18 August 2013

Former Selves (and How We Choose to Hate Them)

New selves. Most of the time, I suppose, they’re pretty wonderful. Until they start running way ahead of everbody, God included. Until they start imagining the only way to “secure” the progress they’ve made is to hate (or loathe, or despise, or condescend to, or disclaim all prior connection with) their former selves. As if it were some crowning human virtue to be heartily ashamed of whatever thread of continuity, thin or strong, still exists between that indescribable creature God first imagined us to be, and what presently He (hopefully He, that is, and not ourselves) is re-imaging us. But maybe I can illustrate with a couple of stories.        

Number one: A teenager stays out all night unexplainedly. The next morning his brothers and sisters all rally to “cover” for him, in a way meant to cushion if not defuse some serious parental outrage. And quite effectively too, as it turns out. His parents, till the day they die, never once learn the truth of where he was, or what he was doing. A few years later he encounters the same problem with his younger brother (this time both parents being away on vacation). Naturally he’s more or less appalled at the brother’s abysmal want of consideration, responsibility and maturity. Perhaps even decency. And so he defaults to that tried-and-true method of elder-sibling discipline which consists of shouting and screaming first, and asking questions later. And all in a way that straddles uneasily (if it doesn’t actually step over) the border of physical violence.        

Number two: A frightened, confused young woman terminates her pregnancy. Not, though, without considerable uneasiness, followed by a seed of remorse to bear fruit many years down the road. Three decades on, and now firmly in the pro-life camp, she’s developed the most curious ways of talking about other women considering or tempted by abortion. About their overriding need, not to explore adoption as a healthy, natural and viable alternative, but to “face the music,” to take “full responsibility” for their actions.      

It is, I think, a rather sad state of affairs when we begin to measure our freedom, distance and independence from old and bad behaviors by our absence of compassion or mercy for people in like circumstances. As if it would defile or contaminate us even so much as to remember what it was like – much less who and what we were – back when we were in that place. Of course we all have our various ways of hating and disavowing old selves; of protecting our futures from our pasts, so speak. But there is one way that I can easily imagine being among the worst. In addition to being perhaps the most politically and religiously divisive, on both familial, local and global scales (prospective jihadists – and those who study them! – please take note).        

There is a kind of imagination that I could almost swear is as old as creation. Or at least as old as that peculiar mercy by which God was moved to go back to the drawing-board with that first human pair in the garden, instead of writing them off. There is a kind of imagination which enables you to enter into, and dwell for a time – to tent, or tabernacle, as it were – in the misery and horror, not just of what I’ve done, but of who I am. Or, more precisely, of what I’ve become. Almost as if One, who knew me far better than you could ever know yourself, were to make you a small part of a bridge to an older, and newer, and better mode of me:  a version not just incomparably richer, but immeasurably more absorbing and satisfying, both to myself and (thank God for that) to other people. In short, a better me than even you or I, in all our hard-earned wisdom and experience, could ever conceive of, much less engineer. I have little doubt, too that as God’s Incarnation comes to dwell in each of us more fittingly and securely – like a gem in its setting – that same imagination is quickened, sharpened, made more penetrating and discerning. After all, it’s only right that that which is both the purest fulfillment of your human nature, and that nature’s supremest pleasure – namely, the formation of God Himself in the very core of your being – should also be the Way by which you know most utterly, most as if it were your own, the origins and meaning of another’s pain, and another's sin.          

At the same time this imaginative gift is not something to which any of us is joined at the hip. You and I are quite free to disrespect or neglect, or even scorn and ridicule, this strange faculty as much we like. Or rather, more commonly, as much as we deem necessary, for that urgent and holy business of defending and asserting ourselves, and getting on, and making our way in the world. I can’t help but think, however, that as we make progress down that particular road – for now I’ll call it the Anti-Imaginative Path – we strangle not just a part of who we were, and indeed are, but the fullness of what we can become. After all it’s no small thing to smother, in myself, precisely that in me which is best able to love most freely, and with most joy. That in me which is able to see any God-made thing most purely and accurately for itself, as it were:  for the Divine delight that it was from the beginning, and not just for the human convenience or obstacle, or irrelevance or terror, that it has since been made.       

In short, it seems to me, if there exists one way both saving and releasing, both shielding and liberating, of entering into another human creature’s agony, it is that Sacrifice through which you and I are indwelt by a humanly incarnate God. A sacrifice that tells – in graphic detail, if you will – of the kind of God we have, and why He is inconceivably different from any god we could ever conceive of. Of course another sort of god might have devised another, cleverer and cleaner means of release. One no doubt involving much less cost to himself, and much greater risk to us. But he would not be the God Who is by His very nature literally and actually Love.      

The same Love, incidentally, of which you and I are called to be not just objects but instruments. Indeed here we see, as perhaps nowhere else, the humility of the Divine love at its most radical and uncompromising:  that One Who is Absolute Purity should make the impure His voice, and hands, and feet; that He should yearn not just to give love to us, but to be Love through us.         

So why do I constrain His work in my heart? Why do I affect to be better than my Master, and so refuse to identify with the lost and miserable, even to the point where I try to expurgate my own memory – my own soul, as it were? It could be I think I’m keeping myself pure and unspotted by the world. Or that I’m necessarily burning a highly dangerous – if not a deadly – bridge back to that horrid place where I can recall most vividly what it’s like (“it must really suck”) to be you. But of all the various ways in which we humans try to surpass or transcend ourselves, surely among the most deadening is that way which, far from sustaining and enlarging my ability to enter into the heart of your affliction, kills it.  

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