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Always Greater

November 23, 2019 – Vigil of the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ,
King of the Universe

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?

 

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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!

 

 Previous Posts:

 

2019

Nov. 16 – Coloring Book

Nov. 9 – Justice and Mercy

Nov. 2 – Together in Loneliness

Oct. 26 – Gently

Oct. 19 – Flow

Oct. 12 – In This Place

Oct. 5 – Why Understanding

Sep. 28 – Stone to Flesh

Sep. 21 – Let God

Sep. 14 – Passion

Sep. 7 -- Hermanos

Aug. 31 – 525,600

Aug. 24 – Pathway

Aug. 17 – Crazy Together

Aug. 10 – To Bridge

Aug. 3 – Stripes

July 27 – Ghost Town

July 20 – Adrift

July 13 – Borders without Borders

July 6 – Little Bit at a Time

June 29 – Holy Dissent

June 22 – Old Kentucky Home

June 15 – Steamer Trunk

June 8 – Squad

June 1 – Legacy

May 25 – Live like You’re Loved

May 18 – Purity of Heart

May 11 – Builders and Creator

May 4 – Value Proposition

Apr. 27 – Vital Signs

Apr. 20 – Let It Be Real

Apr. 13 – Meet Self

Apr. 6 – Let Go of the Best

Mar. 30 – Thirst

Mar. 23 – Back Home

Mar. 16 – Say Goodbye

Mar. 9 – Garden and Desert

Mar. 2 – In Transit

Feb. 23 – Wealth

Feb. 16 – In Place

Feb. 9 – Each and All

Feb. 2 – Not Disneyland

Jan. 26 – Pilgrim People

Jan. 19 – Waking Dream

Jan. 12 – Called and Sent

Jan. 5 – Divine Encounter

2018

Dec. 29 -- Resolution

Dec. 22 – Room for Love?

Dec. 15 – Humbug!

Dec. 8 – Let It Begin with Me

Dec. 1 – Driven by Love

Nov. 24 – What Manner of King

Nov. 17 – Stranger

Nov. 10 – I Need Help to Be Holy

Nov. 3 – Fully Alive

Oct. 27 – Behind the Curtain

Oct. 20 – Questions. Answers?

Oct. 13 – Stumble & Fall

Oct. 6 – Young World

Sep. 29 – Defend Us in Battle

Sep. 22 – The Taste of Water

Sep. 15 – God’s Plan

Sep. 8 – Life Finds a Way