5. Human self-will



Ted Grimsrud


Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.  But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.  For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.  Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.  They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.  They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.  The people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.  And they say, “How can God know?  Is there knowledge in the Most High?”  Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.  All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.  When I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God.  When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.  Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.  Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. – from Psalm 73:1-26

The Catholic monk Thomas Merton wrote many helpful pieces on spirituality.  In Raids on the Unspeakable, he addresses the basic issue of what the major hindrances to our spirituality are.  More specifically, he asks, What is wrong with how we human beings in our culture relate to others and to the wider world?  What does this do to spiritual life?

I want to refer to just one set of Merton’s comments.  He uses the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the leaders of the Nazis, as a springboard for reflecting on our broader modern western culture.  Psychologists examined Eichmann and him found to be sane, even though he had overseen the death of many thousands of people in death camps.

“The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing,” Merton writes.  “We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people.  We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction.  And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.

“It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. . . .  The sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot.  They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of comand.  And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all.  When the missiles take off, then, it will be no mistake.

“We can no longer assume that because a man is ‘sane’ he is therefore in his ‘right mind.’  The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless.  A man can be ‘sane’ in the limited sense that he is not impeded by his disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly manner, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself.  He can be perfectly ‘adjusted.’  God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself.

“And so I ask myself:  what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own?  Evidently this is not necessary for ‘sanity’ at all. . . .

“I am beginning to realize that ‘sanity’ is no longer a value or an end in itself.  The ‘sanity’ of modern [humankind] is about as useful to [people] as the huge bulk and muscles of the dinosaur.  If [people] were a little less sane, a little more doubtful, a little more aware of their absurdities and contradictions, perhaps there might be the possibility of [their] survival.  But if [one] is sane, too sane. . . perhaps we must say that in a society like ours the worst insanity is to be totally without anxiety, totally ‘sane’.”[1]

Merton touches on several key points here having to do with hindrances to spirituality.  Our surrounding culture and what it values dramatically shape us.  When these values are power-over, wealth, security at all costs, grasping and control, spirituality will suffer.  At the heart of the issue is the nature of our trust.  Do we trust in efficiency, taking care of number one, blind submission to nationalism and materialism?  Do these define for us what “sanity” is?  Or do we trust in love, in mutual relationships, in the kind of power-with (or power-in-weakness) which characterizes the biblical God?  Even at the risk of facing the label of “insane” by conventional wisdom?

The goodness of creation and the loving-kindness of the creator point toward a certain kind of spirituality.  A spirituality of who we are.  This spirituality accepts our created goodness, fostering relationships with a loving God and relationships with our fellow creatures.  However, we meet many hindrances to living as who we are.  These hindrances block relationships, leading us to hate our humanness and undercutting our spirituality.

Such hatred leads down various and sundry destructive paths.  One obvious such path is that of child abuse.  One major factor in most of these cases is that of self-alienation.  Abusers usually have been robbed of self-acceptance by being abused themselves.  They feel weak, shameful, numb to their own emotions.  They tend to lack empathy.  To use Martin Buber’s language, they lack the ability to connect with the other person as Thou, as a person with whom to be in relationship.  Instead, the other person is only It, an objectified entity to be used.

I find it difficult to imagine a parent who so severely and violently damages one’s own child.  However, when one is numbed from one’s own pain, when one is so separated from Thou-ness, from emotional empathy and mutuality – such abuse can happen.

A kind of spiral of violence characterizes so many families.  Therapist Alice Miller, in her book, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence,[2] makes a persuasive case for the long-term affects of violent forms of discipline.  Children who undergo such discipline tend to act violently themselves  – against their own children, certainly, but in much more widespread ways also.

Sports Illustrated a number of years ago had an alarming story about a military college in the South.  The article details several cases of severe hazing of freshmen that drove them from school, often accompanied by serious scars, emotional and physical.  Nonetheless, this treatment supposedly toughens the young men for life in the real world.  That is, they are toughened for the real world of violence and power-over.  People are “toughened” for the “sane” world of which Thomas Merton writes.  In this world the ever-heightening spiral of violence ultimately leads to wide-spread spiritual and physical death.

We can use the words of one surviving freshman at this college also to characterize many of the surviving disciplined children of Alice Miller’s book.  “I can tell you one thing, I’m going to be hell when I’m a sophomore.  I took a lot of crap.  I’ve gotta get somebody back.”[3]

I heard this dynamic of “getting somebody back” illustrated once.  Our family had a friend over for dinner the day that we got our new dog.  He reminisced about the dog he had when he was a kid – called Scrappy.  He spoke with some regret.  He said that Scrappy was a pretty good dog, very loyal.  However, our friend wasn’t always good to Scrappy.  Sometimes he’d hit Scrappy or kick him.  These times often came after our friend had been hit himself.  In his pain, he sought out something else upon which to inflict pain.  We could call this a kind of “Great Chain of Being.”  The person with power-over hurts someone else, who then finds someone with less power to hurt and so on down the line, until the poor dog gets kicked.  It doesn’t always stop there – as my letter-carrier brother-in-law can testify to regarding dogs that have attacked him.

Hatred of humanness leads to pain.  The pain tends to lead to more pain.  When we’re hurt, we tend to hurt others.  Part of the hindrance to spirituality then, is being caught in this spiral.  When we are acting out of a sense of being victims, of being powerless, then we will not be able to center on relationships.  Other people will be Its, entities outside of us, barriers to what we want.

Out of perceived powerlessness come power struggles.  Here impersonal concepts such as justice or vengeance or rights take priority.  This impersonal focus undercuts spirituality.  Spirituality has to do with personal categories.  We can’t be in a mutual Thou-kind of relationship with someone with whom we are in a power struggle.  When we live in terms of vengeance and self-protection, we will by definition have to be impersonal.  This dynamic puts us square in the middle of the spiral of violence – and leads in the end to actual powerlessness.  Spirituality has to do with genuine power for living, power to be creative, power to experience trust and joy.  Spirituality has to do with living all of life personally, aware of our need for mutual respect with all other creatures.

Louis Dupré describes this truth:  “The spiritual person comes to view the world in a different perspective.  Underneath ordinary reality he or she recognizes another dimension.  At the very core of each creature, the [spiritual person] finds an otherness that compels [that person] to allow [the other creature] to be itself and to abstain from the conquering, objectifying attitude we commonly adopt.  [Such a stance] allows reality to reveal itself.”[4]

Thomas Merton’s description of the problems of modern culture’s notions of sanity also points to a more benign type of destructive path.  We not only face overt violence, including child abuse.  We also face more hidden, socially ingrained types of violence – all of which in practice deny the experience of the spiritual person.  These benign forms of violence, of so-called sanity, cause people to treat reality as It and not as Thou.  We treat others as objects, not creatures with whom to be in relationship.

These more benign aspects of social violence also hinder spirituality.  Psalm 73 helps us perceive this dynamic.  The Psalm begins with describing how the arrogant and wicked prosper.  “They have no pain; their bodies are round and sleek (Ps 73:4).”  The Psalmist is under no illusion about the underlying basis for such wealth – “violence covers them like a garment” (v. 6).  They have gained their wealth off the backs of others.  We might say, they have treated others as objects from which to gain wealth.  They have focused on economic gain and gaining comfort at the expense of relationships and respect for others.  They have lived in an It-world, not a Thou-world.

What especially is traumatic for the Psalmist, knowing the values of the so-called wicked, is that they are getting away with it!  Here we face the crux of the issue.  In everyday life, pride and violence work.  This fact serves as a huge hindrance to spirituality.  People who define their own reality – look out for myself, live in an It-world in which I manipulate my environment to gain wealth and comfort – often succeed.  In fact, most rich people, the people with the greatest material comfort, are very likely to be precisely the kind of people the psalmist calls wicked and arrogant.

Their success troubles the psalmist and almost separates him from God.  “As for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped” (Ps 73:2).  The psalmist almost accepted the view of reality of the “wicked.”  In their view, life is about comfort and wealth and having bodies which are “sound and sleek” (v. 4).  However, the psalmist realizes that such a world is spiritual deadness.

He goes on to speak of coming, through an encounter with God, to see the true fate of the “wicked.”  They are set in slippery places and will fall to ruin (Ps 73:18).  Perhaps the psalmist took this threat literally; I see it more as a statement of perception.  That is, this ruin might not be immediate.  It might not be visible to the unseeing eye.  We’d have to say that in our day.  Rich people tend to stay rich.  They aren’t literally “destroyed in a moment” (v. 19).  To spiritually attuned eyesight, people who trust in things and live in an It-world have already met their ruin, even if they don’t know it.  They already live in a wasteland.

The psalmist sees that connecting with God – the creative, genuinely powerful core of life – is true riches. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Ps 73:25-26)

Spirituality is a faith-oriented realm.  Its truths are not self-evident to everyone.  I am amazed at the attitude the American public has toward wealthy people.  Middle class people face a heavy tax burden and poor people receive meager public assistance.  Nonetheless, people still support the industrialized world’s lowest tax rate on rich people.  Likely, this reflects the high level of regard Americans have for rich people.  A popular TV show is called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”  Rich people are seen, it appears, to be almost intrinsically good.  Their values are good values.  They are exemplary.

The psalmist ultimately rejects this point of view.  The psalmist refers to the wealthy and comfortable, having achieved their position by living in an It-world, as “arrogant and wicked.”  They are approaching ruin because they know not God or their fellow-creatures as Thou, but everything is It.  In fact, by living as Its, they are already experiencing ruin.

Some of these generalizations need qualifying.  This Psalm certainly warns that people who aren’t rich can also accept the It-world values.  Poverty insures nothing about spirituality, since most poor people also would like to be rich.  The danger for all of us is living in an It-world.

As well, the point of this Psalm is not self-righteously to condemn rich people or to speculate about the spiritual wellbeing of other people.  The Psalm challenges each of us.  What is going on with my spirituality?  What hinders my path?  The danger for me is anchoring my being in a commodity culture.

I heard a refreshing story of one person choosing not to anchor his being in a commodity culture.  Some guy, a janitor barely making ends meet, won over a million dollars in the lottery.  Within half an hour he had given it all away – to family, friends, and good causes.  He valued his peace of mind more than wealth.  Our world would probably call him insane.  All too many of us value prosperity, painlessness, comfort even at the price of becoming arrogant and insensitive to people as people.  Such valuing undercuts spirituality.

The Psalm points to a three-part movement away from such a hindrance to spirituality.  I perceive a similar kind of movement in other texts, such as Job 42: 1-6 and Luke 15: 11-24 (the parable of the Prodigal Son).  Moving from awareness to repentance, and finally to trust.  The first part we can see as renewed awareness, awareness of ourselves and awareness of God.  In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the key turning point comes in Luke 15:17, the wayward son “comes to himself.”  He realizes who he is.  He wakes up.

According to the story in Job, Job too finally wakes up after all his sufferings and his argument with God.  “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know (Job 42:3).”  Job comes to an awareness of his own limitations and an awareness of God’s mysteriousness.  The turning point in Psalm 73, from infatuation with the ways of the wealthy toward trust in God, comes during an encounter in “the sanctuary of God” (Ps 73:17).

The awareness is simply that we can come to the end of our rope, reaching the limits of our understanding.  We need wisdom and strength beyond what we can work up with our willpower.  At this point of relinquishment of self-control, the psalmist, Job, the prodigal son find themselves.  They find God there with them.  What matters is no longer comfort or pride or prestige.  What matters is a relationship, God as a Thou, one’s own soul as a Thou.  Through discovering God and discovering one’s own soul, one discovers other creatures (people and the rest of creation) as Thous, beings for relationship.

After the renewed awareness of self and God, comes a response; part two.  Job uses the strong word, repentance.  “I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  The prodigal son speaks of returning to his father and throwing himself at his father’s mercy.  “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be your son” (Luke 15:18-19).  The psalmist is essentially repenting throughout the Psalm.  I nearly shared in the ruin of the arrogant and wicked, I too have tended toward arrogance and wickedness.

The point here is not self-hatred.  Repentance follows renewed self-awareness.  I have discovered who I truly am – a being created by a loving God for relationships in a Thou-world.  I don’t hate this being – I love it, I love myself, knowing I deserve love.  Yet, I also know I have resisted knowing myself.  I have resisted knowing God.  I have tended toward the It-world.  I freely admit that.  I desire to leave the It-world behind.  This takes work, on-going work.  My repentance signals my need for power beyond my self-will.  My repentance signals my awareness of how much I continue to need to learn.

The third part is trust.  Job speaks quite personally.  “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you” (Job 42:5).  I do not understand you, and I repent of trying to reduce you to the limits of my mind. But I see you.

One may say, I see you in a baby’s smile, in an old friend’s joke, in grieving tears.  These are responses to life, expressions of living in a Thou-world.  I can not fully explain the baby’s origin.  Biology only takes my understanding so far.  I can not fully explain what laughter is and why it feels so good.  I certainly can not explain why my friend Rod was killed just before his 18th birthday.  I can not explain why my Dad died of a brain aneurysm when his grandson was only two years old.  However, I can see God, life-giver, relationship-sustainer, fellow-griever.

The response of the prodigal son’s father reflects God’s ways.  When the son returned prostrate in shame, the father pulls him to his feet.  Let’s party!  The result of living in the Thou-world is joy – affirmation of self, of God, of other people, and of all creation.  Trust that God wants to party much more than rub our face in our shame.  This promise of joy provides us hope to seek to live beyond that which hinders our spirituality, whatever that might be.

[1]Thomas Merton,  Raids on the Unspeakable  (New York:  New Directions, 1966), 46-49.

[2]Alice Miller,  For Your Own Good:  Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence  (New York:  Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984).

[3] Sports Illustrated  (September 12, 1992), 81.

[4]Quoted in Parker Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983), 120.

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