COVID-19 Jubilee: Shame, Debt, and Mercy

By: Kevin Martin

Responses to Covid-19 vary within nations, states, counties, towns, families, and individuals. The new tension within these groups, created by our responses to Covid-19, has created collateral damage in our relationships, financial lives, civic lives, and governance. While, in general, it is easy to criticize strong responses, my interest in this article is not to critique our responses to the crisis, but how to recover from the damage they have caused to our personal relationships. Our relationship lives have been affected by both social distancing and our deeper immersion in the polarized public response to political action. Once the threat and fear of the virus has subsided, we must assume that collateral damages to our relationships will remain. Now what?

CRISIS RESPONSE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY

As is typical in the fog of crisis, it’s hard to see the silver lining.  Many families are facing financial ruin due to government-mandated cessation of their revenue.  While that subject deserves loud discussion, this article does not intend to focus on that component of the Covid-19 tragedy.  Here, I intend to look at some nuanced changes in our social relationships and their implications.  It’s not as if there are no positive social outcomes from our response to this pandemic.  No doubt, in houses across the USA that have not been visited by medical despair brought on by Covid-19, families have been expressing some positive sentiment about baking more bread at home, reducing expenditures, creating more reliable family rhythms, and increased time spent with nuclear family members.  Also, I suspect there is serious upside potential in re-thinking how we educate our children.  We are learning a lot about the means of education while schools are closed.   And regarding friendships, many families are doubtlessly pleased to find that some friendships are being prioritized while others are fading.  This is kind of a study in the Darwinian fitness of our friendships.  Only the strong [friendships] will survive while the weaker ones will fade into oblivion.  This will allow more decidedly “important” priorities to arise within families.  That’s great.  But, seeing the upside in the shake-down of our friendships will require us to deal with some negative feelings as well. 

Let’s look at how shame fits into this scene. Shame can be either self-imposed or foisted on us by others.

SHAME ON YOU

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the tension in our already-tense public discourse.  Being immersed in strong opinions about political action is not new to us.  However, this dynamic has really ramped up and been accentuated with some additional features.  Rather than merely each waking moment being an opportunity to shout our opinions about Federal competence, we now have added opportunities to squabble about varying expert medical opinions, failed infection rate models, fiscal and monetary action, the role of scientists in a cohesive advisory body, the costs and benefits of planned economic slowdown, whether or not human safety can be discussed in terms of monetary cost, the effectiveness of our local government’s response in comparison to that of other cities and counties, etc.  As if we didn’t have enough to disagree about, Covid-19 is providing ample opportunity for us to further upset each other with differing opinions.  Add the risk of lethal infection and observe heightened levels of emotion.

Being worked up about any or all of the changes resulting from our reaction to Covid-19 needs no justification.  Change can be hard to accept.  Add to that any mistrust or cynicism toward decision makers or community members and it is natural to get frustrated.  However, how about when someone close to you starts talking in a way that really irks you?  How about when a friend or family member starts talking ignorant nonsense?  We are familiar with the admonishment of a person when they say something stupid, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”  Maybe they should be.  Or maybe you aren’t listening well enough.  Thus, the emotional walls can be erected and catapults loaded with burning tar.

When the dust settles after any social display of anger or fear there is always at least one party who is left feeling less than good.  Someone is left sweeping up the pieces (maybe under a rug!) and reconciling what just happened.  Part of the fallout when someone recognizes that they over-reacted is the feeling of shame. 

We often feel ashamed or humiliated from our own public displays of weakness or vulnerability.  This is as true for uncontrolled crying in public as it is when we look physically incompetent by stumbling on the sidewalk.   We can feel shame when we display any type of incompetence that is seen by strangers.  Losing a job can feel shameful if we think the loss makes us appear inadequate.  A girlfriend or boyfriend breaking up with us after we admitted love to them makes us feel ashamed.  Losing a house to fire can make us vulnerable and ashamed when our projection of competence is interwoven with our possessions. I had a friend who felt deep shame after their home was plundered by burglars.  Even on social media, unhinged outbursts and emotional recriminations toward our neighbors fit this description.  Losing control is rarely seen as virtuous and many think it is shame-worthy.  

The cloak of privacy that shields our identities on social media doesn’t help matters.  I like the analogy of a Mardi-Gras mask and social media. When people don a flamboyant mask (I’m not talking about an N-90 face mask) at Mardi-Gras they might feel more apt to do something out of their ordinary because they feel anonymous.  However, committing what you might think is a slimy act while being unrecognized doesn’t change the fact that you observed yourself making that particular decision.  Will you feel ashamed at having done so?  Maybe.  The experience of unfettered freedom does not guarantee the feeling of pride in what you choose to do with it.  The same goes for our behavior on social media.  Regardless of how the person in question feels, we often think a person’s lack of emotional control is deserving of shame.

The Ridotto in Venice, Pietro Longhi

Emotional control is certainly virtuous for civilized adults, but hardly something to force in a young toddler. As a first-time parent of a toddler, I had to learn this lesson begrudgingly. If emotional control is required for my children to participate in society, why couldn’t they just learn it early! Since realizing that children can only learn to regulate their emotions from adults who model it, I have (far too often!) found myself in a horribly strange house of mirrors where my frustrations are simultaneously cause and result of difficult moments with my children and wife. Some of these emotionally-complicated moments just feel like a small slice of Hell and shame is not helpful for anyone.

This isn’t to say that shame is never helpful. Even for children, an interior feeling of shame can be both a helpful indicator that they behaved incorrectly, as well as a motivator to not repeat the incorrect action. Self-imposed shame can be felt in big doses and small doses, and can likewise be useful or toxic. As with many things, the “poison is the dose.” It might be that the interior perception of our own shame is useful only in proportion to our capacity for self-reflection and ability to articulate a way forward.

When shame is cast by one upon another, the scenario gets even muddier. Why would someone cast shame on others? Sometimes they deserve it. Casting shame can function as an accountability mechanism in a community of adults who share common interests. To the extent that the interior experience of shame motivates us to avoid shame-worthy behavior, others can signal it in our direction when they think we are toeing the line of inappropriate behavior that jeopardizes our common interests. Beyond this, people can cast shame for all sorts of dark reasons. Maybe they see something in another that they hate about themselves and fight it with casting shame outward. When we shame others, we had better either get it right or apologize quickly.

Shame is often cast on others very hypocritically. In our responses to Covid-19, we have created a lot of opportunity to cast shame on strangers. A good buddy of mine was tide-pooling at a beach with his daughter the other day. There wasn’t a person in sight. Soon, a duo of cyclists cruised by. One of them shouted, scornfully, at my friend, “Social distancing!!” To what benefit? I’m not sure, but the attempt at shame-casting was shame-worthy.

In an environment of heightened emotions, we might think other people are acting shamefully with more regularity than usual.  Or maybe, with a little reflection, even our own actions deserve a little shame.

SHAME ON ME

In social distancing, we have agreed to not see people that we would normally spend time around.  Some of these people we miss dearly.  Others, we are pleased to avoid.  Some other social situations we had previously not considered avoiding, but now enjoy their absence.  How does this affect us?  Usually, when we get enjoyment from an act we “should not” enjoy, (like eating too much cake or avoiding a friend or family member) we feel at least a little bit of shame or guilt.  There’s a reason we call it a “guilty pleasure.”

Humor me while I indulge in a hypothetical shaky moment between uncertain friends.  Let’s say that you have a monthly dinner date with a friend but the requirements of social distancing prevent you two from meeting this month.  Also suppose that you were getting a little tired of this monthly dinner date.  The whole idea of monthly meetings was an experiment.  He wasn’t really that great of a friend, and you suspect that he benefited more than you did from the monthly meeting.  After all, all he did was complain about mutual acquaintances and you found it annoying.  While you thought he was a bit broken, you could see that he needed a friend.  You were happy to be that friend when it was convenient, but now seems like a great opportunity to duck out of the arrangement.  “Thank you, social distancing.”  Next month, maybe you’ll feel different.

You’re probably thinking that this relationship was destined to dissolve (and maybe they should try different meds) but that isn’t necessarily true.  Government-mandated restrictions on gatherings create a layer of fog between some friends.  The veil of ignorance covering the reason for friends not seeing each other (“Have they not visited because of government mandate, or just because they don’t like me?”) creates a prisoner’s dilemma where we can do more harm than good.

The psyche is a bizarre thing.  What happens when we observe ourselves wronging a person with whom we have an unsigned contract of friendship?  Shame begets mistrust.  When we feel a little ashamed about avoiding our friend, our psyche, in a tantrum of projection and blame avoidance, can easily generate mistrust toward the person we wronged.  Once we wrong that person (by neglecting our relationship) we assume his willingness to neglect, or betray, the relationship too.  Thus, we can begin to mistrust another person when we grow suspicious of their capacity for betrayal.  What tipped us off to the idea that they might betray our friendship? Our own betrayal of the relationship… no matter how small it might have been at the time.  We assume our friend is unaware of the pleasure we gained from avoiding him.  However, this pleasure is not without consequence.  In fact, we might begin to mistrust him precisely when we understand that he might get the same guilty pleasure by neglecting our friendship in like fashion.  I don’t need to point out the obvious immaturity here.  In this example, the root cause of our mistrust toward our friend’s commitment is actually our own shame in choosing to avoid him.  

Changes in our psyche are rarely made under our full control.  One emotion morphs into another when we see our reflection (no matter how distorted) in another person.  In this example, we are obviously not talking about a super high-quality friendship that has weathered many ups and downs.  Many friendships can benefit from the endurance of stress.  Others whither and disappear, and not without emotional fireworks.  While some personalities are far more neurotic and insecure than others, everyone must maintain positive relationships for overall health. Government-mandated social distancing has fertilized the soil for negative feelings between friends.  And this can make us ashamed of ourselves.

Cringe-worthy behavior not befitting of our pre-Covid-19 social interactions can yield self-righteous indignation, pity, resentment, belittlement, or self-centered anger.  We mustn’t forget that we will see our friends and family again.  Even a single moment of resentment or pity toward a community member or family member will silently change the dynamic. 

Cain, by Henri Vidal, Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

TALLYING LOSSES

Covid-19 has, indeed, presented additional complications to an already-complex world. One of many results is an increase in potential for shame in our social lives. This additional amount of shame has resulted in damage to our social fabric that is difficult to quantify. How do we mend the fabric, and who is responsible for righting the wrongs?

As an analogy, let’s look at how we recuperate financial losses before looking at social losses.  To the extent that we as individuals have taken financial losses due to societal responses to Covid-19, our solution sounds easy; “Give me my money back.”  If money is lost, and debt accrued, because of a mandated response, then an appropriate post-crisis recovery includes an attempt to recuperate those financial losses and resolve the debts.  Because we can chalk up these losses to either an act of God or to government restrictions on income, choosing the methods by which we are made financially whole is obviously problematic.  We have many options, such as renewed personal commitments to save instead of borrow, work extra hours, business ventures that profit from the post-Covid-19 landscape, insistence that governments intervene on our behalf with the redistribution of other’s resources, etc.  The possibilities are endless.  Nonetheless, quantifying the loss is not impossible, and most of us agree on our desires to recuperate financial losses and pay down personal debts.

SHAME AS DEBT

To the extent that love and careful attention are a relationship’s currencies of transaction, shameful social action puts us in debt to those with whom we share friendship.  Acting shamefully towards our community members is to over-spend our relationship currency, no matter if the act is passionately unwitting or deliberately malicious.  Shameful social action is deficit spending; an emotional debt payable to those in our community.

How can we ever pay this back?  How can we encourage others to move on and forget our shameful actions?  The shameful debtor is in a helpless position.  How can we work it off?  For the answer, we must put ourselves in the shoes of the person to whom the relationship debt is owed. 

Debtors Prison, William Hogarth

COVID-19 JUBILEE

The ancient Israelites had a way of dealing with debt that can be useful in this discussion. Every forty-ninth year was a “Year of Jubilee” wherein all debts were forgiven, slaves freed, and prisoners released. This effectively placed a ceiling on how big a debt could grow. Applied to this discussion about emotional debt and the release from shame, we can see how a moment of Jubilee would effectively limit the size of any grudge. (I suggest not waiting forty-nine years.) How does Jubilee translate to personal shame amidst our responses to Covid-19? Show a little mercy.

We must have mercy on those whose actions we think deserve humiliation.  I think marriage and parenthood have equipped us with some useful tools here.  Routinely in family life, there is somebody over-reacting, freaking out, lashing out, blowing up, or breaking down.  Whether the cause is missing an afternoon nap or anger toward political theater is irrelevant.  In a family where emotional closeness is requisite for proper function, the forgiveness of ridiculous acts is eventually required.  Sometimes, following a shameful act of irrational frustration, a peaceful understanding is reached through explanation and discussion.  Other times, blood-sugar is low, sleep deprivation has set in, and work is stressful.  In these situations, we constantly say and do ridiculous things that we would never plan on doing after a full night’s rest, hearty breakfast in our belly, and gleeful work environment.  When our spouses act in such irrational ways, and we think we understand why, what do we do?  Show some mercy.  They deserve it.

In stressful times, people freak out.  Shall we hold it over their heads?  Shall we ransom them with ridicule and reminders?  Shall we be the type of debt collector that brutalizes his debtor?  Of course, strangers on social media are not the same as family members in our household.  Also, some behavior absolutely requires legal response.  What I’m talking about is the irrationality that can drive wedges into our social lives due to stressful and extraordinary times.   Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.  Show some mercy.  A lot of us need it right now.

Seven Acts of Mercy, Michiel Sweerts

Being and Becoming: Philosophical Parenting

Guest Post: By Kevin Martin

I am forty years old man with a wife, a 4-year old son, and a 2-year old daughter. We live in the Pacific Northwest. We want our children to become good spouses, parents, reliable employees/employers, and responsible citizens one day. Parenting strategies often permeate conversations that my wife and I have. Like most parents, we are perpetually discussing ways in which we can rear our children properly. We read about discipline, emotional expression, resilience, healthy attachment, and so on.

I suspect there is such a thing as being so deliberate that the “soul” of parenting is eclipsed by external advice. I sometimes wonder about the downside risk for children when their parents over-prioritize their own rationality in the parenting process. But, having said that, what have we learned from “studying” parenting in our household? Certainly, we’ve learned that there is no single “method” which is comprehensively correct.

RATIONAL DELUSIONS

I remember when our son was very young, I would frequently (and cynically) think this about parenting books:  Each person has their own unique combination of neuroses and coping strategies.  When two people pair up and create a couple, their neuroses and coping methods mesh (and clash!) to create yet another unique emotional landscape.  Now introduce the particular eccentricities of a new-born child’s neuroses and peculiarities into the scene and watch them create what we’ll now call a “family dynamic.”  If everyone’s neuroses and coping strategies blend into a perfectly cohesive (including codependent!) flow of emotional ubiquity, one of the parents will write a parenting book about what they did, how they felt about it, and why everyone else should follow suit!  For the rest of us, we deal with a perilous emotional landscape of briars and roses, mountains and valleys.

A bit cynical?  Sure.  Sleep-deprived parents are sometimes prone to cynicism.  I don’t mean to say that everyone who writes about parenting has a disturbingly codependent home life. However, it is true, that a cohesive emotional landscape does not have to be a pretty one.  A family dynamic can be uniformly terrible.  This is to say that a parent doesn’t have to read a ton of parenting books before recognizing conflicting ideas and competing motivations between many books, and the dominance of sometimes narrow perspectives from which any book can be written.  The point of being deliberate in our parenting (if we can include studying as deliberation) is not to eventually stumble onto a golden goose that will deliver perfect wisdom to every scenario, but to simply gain perspective, increasing our capacity for wise decisions. 

Adding to the ambiguity is a dubious consensus among many Westerners that we are experiencing some broad cultural problems at the moment.  If this is the case, and we are acting, learning, and endeavoring in the context of a troubled culture, then why should we put stock in the system?  How do we know when we are ingesting others’ psychoses as palliatives?  And how do we ensure we don’t disperse our own psychoses to those in distress in the guise of compassionate advice?

Because it is important to take parenting “strategies” and advice with a grain of salt we have to somehow put this recent genre of literature in the context of something much bigger.  When saturated with conflicting ideas about parenting, all claiming efficacy, we must pursue more fundamental dynamics.  When things become unclear, we must step back and ask what has generated our ideas, and with what intention?

TOWARD FUNDAMENTAL DYNAMICS

One such dynamic that might generate fruitful contemplation is the ancient tension between Being and Becoming.  Philosophies and religions have dealt thoroughly with these matters, and with diverse orientations.  Most religion and philosophies generally emphasize either Being or Becoming more than the other. 

“Being” is a broad philosophical concept referring to objective and subjective essences of both material and immaterial reality.  Fixed, absolute, realities. 

“Becoming” is a different, just as broad, philosophical concept that asserts everything is impermanent.  “No man ever steps in the same river twice.  For it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”[1]

Who was right?  Parmenides, when he said “what is-is.”  Or Ephesus, when he said nothing in this world is constant, except change and becoming?  One can easily get wrapped in pretzels around these questions, but these fundamental questions do, indeed, have effects that influence our daily lives and awareness.

Consider the difference between Zen’s emphasis of meditation on Emptiness (a way to conceptualize/embody/unify with absolute Being) versus an evangelical Christian’s emphasis on being “born again” (a way to conceptualize Becoming as paramount).  These are very different approaches to the inner awareness that orients us within an unseen reality.  Our immersion in these questions (via methods of inquiring about nature, our religious organizations, social discourse, etc.) does influence how we think about the world, our family, and ourselves.

From the time of Jesus through the end of the fourth century A.D., what was developing into “the Christian tradition,” a rare conceptual and experiential harmony was in place between Being and Becoming.[2]  The basic worldview was held between many writers from this time period (and into the following few centuries) that there is indeed mostly ungraspable transcendent Being, and within it, as incomplete expressions of infinite Being, humans Become.[3]  Humans can’t fully embody Being, the best we can do is honor it while Becoming.  We cannot fully embody an absolute essence, but absolute essences are the context for our inevitable becoming.

A simplified understanding of the early Judeo-Christian deity is that its name is a somewhat ambiguous conjugation of “to be.”  Speaking with the deity, Moses flat-out asks the deity to describe its own name, and the reply was “Eyeh-asher-Eyeh.”[4] This is often translated in English as “I AM”.[5]  The Israelites translated their bible from Hebrew into Greek around 250 BC and the same passage got translated as “ego eimi o on,” or, “I am the One Being”[6].  In the ancient world, neighboring tribes deified and made appeals to principalities like rain, war, and lust, each being embodied by a personage, animal, or emblem of some other variety.  However, the Israelites humbled themselves under a yet-higher reality, Existence itself.  Or, maybe even more poetically, the Israelites formed a relationship with the very possibility of existence.  After all, there’s no reason to assume that existence is inevitable.  Yet, existence seems “to be” and there is serious utility in humbling ourselves before such a fact.  This was a brilliant innovation in how we can orient ourselves in the cosmos. “Being” is real, and we are entirely subject to it.  The Israelites often referred to their god as “LORD.”  (Christian bibles have maintained the same title.)  In the ancient world, where human slavery and servitude were commonplace, referring to the ultimate Cause as LORD reflected the universal inevitability of Humanity’s submission to the forces of nature.

An elaboration of this understanding came when the example of Jesus became understood as the embodiment of the Logos.[7]  This heralded a new age and orientation within Reality.  Theologically, “Logos” is an expression from the utmost transcendent, an expression from Being itself.[8]  Logos is the embodiment of Purpose.  This understanding of the finite (human) component of Jesus as the expression of the infinite and unreachable “One Being” closed the circuit in an open debate in Hellenic philosophic circles regarding Being and Becoming.[9]  Namely, that personal experiences of “One Being” are largely restricted to peak experiences not common in our daily reality[10] and only described via metaphysical language[11].  The only way for a finite entity to orient itself within an infinite structure of Being is to become.  What we are left to do is fully become that which we are; incomplete expressions of the Transcendent.   Logos is the momentum of life, fully realized, and it is accessible.

Therefore, it isn’t that Being and Becoming are antagonistic toward one another, but that they are different categories that must be related to with each their due and proper respect.  There is a hierarchy of Being within which we exist, and our proper behavior is to Become.  Being is a noun that we cannot fully experience. Becoming is an eternal action, a river upon which we drift between two unreachable banks.  Life, Growth, Becoming are synonymous. 

STRUCTURAL FRACTURE

Modern (and quite pervasive) philosophies, like Deconstruction, have effectively flattened our understanding of the Hierarchy of Being.[12]  Deconstruction, in part, informs us that Truth is only relative within an individual and pursuits of truths that transcend an individual’s interpretation are problematic, even dangerous to the “greater good.”  Fair enough.  We live in a culture confused about how to orient ourselves in a complex universe.[13]  Our ancestors worked out that we must orient ourselves as finite creatures destined to Become (for the good or the bad) within a transcendent tapestry of Being.  We have no choice but to figure out how to best play the hand we were given.  In Modernity, this is now old-fashioned and anathema.  The idea is viewed as particularly backwards if a person goes so far as to develop a relationship with that ungraspable existence of Reality, with God.  We have lost our orientation within reality and our befuddlement bleeds onto every realm in Modernity.

TO BECOME A PARENT

Let’s explore this disorientation through the lens of the parent/child relationship.  If recognition of Being is recognition of that which is, then let’s look at particular ways that we as parents relate to it in our children.  We can recognize that which is in our child and react many ways.  It is indeed rare that we merely observe our child.  When we observe our child, emotional information immediately floods our consciousness.  We can like what we observe or dislike it, we can affirm it or reject it.  It can cause us to cringe, and it can cause us to want the child to somehow change or continue along the same path.   Observing our children can even give us feelings about ourselves.  For better or for worse, a child’s being is tangled in their parents’ emotional worlds.  Let’s look at two specific parental instincts that are hot topics right now, and I think they correlate with Being and Becoming.  Affirmation and confrontation.

WHAT MOTIVATES OUR OUTLOOK?

All “parenting strategies” are complicit with a particular view of Humanity and human nature.  Do we primarily see ourselves (and our children) as diversely rich entities requiring recognition and expression (Being)?[14] Or do we primarily see ourselves (and our children) as imperfect creatures who must properly develop within a sometimes-hostile world (Becoming)?  If humans develop, what shall they develop towards?  What is Humanity?  Is Humanity a mere collection of hairless apes in an accidental multiverse?  Or is there a transcendent component to Being, within which we must actively orient ourselves?  Are Humans just miscellaneous meatballs acting out pre-programmed actions in a deterministic universe, the result of one long chemical reaction and stoichiometric equation?  Is parenting a divinely-appointed responsibility?  Our actions towards our children reflect our views on these matters.

A person who believes that their child’s personality traits are baked in from day one will parent their children differently from someone who believes children must learn to become civilized.  A parent who believes there is no “purpose” to life might look to secular humanism for ethical answers while a person who believes parenting is a divine responsibility might look to spiritual resources for ethical answers.  Ethical answers from different sources can conflict.  These conflicts are displayed, in part, in the differences between our “parenting strategies.”

What is the most fundamental task of a parent?  Is our primary role to affirm our children’s emotions and psychological states?  To affirm the emotional Being of a child, just as they are?  Or is our role to encourage them to a place beyond where they are currently?  To confront them with their own Becoming towards our best understanding of the Human ideal?  Of course, like Being and Becoming, the parent’s affirmation of a child and the parent’s encouragement of the child toward confrontation of challenge are two different categories, and therefore require each their own due in fundamentally different realms.  But do we ever confuse these two reactions and make the wrong move?  Do we ever tell the kid when they know they’ve screwed up, “It’s okay, Sweetheart, you are perfect just the way you are,” when we should have said, “I understand that you’re embarrassed because you handled that poorly, but tell me how you will do that differently next time.”  Yes, of course we do.  Do we ever get angry at our child because they are not the person we want them to be?  Sure.  We can fail our children by wanting their essential traits to be different.  Likewise, we can fail our children by wanting their passing phases to be frozen in time.

Just as transcendent Being and human Becoming both exist, but at different levels, both affirmation and encouragement to confront change are required of us as parents, but toward different levels of our children’s realities.  We must orient ourselves toward these two levels of reality.  What, exactly, about our child is permanent?  And are those qualities physical, intangible, metaphysical, spiritual, emotional?  What about our child is developmental?  And are those qualities physical, intangible, metaphysical, spiritual, emotional?

Our stereotypical mother/father roles have largely worked this out on their own.  Mothers are very affirming to an infant’s needs.  This is necessary and creates a secure and healthy emotional attachment, the foundation upon which the child will build all future relationships.[15]  Seen traditionally, fathers generally push their children’s comfort zones to build resilience in a world of uncertainty and risk.[16]  There is a time and a place for each.

MANIFESTING DARKNESS, MANIFESTING LIGHT

When the roles of affirmation and confrontation are improperly channeled, unnecessary conflict will result in the household.  Here, family dynamics exists in all their nuanced and glorious opaqueness, and things get dicey. 

Can a mother’s negativity display itself in smothering the child’s potential through what might appear to be acts of affirmative charity?  Sure, we call this woman the “devouring mother.”  Think of the witch in Hansel and Gretel and her methods of gaining the trust of children that she consumes.  In the fairy tale, we don’t know what dynamics generated her bitterness toward children.  However, we do know that she affirms the desires of manipulated children to sustain her bitter existence.  Maybe she sacrificed her career to have children only to discover that sometimes it is horribly challenging and miserably frustrating.  She gains the trust of naïve children with an endless supply of dopamine and oxytocin.  Just as her momentum as a successful career woman was foiled by these little buggers, she gains the children’s trust before her shadow emerges and devours their potential in an outburst of negativity.  The more the children look to her for comfort and security, the more gratifying their confusion and pain will be to her when she ambushes them with her dinner plans.  It’s her children’s fault that she is now suffering instead of presenting at board meetings, and they will not go unpunished.

Can a father’s projection of his own inner-turmoil and weakness justify his own cruelty toward his son?  Yes.  Can the father justify his actions as a necessary hurdle that will build strength in the child?  You bet!  We call this man the “tyrannical father.”  He acts out the idea that even accidental cruelty toward his son will serve as a helpful aid when his son enters a hostile world beyond the front door.  For generation after generation fathers can justify their own bad tempers and dark tendencies as that which build character in their sons.  This justification is generally performed in post-blowup moments of shame-turned-excuse and is a convenient mechanism for deferring our own development.  Of course, in maintaining willingness to keep this inner-darkness in our unconscious we are perpetrators of future bad deeds toward our children and spouses.  To paraphrase Jung, the origin of the child’s neurosis is the unconscious of the parent.[17]  Our behavior effects our child’s understanding of the world and their mechanisms for engaging with it; their becoming.

These exact perversions occur in households daily and they perpetuate personality and behavioral challenges that echo for generations.  They result from misorientations toward Being and Becoming.  In these narrow examples, we over-esteem a very low form of our own Being and project the need to Become on those around us.  However, once confronted with knowledge of our own dark proclivities to violence, rage, malice, resentment, and general miscreance, it is our responsibility to integrate these traits in ways that no longer subjects others to suffering.[18]  This is difficult work, and is merely one more category lumped into the phenomena known as “becoming an adult.”[19]  To become an adult in the Modern West is to do so in the context of ideologically-possessed public discourse and eviscerated religious structures.  Dicey, for sure. 

PROPERLY AFFIRM, PROPERLY CONFRONT

An element that is relevant to both parenting and self-care is the way which we orient ourselves toward Being (which transcends our own individuality) and Becoming (individual, family, community development).  Recognize the spark of Being in all people, and positively participate in their inevitable tendency to Become.  Said non-metaphysically:  Affirm human dignity and encourage proper human development.  Do not merely affirm weakness and confusion when encouragement will improve the situation.  Growth is Life.  Life is Growth.  When children are confused or in trouble, they need an adult to help them with the tyranny of painful immaturity.[20]  This help often comes in the form of a broader perspective or a re-statement in your belief the child’s ability to survive the situation and maybe even improve it.  After all, to encourage someone means to instill courage in that person, to conjure their inner-strength out into the world.

A spectacular example of a parent’s proper alignment with Being and Becoming is the story of Mary with her son Jesus at the wedding of Cana.[21] I will paraphrase.  They are at a wedding party.  Jesus had not yet unleashed his potential as Logos and was apparently a little uncertain about the matter.  Mary, who was aware of his potential and his latent capabilities, felt the urge to prompt her son out of his comfort zone.  Meanwhile, the party runs out of wine.  Mary tells her son, “Hey, son, they ran out of wine.”  Her son, perhaps feeling a little self-conscious about his mother’s expectations of him, says, “I’m not ready yet.  It isn’t my time.”  Because Mary knows her son so well, and knows what type of pushing, and how much, will end poorly, she doesn’t push him directly any more.  She has provided a space of possibility for him.  She has informed her son that she knows the seed that is growing within him needs water and sunshine.  She provided some.  She tells the servants at the party, “do whatever my son asks you to do.”  She might as well have told her son, “I have known you since before you could talk and I know who you are.  You might be uneasy with yourself, but I am not.  You are great, and this is a chance to show yourself to the world.  Be the Logos that can transform the mundane to the spiritual.  Son, turn water into wine.”  The rest is history.  Mary honored his Being while prompting his Becoming.  She affirmed his dignity while encouraging his growth.  Nearby were six stone jars used to hold liquids for Jewish rites of purification.  Jesus told the servants, “Fill them with water!”  After they did so, Jesus told them to pour some out and give it to the chief steward.  After tasting it, the chief steward declared that this water for traditional Jewish purification has been transformed to a “spirit,” wine.  At his mother’s prompting, Jesus revealed the transformative power of Logos.  Atta girl, Mary.  A serious parenting “win.”

We sometimes talk of the “character” we instill in our children.  The Greek root of character is “kharássō,” or, “I scratch, engrave.”  As a noun, “kharaktḗr,” is an engraving instrument, a person who engraves, or a stamp.[22]  To have “good character” or “bad character” is to have been “well-etched” or “poorly etched” during your life.  Good character is not instilled via passive affirmation.  If we can agree that instilling “good character” is desirable then we must investigate what generates good character.  Is it merely affirming our children’s qualities as sufficient?  No!  It does no good to delude them with the impression that their current manifestation as fragile and larval selves is sufficient to engage with a hostile and thorny world.  They must obtain the necessary tools and garments[23] with which to face the world beyond our front doors.  Yes, affirmation is critical for a child.  We must affirm their potential.  We must affirm their sacred and fragile spark of Humanity while carefully fanning it.  We must affirm the Being within them while encouraging their Becoming.  For their own well-being, we must simultaneously honor their innocence while conjuring their potential.  Confrontation with the world, affirmation of fragility, Being and Becoming are not mutually exclusive but must be artfully employed and honored in the right dimensions.  Only a parent has the amount of love and dedication required to work out such intricacies. 

Suppose every individual has a particular capacity, unique to them, for resilience and strength of character.  (There is room for debate over that idea, but bear with me.)  Resilience and strength of character are not merely generated by will.  They are tapped, conjured, called upon, only in the personal confrontation with challenge, difficulty, and complication.  If strength of character and resilience are manifest only through confrontation and engagement, and every individual has a unique capacity for resilience, then there must be, for every individual, a given volume of duress required for the child to manifest their latent potential.  Let me rephrase that.  To maximize a person’s resilience is to optimize their exposure to challenge.  Notice I didn’t say “maximize their exposure to challenge.”  Optimize.  One of our primary parental duties is to know our children so well that we know what kind of challenges and how much of those challenges will foster their optimal development.  We can only gain such knowledge after we first affirm their individual sovereignty.  After we honor the Being within them, we get insight into how to best help them Become.  The parents’ broader world view will invariably affect the process.

An important consideration, that we often apply unconsciously, is that when we interact with a child, we are not simply interacting with them at their current age and role.  When we interact with our child, we are interacting with multiple people simultaneously.  When we offer guidance, for example, we are actually becoming involved with the future child.  At all moments, we are dealing with the present child, future student and her study habits, the future girlfriend and her emotional fortitude, the future spouse (and her ideal husband!), the future employee and her reliability, et cetera.  To get really spacey, we are actually even dealing, maybe too much sometimes, with a child from the past who lives only in our imagination and hopes.  The point here is that the desired outcome of parenting is not merely a pleasant child, but a competent adult.

COMFORTABLE DECAY VS.  UNCOMFORTABLE GROWTH

In a culture of immediate gratification, resilience is under attack.  The attack is not coming from individuals as much as it is from conditions of material well-being and ease.[24]  I don’t know anyone who would debate that in the face of flamboyant material wealth we are experiencing a problematic volume of psychological dis-ease.  In such a world, might a customized austerity be the best gift we can give our children?  In an absurdly cruel irony, material and physical well-being might just be the source of our unhappiness.  Now, perhaps more than ever, we must grapple with our responsibilities towards our children’s needs to Become.  Paradoxically, this modern era of material fecundity is confronting adults with the inner, immaterial, realm as the location where we are to confront our most productive challenges.  If meaning can be generated by physical deprivation[25] what generates meaning in physical opulence?  The Modern landscape for making meaning and Becoming must lay largely inside ourselves.

PRIORITIES

There is indeed, largely ungraspable, transcendent Being, and within it, as incomplete expressions of the infinite, humans Become.  But become what, exactly?  Exploring that question is our parental task.  If parenting a child is a window into a reality bigger than ourselves, then the only proper response is our own personal transformation toward the highest ideal. 

Am I suggesting that we abandon our pursuit of practical parenting tips for meditation upon ancient abstractions?  Of course not.  But while we might busily read books and worry often about our children, we must not confuse motion with progress.  Let us remain tuned to the more fundamental frequencies that govern our lives and listen through the static of the culture’s conflicting manifestations of noise.  Let us, from time to time, deliberate upon our understanding of Humanity and what our fundamental parental responsibilities are.  Let us, from time to time, deliberate upon our personal orientations with Being and Becoming.  If we live in an expanding universe, then a part of ourselves is expanding as part of it.  We can’t help but Become.  Let’s do it properly.


[1] This is how Plato summarized Heraclitus’ position in his dialogue, Cratylus.

[2] Evelyn Underhill’s magnificent treatise on the subject, The Mystic Way (J. M. Dent and Sons, 1913), focuses squarely on the time period of Christ through the end of the fourth century A.D., while the theology of what was to become The New Testament was being hotly debated and ironed out.  She carefully puts the psychology and spiritual practice of the early Christian mystic in the context of the then-current spiritual, ritual, and philosophical trends and leanings.

[3] This is evident in the Johannine biblical writings, many biblical Pauline passages, and writings of Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Plotinus, and Proclus, to name a few.

[4] Exodus 3:14. See discussion in Jewish Publication Society’s Torah Commentary: Exodus.

[5] Exodus 3:14. King James Bible, New Revised Standard Bible.

[6] Exodus 3:14. This exact translation is used in the Apostolic Bible Polyglot, Second Edition, 2013.  

[7] See especially, preface to gospel of John where the metaphysics of relations between Logos and ultimate Reality are elaborated.  For more on Logos, read Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC).  There is ongoing debate regarding whether or not the Johannine gospel grew out of ancient Greek questions or ancient Hebrew wisdom literature.  That is beyond the scope of this article.

[8] See an appendix in David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament for a thorough treatment on the prologue to the gospel of John and a look at Logos.

[9] See Pauliina Remes, Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the ‘We’, Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, where in the first chapter, the author explores Plotinus’ ontology of eternal existence and the fluidity of temporal becoming within the human composite.

[10] Moses’ encounter with I AM in a cloud.  Also, the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor and Christ’s Ascension.

[11] For example, Jesus’ seven “I Am” statements in John, and Paul’s description of physical versus metaphysical existence (I Corinthians, chap. 15).

[12] For a comprehensive discussion regarding both the dignity of Modernity (differentiation of art, morality, science) and disaster of Modernity (dissociation of art, morality, science) see Ken Wilber’s books, especially The Marriage of Sense and Soul.

[13] Much is made about the absurdities in the denial of anything transcendent so I will not belabor the point here.

[14] Consider that Rousseau’s interpretation of “blank slate” as it relates to the un-cultured mind of a child as effectively worshipping the child’s Being.  His ideas of the uncorrupted “noble savage” also apply to the uncivilized child.  Here, instead of looking above the child for ultimate value, he either flattens the hierarchy of Being, or deifies the child’s innocence (both moves are effectively the same.)

[15] Mona Delahooke, Beyond Behavior.

[16] Warren Farrell, The Boy Crisis.

[17] “There can be no doubt that that it is of the utmost value for parents to view their children’s symptoms in light of their own problems and conflicts.  It is their duty as parents to do so.  Their responsibility in this respect carries with it the obligation to do everything in their power not to lead a life that could harm the children… Parents should always be conscious of the fact that they themselves are the principle cause of neurosis in their children.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 17, par 84.

“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents… have not lived.  This statement would be rather too perfunctory and superficial if we did not add by way of qualification:  that part of their lives which might have been lived had not certain somewhat threadbare excuses prevented the parents from doing so.  To put it bluntly, it is that part of life which they have always shirked, probably by means of a pious lie, that sows the most virulent germs.”  Ibid, par 87

“Parental influence only becomes a moral problem in face of conditions which might have been changed by the parents, but were not, either from gross negligence, slothfulness, neurotic anxiety, or soulless conventionality.  In this matter a grave responsibility often rests with the parents.  And nature has no use for the plea that one ‘did not know.’” Ibid, par 91

[18] “Every individual needs revolution, inner division, overthrow of the existing order, and renewal, but not by forcing these things upon his neighbors under the hypocritical cloak of Christian love or the sense of social responsibility or any of the other beautiful euphemisms for unconscious urges to personal power. Individual self-reflection, return of the individual to the ground of human nature, to his own deepest being with its individual and social destiny here is the beginning of a cure for that blindness which reigns at the present hour.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 7, p. 5

“Every advance in culture is, psychologically, an extension of consciousness, a coming to consciousness that can take place only through discrimination. Therefore, an advance always begins with individuation, that is to say with the individual, conscious of his isolation, cutting a new path through hitherto untrodden territory. To do this he must first return to the fundamental facts of his own being, irrespective of all authority and tradition, and allow himself to become conscious of his distinctiveness. If he succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 8, p. 111

“We do not sufficiently distinguish between Individualism and individuation. Individualism means deliberately stressing and giving prominence to some supposed peculiarity, rather than to collective considerations and obligations. But individuation means precisely the better and more complete fulfilment of the collective qualities of the human being, since adequate consideration of the peculiarity of the individual is more conducive to better social achievement than when the peculiarity is neglected or suppressed.” Collected Works, Vol 7, p. 267

[19]  “It is not possible to live too long amid infantile surroundings, or in the bosom of the family, without endangering one’s psychic health. Life calls us forth to independence, and anyone who does not heed this call because of childish laziness or timidity is threatened with neurosis. And once this has broken out, it becomes an increasingly valid reason for running away from life and remaining forever in the morally poisonous atmosphere of infancy.” C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 461

[20] A modern dilemma is the treatment of young people’s ideas about sexual preferences and gender identity.  We know positively that parental abuse can affect psycho-sexual development in children.  In public discourse, it seems we know more about how to identify certain types of abuse and how it affects our children’s psycho-sexual development than we know about proper adult handling of the child’s confusion and uncertainty on such matters.  What is the opposite of abuse when our child surprises us with questions or statements about their own identity?  When does guidance become hurtful (and is that hurt harmful)?  When does affirmation become abusive?

[21] John 2:1-11

[22] Wikionary.org here and here

[23] Jonathan Pageau’s analyses of “garments of skin” (Genesis 3:21) and symbolism of hair are fantastically worthwhile.

[24] “Psychological insecurity, however, increases in proportion to social security, unconsciously at first, causing neuroses, then consciously, bringing with it separations, discord, divorces, and other marital disorders.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol 17, par. 343

[25] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West, Gulag Archipelago.

The Shadow of Parenthood

Young Mother and Her Children, Paul Delaroche

“The best thing about not having children is that you can go on believing that you’re a good person.” Fay Weldon.

Raising children can bring out the worst in us, but also potentially the best. Because of children’s ability to expose our weaknesses, parents are given a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge our faults and attempt to change them. It is important to recognize our own “dark side” so we can conquer it. Change is extremely difficult and can even seem impossible – however the love we have for our precious and innocent children (and our desire to not screw them up) is one of the best motivators for personal progression.

In the short clip below Dr. Peterson helps us recognize our own dark potential in parenting, and how we can use this truth to teach our children.

*His rule, “Don’t allow your children to do anything that makes you dislike them” sounds harsh but there is great truth in it. However, it is important to note that the application of this rule is dependent on the maturity and progression of the parent. If a parent “dislikes” harmless and appropriate behavior in their children then he/she is not ready for its application. Clip 3:48

Confronting My Shadow at Auschwitz

Entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to Europe. We had the very somber visit to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. As we drove through the Polish countryside towards the camp we listened to a reading of Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, was a inmate at Auschwitz briefly before being transferred to Dachau. He describes the psychology of the prisoners of the camp and the depths of the depravity experienced at the camps. As we walked through Auschwitz, including the one remaining gas chamber, I could not help but weep. A thick cloud of death and darkness still hangs over that place.

We stood on the train platform where an SS Doctor would wave his hand at each incoming prisoner – men, women, and children who had traveled for many days in an unopened box packed so tight most had to remain standing – with no food or water. Those motioned to the left became a prisoner, those to the right were sent straight to the gas chambers. Women with small children were sent to the right. I would have been gassed with my five small children.

Women and children at Auschwitz walking unknowingly to be gassed

How was evil on such a scale able to thrive a mere 70 years ago? Is it concealed in my own heart? What am I capable of? Dr. Jordan Peterson reminds us that we should not so quickly assume we would have been one of the good guys. We need to place ourselves in the role of perpetrator, to come face to face with our own dark “shadow”, if we want to prevent its realization. Perhaps we can honestly conclude we could never be an SS guard beating a pregnant woman. Would we instead have just accepted evil as the “way things are”? Many German and Soviet citizens had full knowledge of the atrocities occurring in their society.  As I visited Auschwitz, I had these ideas in my heart and mind. I wanted to attempt to go into the darkness and see the reality of my own corrupt potential.

Despite having read several books on the Holocaust and feeling prepared for the experience, I found I had been naive. I was absolutely horrified as I walked the grounds of Auschwitz, feeling the horror of what happened there. I was unable to believe myself capable of the brutality of the guards, doctors, and even many head prisoners or “Kapos”. As we concluded our visit I still could not “relate” to the depravity perpetrated there. However, as we were leaving I had a very profound and awful encounter. I was outside the Birkenau camp and looking at some images at the Visitors Center. I walked up to one seemingly innocuous image, as my gaze fixed upon it I involuntarily burst into tears, a dark sense of guilt overwhelming me. Even as I write this I can’t help but cry. A starving man lying on the street in the Warsaw Ghetto. He appears to be actively dying. A young woman walking leisurely by, with two young Nazi soldiers. She is turned towards her friends, chatting and laughing as she walks over the feet of the dying man. She does not even acknowledge the man at her feet.  The guilt that enveloped me testified to me this fact: that woman is me. She represents what is most near my own potential evil. Since that time, I have been attempting, in my own mind, to unpack this realization. However, my own personal admissions will likely take time. I would like to share some of my ponderings and realizations.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Preventing Atrocity by My Own Hand

For me, as a mother, I desperately want to discover how to prevent my own soul, and the souls of my children, from ever becoming that dark. I want to be able to say with absolute certainty I would NEVER mindlessly walk over the feet of a starving man. I have heard it said, it is relatively simple to understand what drives men to evil acts, what is less apparent is what drives men to goodness, despite the evil around them.

Saint Maximillian Kolbe

As we walked through Auschwitz we heard the story of a priest, Father Maximilian Kolbe.  I remembered the story from my childhood, my father used to tell it to us. At Auschwitz, the inmates were lined-up after the escape of prisoner. To intimate against future escape attempts, the guards randomly selected ten men to be sent to the starvation cells. They would be crammed in a tiny cell and be given no food or water, dying a slow and agonizing death.  One man pleaded for his life, for the sake of his wife and children. Father Kolbe quickly and courageously walked to the commander and volunteered to take the place of the young man and die of starvation. He died two weeks later.

I tend to be a logical person. I think things out and make decisions based on what is most rational. Was this a rational choice? I likely would have reasoned – “This camp is going to kill him eventually anyway, so what is the point?”, “They would never allow me to take his place, and will just send us both for my insolence.” Rationality does not always lead to righteousness. Father Kolbe had a higher reason, he knew this young man was his brother. He knew he would see him someday on the other side. He knew he could not stand by when atrocities were committed. He knew that in losing his life, he would save it. (For me this story illustrates something I have thought a lot about and hope to extrapolate on in a future post – despite what some claim about building a moral society through reason – I see the hopelessness in attempting to form a “good” society based on rational or logical thought. Goodness is very often irrational and Evil is often rationalized).

How can I do my part in raising the next generation of Father Kolbe’s?  Especially in light of the evil in my own heart. How can I become a woman capable of a sacrifice like his? Where does that strength come from?  The ultimate strength of accepting death rather than sacrificing your integrity. It is unlikely we will pushed to such extremes. However, in analyzing the extremes we are able to discover the source of light we need to overcome the daily temptations that tilt us towards evil.

Complete Honesty

Jordan Peterson describes how evil was able to thrive in Nazi Germany and the Soviet state due to a society built on deceit. A society of everyday people consistently and collectively stepping off the path of truth and “swallowing lies” until the society degenerated. (start 1:23:40)

Jordan Peterson’s rule of “Speak the Truth, Or at Least Don’t Lie” has been very impactful for me.  My goal is to achieve complete honesty. Complete. The problem with the often-justified “white lies” is they are often simply an attempt to make ourselves look better in the eyes of others – and that is a very slippery slope. I think white lies are actually the best place for me to start in tackling my own deceit. Since I have started avoiding white lies I have noticed how manipulative I actually was. For example, a friend once asked me to go out for a girl’s night out dinner. Usually I prefer unwinding at home with my husband rather than going out. I lied and said my kids were not feeling well. I now realize that by making up an excuse I was hiding my own desires and true identity. I wanted to avoid conflict or judgment, I wanted to project a false version of myself, one that would love to go out with her but was selflessly taking care of my children. I should have simply explained that I like to just be with my husband since I don’t see him very much. My friend could have chosen to be offended, or she could have seen me more clearly, we could have begun to open up reality just a bit.

I see so many lies accepted as truth in our society. Modern art being one that comes to mind. Does anyone really find that can of Campbell’s soup beautiful or compelling? People don’t like to admit their true opinions or desires for fear of the perception of others. If that is our biggest fear – the perception of others – we are one BIG step closer to being a perpetrator. If your ultimate authority is God then the perception of others ceases to be of true importance. All your actions are weighed against the ideal – and your own ultimate potential. If you see yourself as a being of eternal significance you can easily sacrifice yourself for your young fellow prisoner, to do otherwise is much more dangerous.

Courage to Stand Alone

In our modern day there is an excess of fake outrage and self-righteous judgment for those who don’t fall in line with prevailing, or even faddish, perceptions of what is right. Courage is in great demand. Standing up against the rising tide of ideology is absolutely critical if we want to prevent the same kind of mass-acceptance of atrocity that we saw a mere 70 years ago. We have to be courageous, we have to teach or children to rebel against dishonesty and group-think. I hope to live a life facing each individual as a child of God, someone with as much potential and worth as myself- even those who may be my victimizer. Without that belief, I simply do not see how destructive ideologies will not take hold. You can rationalize all sorts of cruelty if you do not have an underlying belief in the worth of souls.

There is a certain amount of courage required in admitting own own prejudices and hatreds. We all have them. Who do we see as “the other”? To the Nazis it was then non-Aryan. Who is for me? Who do I hold a little less compassion for? With my logical brain, who do I think is to blame for their own suffering? If instead I refuse to see people as a group or an idea but as beings of individual worth- the chance of me walking over their dying body in the street lessens. To that woman, that man was just a Jew, a subhuman who deserved what he was getting and was unworthy of her compassion. There was no chance of guilt or introspection because her decision of his worth was made before she ever saw him. Enveloped in Nazi society, would that be my attitude as well? This is why today’s identity politics is shockingly destructive. Placing people into groups eases the burden of individual responsibility for those in the group, however it also makes it easier to assign blame to a faceless group entity. Each interaction we have needs to be with the unique individual- one of infinite worth- this is what has made the West the most compassionate society in the history of the world. Why are we voluntarily undoing the progressive enlightening, spanning thousands of years, towards individualism, and instead re-forming into groups?! Could it be that when we strip away our belief that we are unique children of an Almighty God with free will and responsibility, we lose our ability to stand alone.

Meaning as the Motivation for Survival

As well as imagining myself as the victimizer, I found myself picturing myself as victim. Frankl explains that we should not be naive enough to believe all the prisoners, innocent though they were, handled the situation with similar strength. He said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” The conditions in the concentration camps pushed the prisoners to the edge of human limitation and beyond.  Judgment on the “proper” behavior of concentration camp inmates is not appropriate as no man can conceive the psychological and physical stress individual inmates experienced. However, Frankl does emphasize that those prisoners who were able to maintain some sense of meaning to their lives were often able to survive longer and maintain their sense of self. Maintaining a sense of meaning was nearly impossible in the face of the reality of the death of all your loved ones, your current torture, starvation, and death at any moment. However, Frankl says that if he could get this fellow prisoner to think of even one small potential source of good they could do in the future – it was enough to help revive their hope and a sense of dignity amidst constant deprivation. One man in the camp held on to the purpose of  finishing an unfinished scientific paper. One had a son who may yet be alive and would depend on him.

Meaning as the Motivation for Evil

Now, one can argue that the Nazis were able to achieve so much evil because they were also driven by meaning. Their goal, to eradicate all “inferior” races for the greater good of the world, was meaningful enough to command their total obedience and even the sacrifice of their lives. The Soviets deep meaning was to achieve a communal utopia. All the atrocities committed were simply necessary byproducts in achieving these meaningful goals. So is living a “meaningful life” really the key to hope and avoiding atrocity? JBP speaks about the importance of finding “your meaning” or “your ideal”. I disagree with that phrasing; I believe Nazis were also working towards “their ideal”.

There is ONE ideal and ONE source of goodness – or there is none. Any meaning that is not aligned with “The” ideal is tilting towards evil. That ideal is the “light that shineth in the darkness, which the darkness does not overcome.” So how do we know if our meaning is good or evil? Through examining the requirements of achievement we can see if the meaning is pure: truth, courage, and faith. The one true ideal NEVER requires deceit to achieve. It NEVER requires the sacrifice of anyone but our own selves. The strength required to pursue the true ideal does not come from wealth, power, or the glory of others, it comes from God and the light His goodness brings to our lives.
(Update: In a recent Q&A Jordan Peterson’s position seemed more in-line with my own on meaning. Either he has changed in his thinking or I misconstrued his previous statements, but his answer is worth the listen. Start at 55:32)

Preventing the Duping of Innocents

How do I help my children avoid the same fate of many German youth – subscribing to the evil ideology of their society? Many Nazi youth were simply following the crowd. They believed this must be right as it seemed to be the majority view. They feared the ridicule of their peers if they questioned. They accepted lies despite internal warnings of deceit. In today’s confused world, where darkness is often seen as light, our children need a clear picture of what true meaning and goodness look like. It doesn’t include likes on an Instagram post, or marching anonymously in group protest, or bullying the “intolerant” or “outsider”. We need to teach our children to question the “majority view”, to realize the pathology of the crowd, and to heed their internal warnings of conscious.

Faith – A Step Towards Goodness

I want my children to become leaders, not followers.  If I can help children find true meaning it can transcend the necessity for acceptance by their peers – which often requires a loosening of integrity. They can courageously stand up for the truth in the midst of great mockery or shame because they are heeding a higher call. Sharing the stories of faith of great men and women in the most extreme conditions of Nazi Germany – like Father Kolby, or Fredrick Bonhoeffer, or Corrie ten Boom, will give them perspective in a world of temptation and distraction.

Gustave Doré – La Vallée de larmes 1883

I believe that image of the starving man and apathetic woman haunts me because it points to my own personal darkness. That is who I would be if I did not resist it with every fiber of my being.  I believe I would rationalize the suffering around me so I do not have to feel it. I would tell little lies to avoid my own condemnation by others. I would try and feel righteous in my own place – knowing the suffering of others was their own doing or for the greater good.

So how do I not become that woman? How do I become a woman who, in any circumstance, would stop and help that man? I think I still have a lot of pondering to do, but what I do know is that if I put my trust in “the world” I will descend to my evil self. We finished our travels at the magnificent symbol of Christian sacrifice, Canterbury Cathedral.  This was the setting of the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Beckett, a man willing to stand against his former friend and ruler, Henry II. As I wandered the Cathedral, continually pondering my own darkness, I came upon a powerful inscription. It said simply, “True Christians always have, and always will, follow the call to be the light in the darkness”.

Candle commemorating the place of martyrdom of
Saint Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral

As a Christian, I look to Christ of the ultimate example of someone who in the time of greatest trial was able to face the darkness and prove Himself the ultimate good. The Creator of the world was voluntarily beaten and spit upon. He truthfully and courageously declared himself Savior before men who would have him tortured and killed for the statement.  He sacrificed Himself so no one else need suffer. His life stands as a testament to the fact that goodness can stand against, and eventually overcome, the greatest temptation and evil. He stated, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” John 8:12. He is the light that brings justice and mercy to each individual imperfect soul. And because of this, perhaps there is hope for mine.

Postscript: I understand that many of our readers are not Christian. I try and be considerate of that in my writing, while staying true to my own experiences, beliefs, and knowledge. However, there are times where the final answer is only to be found in one place, or there is no answer at all.

Allyson

Short Video On Saint Maximillian Kolbe



Solzhenitsyn: Examine your life to determine where your responsibility lies in the making of evil. Start 1:26:30

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