I’d like to say I’ve given up, but I haven’t. I’d like to say I’ve stopped trying to figure out what makes people tick — why they act the way they do, say what they say (or not!), believe what they believe. But, I can’t!
People continue to baffle me, confound me, sometimes disappointment me. There is some truth in the adage: “Do as I say not as I do!” But that isn’t even always true. People disappoint, act poorly, sometimes their words — or their silence — is deeply hurtful.
Mr Hall, my senior English teacher at Creighton Prep, would be shocked to hear me say this but good literature, novels and short stories help us wrestle with the bumps and bruises of living in families, neighborhoods and with colleagues. What Thomas Merton had to say about famed Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor is a case in point:
The first thing that anyone notices in reading Flannery O’Connor is that her moral evaluations seem to be strangely scrambled. The good people are bad and the bad people tend to be less bad than they seem. … Her crazy people , while remaining as crazy as they can possibly be, turn out to be governed by a strange kind of sanity. In the end, it is the sane ones who are incurable lunatics. The “good,” the “right,” the “kind” do all the harm. “Love” is a force for destruction, and “truth” is the best way to tell a lie.
That’s my read of our current situation — and I don’t just mean Presidential politics! O’Connor was getting at something much deeper, persistent and endemic in the human character. Merton goes on to observe that O’Connor’s true-to-life characters place us…
on the side of the fanatic and the mad boy, and we are against the reasonable zombie. We are against everything he stands for. We find ourselves nauseated by the reasonable, objective, ‘scientific’ answers he has for everything. In him, science is so right that it is a disaster.
Isn’t that all too true? My resounding YES! to O’Connor and Merton’s experience had me inserting “morals” for the word scientific and “morality” for science. Some of the most confounding and disappointing people are those who are so certain of their “moral” answers that their “morality” is a disaster.
Right and wrong — judging others — is perilous terrane. Yet, some of us persist in shining bright lights on others’ lives and behaviors. Jesus warned against such Pharisaic preoccupation calling the best of the lot “whitened sepulchers.” Psychologists have long correlated this propensity with a terrific fear of shining that same light on our own lives.
I try not to judge lest I be judged. But sometimes we are judged anyway — and by people who say they care about us. Sometimes other people’s words, actions, even their silence communicate a heavy moralistic judgment. The wisdom of the ages, the wisdom of the world’s great religious traditions, the teaching of Jesus Christ all shed important light on this persistent human propensity — unanimous in its condemnation.
More and more, experience is teaching me the wisdom and urgency of Jesus’ confounding warning about the Last Judgment. How sad it will be for those so certain about what was right and good for others to hear the Judge say, “I do not know you!”
The first quote by Thomas Merton about Flannery O’Connor is from his book, Mystics and Zen Masters, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967, # 259. The second Merton quote is from #260 of the same work.