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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lacking Charity

Last evening at the end of religious ed. classes I was walking through the hallway, locking doors, making sure everything that needed to be put away was, in fact, put away. As I got to the end of the hallway, one catechist was just stepping out of her room. She had turned off the lights, had the door open, and, realizing I was there to lock it, said to herself, "Do I have everything?"

In a mock-threatening tone, I said to her, "If you leave anything, you won't get it back for two weeks and I WON'T let you in!" I immediately joked that I didn't think I could ever be that mean.

She laughed and said, walking away, "I don't think you have it in you to be that mean!"

This might sound strange to you, but I was touched by her comment. Because I know that it IS in me to be that mean...and meaner.


I have referenced a period of time through which I passed some years ago; I was angry, I was bitter, and maybe not EVERYONE saw it...but those it affected the most certainly did. It started sometime in my adolescence when I lost respect for my Mom (due to her illness, I'm ashamed to say), and it continued into adulthood, made worse after my father's death.

In short...I was mean to a lot of people. I took my anger out on others, those who least deserved it. I was disrespectful, I had no idea what "charity" meant and didn't care, and showed my "good side" to those who would benefit me (i.e. my boss, some co-workers) and the rest experienced my wrath. I wasn't passive aggressive...I was outright rude. I was outright disdainful of any opinion that did not match my own.

For awhile, I was a political Democrat (not formal, just where I was voting), and got sick of the phone calls from the Republicans. I'd not done my research and had bought the partisan propaganda and berated an innocent campaign caller. Quite literally, I "went off" on the woman simply because someone from that candidate's campaign had called in the past looking to speak with "the man of the house" and in my irrational feminazism I was offended so took it out on the innocent.

To this day, I shudder both at what I said and in consideration of the person I said it TO! I bragged about it to my roommate, one of the most left-wing liberals one could meet...and she was shocked by my behavior. That might have been the first clue to me that I was out of control. It should have been, anyway. But no...I went on being bitter and angry.

There isn't anyone who knows me today who would recognize me as I was then.

Thank God!

Conversion and Virtues

Unfortunately "charity" was not something that characterized my life upon my conversion. Yes, there were elements, but there continued to be anger and bitterness. The miracle was that I reconized what I had done to other people. As time goes on, I recognize this more and more, and have to admit I have a hard time forgiving myself.

But it's given me understanding. I occasionally meet "mean" people, and while I sometimes fall back upon my self-righteous attitudes, it's now easier to correct my thinking and apply charity...even if I don't feel it. That's not to say that I succeed, just that now, when I get critical, I actually feel guilt pretty quickly.

A friend recently said something to me about a humorous exchange between she and another friend: "I'm a lot meaner than you and I will get you back!"

Now, this friend is not a mean person, and her threat isn't "real" in that regard. (I have no doubt she'll retaliate, but it won't be outside of humor!).

I know what true meanness is. When I was in Jr. High, I was the victim of a bully...and her followers. It was awful, and was happening around the time I nearly committed suicide.

The bully in question had been a marginal friend, one with a true "mean" streak. She was already bitter and prone to certain cruelties, and because of that, I never became close to her. She had a fraternal twin brother who was killed in an unfortunate accident (even more unfortunate as he was committing a petty crime of theft) during Jr. High, and her reaction was....anger. We'd never had problems, so all I can think is that I must have crossed her path at the wrong time...and became her convenient target. For more than a year, that girl and her followers tortured me in ways I'd prefer never to discuss. The school could do nothing (my Mom informed them, unfortunately, which did make it worse), and we ended up in a class together.

I don't think there's anyone in this world that can be "meaner" to me than this girl was during that year. In some ways, I just pitied her, no matter what she did...because she lost her twin brother. There was something about that death, that closeness, that stayed the hands of everyone. Unfortunately, it didn't help her, and didn't help those of us to come under her wrathful gaze.

I forgave her a long time ago, even as I flinch at certain memories and recognize the direction my own anger took when I was older. I think that, had I been dealing with the same things that she had been when she was just a teen...I might have reacted in the same way. In some ways, I think that's exactly what was going on; she focused her anger the time, I focused mine inward. (That was also when my dysfunctional family was imploding.)

She lived quite a destructive life for awhile, and then an unplanned pregnancy changed her. I heard from other friends how it had softened her, and at a church function, while she was 17 and pregnant, I saw her from afar, laughing and smiling. There was something about her that made me realize that she was different. Let's call it conversion...her unborn child changed her heart.

For was different. I think I was angrier for longer. I was a bully for longer and without a cause. I just did it differently.

How amazing that I literally become that which I hated, and didn't even realize it.

So to anyone who thinks they are "meaner" than I, or that I don't have a "mean bone" in me...maybe so. But that wasn't aways true.

My own suffering at the hands of cruelty was true cruelty...and my own actions of cruelty make me realize how far we can ALL fall.

Conversion to Charity

I don't know when my heart changed. There is no set moment. But I do remember realizing that my own cruelty resulted not from a "low self-esteem" but rather, from a sense of entitlement. A sense of self-righteousness. A sense of "I deserve this", or of being "better" than others for whatever reason.

Popular ("pop") Psychology likes to suggest that bullies and "mean people" just suffer from a lack of "self-esteem".

To a certain degree, when I'd been younger, I'd had "low self-esteem". But as I grew up, that changed. And in fact, reversed. I didn't mean to feel entitled...but I did.

I'd grow up poor and on welfare, and was sick of receiving charity. So when I "grew up" and could take care of myself, when I got to the point where I realized I really did have a future, that's where my sense of entitlement entered. It was subtle, but built over time. And it made me mean. It made me impatient with others. Expecting others to cave in to whatever I wanted.

Some of this was learned from my bitter friends at the time...we encouraged each other in our bitterness and cruel attitudes. Judgment of others and gossip devoured our times together. We rejoiced in our enlightenment.

To this day, though...

...I know that it's in me to be that mean. I know that if I can conceive of a cruelty, I can committ it if the situation is "right". I know that the danger is there.

So it is that I work hard to be charitable. The first year of this blog evidences a lot of my anger and self-righteousness. I have lost a lot of readership since my focus changed...and as my ongoing conversion has drawn me to a different kind of writing. I'm not as angry as I once was. I'm not as demanding, realizing that it's not about me or what I think. Exposure to real people in real parishes has softened me. It has not compromised my beliefs, but has strengthened them; it has only changed my approach. And made me realize how many people don't understand how their own bitterness does not gain converts. It's so easy to make it all about "us" and what "we" think, and forget about the common good. It's so easy to remember devotions...and forget about the real people those devotions are supposed to benefit.

I wonder how many people I have chased away from the Church. I claimed to be Catholic even when I lived in every way, contrary to our Faith.

I wonder sometimes if I can take on their judgment...on my own I can't merit Heaven, and given what I've done to others....I can certainly claim souls for the other side. How can God show someone like me Mercy?

Joking about Meanness

Sometimes I joke with people in "mean" ways, which are really friendly barbs. We all do this to each other. But because of what I suffered, what I did to others, and with things I wonder might offend Charity, I often quickly repent of my own jests...and those of others.

I worry that I've offended my "target", or, even worse, God, through the jokes. What if I've gone too far?

Sometimes that does happen, and we've all been on the wrong side of it. But we let it go. How much is too much? How much "venting" about other people with friends crosses the line into gossip? How much does it take to offend Charity?

Sad to catechist is wrong about me. I DO have it in me to be cruel, and fear I will do it again.

I fear that, for the rest of my life, I will continue to work on exercising charity, of taking a back seat where someone else is is forefront, even if what they are doing is offends others. And I will forever struggle with finding the balance between when it is right to speak up...and when it is right to remain silent.

For even Our Lord remained silent when He was questioned by Herod. We have to ask ourselves...of the two...which lacked charity?

It wasn' the One who was abused. It wasn't Christ.


Catherine Lucia said...

I swear I could have written that entry. Only less eloquently.

It is amazing the paths we all take. So differently similar. But we all have one Savior do we not?

I often think what a curse our memory is. Yet another way in which God's superiority shines forth: He forgets what is forgiven. We cannot. To this day I am haunted by my past, and reparation seems impossible. I forget that my Lord has forgiven and forgotten. I forget the Lord's goodness. That is something much worse than anything I could have done in the first place.

I can't tell you the appreciation I have felt for your blog today. I have been angry and upset and working hard all day, and God has not been in my mind for a moment of it. Thanks for bringing me back to reality!!

be fearless & be God's. verso l'alto <3 CL

Mike T said...

This was extraordinarily well written.

"I took my anger out on others, those who least deserved it."

In my experience, cruelty seeks a victim who cannot fight back effectively. I don't know about the self-esteem thing, but I definitely do not think that we act cruelly in order to "cry for help." Sometimes perhaps a "cry for help" surfaces when our cruelty is poorly waged. Most of the time, cruelty is cunning enough to cover its tracks, although -- thank God -- we tend occasionally to stumble in our cruelty, since it is after all a compulsive, feverish sort of behavior. We may become quite fond of this compulsiveness -- especially, as you point out, when we start to feel rather good about ourselves -- but Providence also seems to have endowed us with a certain "spiritual immune system" that normally prevents us from getting too methodical and deliberate about our cruelty.

Once subdued, cruelty licks its wounds and looks for another, perhaps subtler, opportunity to inflict suffering on victims. The capacity to be cruel doesn't go away. Charity must be exercised.

Adoro said...

CL ~ You're a fan of Bl. Pier Giorgio, too, huh? :-)

Mike ~ Thanks for your comment, and I agree with what you said. I actually brought in the "self-esteem" think meaning originally to juxtapost it against the sin of Pride. They've done studies on bullies, looking at the theory that their cruelty comes from "low self-esteem." In actuality, they've discovered it's just the opposite...inordinate Pride!

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

Expect an e-mail on this post too :), I relate in the strangest way...i'll explain in an e-mail