Saturday, September 8, 2007

Failed Defenses

I've been pondering the astonishing level of human blindness, which is to say, my own blindness. How is it we (that is, I) fail so utterly to perceive the truth about ourselves (myself)? I accuse others of not being altogether straightforward and truthful with me, and yet God Himself, in His great mercy, withholds from me the full truth about myself, because that same truth that can set you free can also kill you.

More accurately, we/I, with tightly screwed-down eyelids, withhold ourselves/myself from the truth, and God does not pry our/my eyes open – yet. The day will come when everybody is forced to see the entire truth of things. But for now, God allows us to open our eyes a little at a time, to see only as much as we are able to bear.

The devastating aspect of these revelations is that they aren’t even about individual deeds, but whole patterns of thought and behavior. The appalling question is not, did I do that, but DO I really do that?

I’ve been fascinated to observe all the defense mechanisms I immediately activate within myself.

1. The first is, “How could I not have seen it? I was so blind, I didn’t realize. And the truthful answer is, because you didn’t want to. More precisely, you DID see it all along, but you chose to put a benign interpretation upon it. You persuaded yourself that it was actually something good or necessary, unavoidable or justified in the circumstances. You didn’t understand because you were too busy serving your own desires to bother looking at other people’s needs and feelings.

2. The next is, “But I never intended…” But Truth replies, “Of course you intended. This great harm may not have been the primary thing you sought, but you knew it would be one result of your action (or inaction) and you ignored that obvious fact, for purposes of your own.”

3.) Then comes, “Maybe I haven’t succeeded, but I’ve tried. I’ve tried so hard. If God in His mercy will judge me on effort rather than result…” But in a moment, a little more honesty creeps in and laughs outright. Who are you trying to fool – God Almighty? How about all the times you said, it doesn’t matter, it won’t be noticed, it can wait, I don’t have time, I’m too tired? And when you actually were trying, what was it you were trying to do? To serve God, or your own comfort? To pray, or to titillate your fantasies? To love God, or to become god? To secure your own approval of yourself? Were you truly repenting, which, after all, implies bringing forth the fruits of repentance, or were you merely seeking forgiveness? And what about the years spent chasing after non-Christian doctrines and delusions? All that effort, not merely for nothing, but for worse than nothing.

So, “I tried” doesn’t work any better than “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t intend.”

4.) I must resort to something subtler with which to comfort myself: I’m not that much worse than anybody else. I may feel like the world’s worst sinner, but the Church teaches everybody so to regard himself. It manifestly, by definition, cannot be that each sinner is the worst. We are all sinners, we are all in the same boat, and – doesn’t this sound humble! – I am after all not some extraordinary human being, not so unlike anybody else, not special in any way, even in the level of my depravity.

But then in awful clarity comes the realization of what I’ve just done: first, felt myself as the world’s worst sinner, and then had the breathtaking arrogance to turn right around and accuse everybody else of being just as bad! If that should be true, if the whole world is as evil as I have just perceived myself to be, it ought hardly to be any comfort, but highly alarming. Furthermore, this little subterfuge is just that, a trick to distract me from the issue at hand, which is MY OWN wickedness, correcting that if possible.

This business of “I am not the worst” is moreover a lie – mixed with truth, as all the best lies are. The truth is that for practical purposes – and religion must always be practical! – I am the worst and only sinner whose sins have any relevance whatsoever to me.

So that is why the Church teaches us such prayers as, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came down from heaven to save sinners, of whom I am the chief…” (Or “the first,” depending on how you translate the Greek.) That such prayers should have been stumblingblocks to me once upon a (recent) time says it all.

5.) The last resort, as you see, is to intellectualize it all, put it on paper, analyze it. That seems to give me a little distance from it, a respite. But even this is scant comfort, for at least two reasons. One is, I have no reliable idea how far I may have corrected the sins I have seen. I do know I ought to put up a tougher struggle. The second is the thought of the sins I haven't seen so far – and instead of sorrowing over how those are still sabotaging my relationship with God, my pride wishes to know, are they perfectly obvious to everybody else? (Of course they are!)

So in the end, the only true comfort is continuous repentance and continuous, grateful, joyous receiving of God’s endless, fathomless mercy.