, if we would just have the humility to admit it. Sometimes this imbecility occurs because our minds are closed or our passions are engaged, but just as often it arises simply and solely from aspects of our fallenness which are for the most part beyond our control.
The same thing might be said of the ways in which we think and act when we are in different moods. Almost every morning I wake up feeling like a completely useless dope. I find myself standing in the shower recollecting past gaffes and muttering things like, “Jeff, you really are an idiot.” There is something about that time of day, so full of bright promise for the early morning types who cheerfully welcome each new dawn, which induces in me a slight psycho-somatic depression, a tendency to be more aware of my own inadequacy. Around communion time, this typically dissipates, though I think the dissipation is more natural than supernatural. It happens at about the same pace with or without Mass.
By the time I’m at my desk and working, I’m typically well on my way to blaming everybody else for what’s wrong. It’s a welcome change for myself, of course, and one which readers may sometimes unfortunately detect either in some of my more pointed pontifications or in my more aggressive fund-raising pitches. My mood at times is perhaps best expressed by paraphrasing Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady: “Why can’t everybody…be more like me?” This I also take to be a fairly universal human failing, although unlike getting one’s times confused, it arises from something more than simple befuddlement. Therefore it requires spiritual and moral correction. Anyway, such are the moods of my day. Your own experience will vary, but you’ll probably find that moods play a large role in how you think and act.
Or consider the differing attitudes of youth and age. I don’t know about you, but when I was in my late teens and early twenties I was absolutely convinced that, as a champion of orthodoxy, I could conquer the world. I would proclaim the Truth, and the enemies of God would reel and fall. I would be an unconquerable knight in battle, indefatigable, always on the offensive, winning victory after glorious victory. Of course I gradually learned that my own exalted powers were woefully insufficient for the purpose. Worse, I grew increasingly aware that there were many other battles I presumably could win—but hadn’t yet won—battles over myself. Now in my 60’s, I have morphed into a self-professed gradualist. I deem it a small victory if, at the end of each day, I can say that I’ve tried to please God and I’ve done at least a little, with the help of others, to try to make the world as a whole more pleasing to God as well.
I also notice that I am much more inclined to have brilliant thoughts, definitely worth expressing in a slightly louder tone of voice, after my third glass of wine, but as I am writing “too early in the day”, I can find nothing in that body of work which I think worth sharing here.
We have no trouble noticing when someone else is mentally, emotionally or physically well below the norm—a condition we identify as a failure of the human body to work properly within its typical range. But seldom do we reflect on one obvious lesson taught to all of us by those with disabilities, the lesson that, as embodied beings, we are vulnerable to a wide range of ills which impede the optimal working of our faculties at all times. All of us have experienced how dull we are, how difficult it is to think and act decisively, when we are burdened with something as minor (and as obvious) as a severe cold. We also know how temporarily sharp and full of life we feel when we are restored to health. But perhaps we very seldom realize that there must be innumerable conditions in our minds and bodies which more or less continually hinder the free and full use of the powers of our souls—our intellects and our wills.
The same is true of our dependence on external circumstances. It is typical of the human race that when we are comfortable and well-off, we attribute it to our own superior abilities and we expect this condition to last throughout our lives. Again, only seldom do we reflect that, careful and diligent as we may be, both our physical health and our material well-being are largely outside of our control. We could be struck down by disease or accident, or lose our means of livelihood, at any moment. Then, too, it is foolish to think that our own country or region, if it is particularly prosperous, will remain so forever (or even very much longer). Will a permanent decline set in before we die, or will such a decline adversely affect our children? We have no way of knowing. Even with our best efforts, the future remains always beyond our control.
The amazing Ralph McInerny, a professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame and a popular mystery writer who died earlier this year, observed wryly that even in his old age and after he had lost his wife of 50 years, he still felt immortal. Most of us do, and this fact actually tells us something important about who we are. But my point here is that we typically don’t think of ourselves as young or old. We simply think of ourselves as ourselves. Therefore, recognizing that we have become old is in itself a continuous and mystifying surprise. How did this happen, this inexorable march toward death? More to the point: How did this happen to me?
What I’ve tried to do here is write an essay on our own weakness—our intense dependence on things completely beyond our control—without once introducing the idea of fault. This is an attempt to convince myself and everybody else that we are not all that we so often make ourselves out to be. Even before we bring sin and virtue into the discussion, we find on reflection that we are not as clear-sighted as we think we are, nor as quick or supple in our judgments, nor as controlled in our actions, nor as firm in our purposes, nor as capable of their achievement. Merely by noting our own variations from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year, we ought surely to realize that we leave a great deal to be desired in terms of perspicacity, resolution and accomplishment.
Even if we find ourselves at the very pinnacle of worldly success and adulation, each of us should be able to observe in ourselves a great many deficiencies and dependencies; in truth, we should be able to read a thousand indicators of our fragility as so many portents of our doom. For, in the end, all our human deficiencies will inescapably bear the bitter fruit of death. What then of our dreams of grandeur? And of what use our good opinion of ourselves? Death too, this final weakness and dependency, should give us pause. After all, it is not properly speaking our fault that we are mortal (or to anticipate a greater theological precision, that our bodies are mortal). There is absolutely nothing you or I or anybody else can do about our own mortality, our own radical contingency. We may learn, if we grow wise, that there are ways we can capitalize upon it, ways to use it to advantage. But it is not our fault. Yet there it is: We depend entirely on something beyond our control even for life itself.
To return to where we began, I am reminded of a story that the great John Henry Newman told of the time when he first visited Ireland to determine whether he wished to take up a commission to run a new university there. Newman had a fairly sensitive temperament which he kept in strict check through extensive mortification and self-discipline. He also prized being a true gentleman, with the best possible Christian understanding of always treating the other with immense respect and making the other’s way smoother. But he was very shy and always severely homesick when he travelled. Therefore, after some time as a guest in Ireland, where he was expected more or less continuously to exercise his considerable personal, academic and spiritual charm, he was struck bitterly by the departure of certain English friends who had been with him during the first part of his visit. As they were departing, he almost called out in front of everyone: “Oh that I were going with you!”
He was immediately aware of how rude and hurtful to his hosts such an exclamation would have been, and so how miserably ungrateful was the very thought. In consequence, he was filled not only with shame but with a dread of having almost said it out loud. We have all, I think, experienced what Newman noticed in himself on that occasion. Cannot each of us recall a similar dreadful astonishment at what we have blurted out? Or have nearly blurted out? Or have dreamt of blurting out? What a piece of work we are! How inadequate must we be in all our ways!
What then? Is it really possible that we have not seen enough of our true selves that we have insufficient warrant to strip away our vanity and begin to examine ourselves more closely? We are sometimes brought to the edge of doing so by a shock of some kind. For example, to suddenly become aware of our own capacity for evil can force us to more properly value ourselves, to realize how weak and hapless and even at times perverse we really are. But many of us remain blind for long periods to even our most obvious moral failures, hidden as they are by the seeming rectitude of our passions, and so once again I choose not to speak first of guilt. I speak only of a proper appraisal of the facts of our existence, facts which impose themselves upon us (if we are even remotely attentive) in very nearly every moment of our lives. Ought we not to wonder about such facts?
Why are we as we are, so fragile, so limited? On what or whom do we depend in every conceivable way? What does this dependence imply? How, if at all, can our distressing weakness be overcome? In light of these questions, is there a right way to live? Is there any hope for fundamental change in this life? Is there any hope beyond the nothingness of death? And above all, if we could really bring ourselves to care, how might we learn the answers to questions such as these?
It seems to me that a simple recognition of our continuous human frailty provides an ideal starting point for a serious examination of self—and so for a reaching out of self, with a cry of utter dependence, toward God.
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