Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth. (The Return of the King)
“Unless the king should come again?” said Gandalf. “Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for. But I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?” (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King)
We cannot choose not to wonder at the characteristics of our era. If there are those who do not do so, let us by all means not awaken them. But when philosophical wonder, unbidden, uninvited, sets before us the culture of our time, we can no more suppress it than blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. There is plenty to show that those who do not make an effort to read their times in a disciplined way read them all the same, but with narrow and parochial prejudice. . . . The disciplines we need are those that good modernity-critics display: to see the marks of our time as the products of our past; to notice the danger civilisation poses to itself, not only the danger of barbarian reaction; to attend especially not to those features which strike our contemporaries as controversial, but to those which would have astonished an onlooker from the past but which seem to us too obvious to question. (Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, p. 273)
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”
by Emily Dickinson
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
If, indeed, we all have a kind of appetite for eternity, we have allowed ourselves to be caught up in a society that frustrates our longing at every turn. Half our inventions are advertised to save time – the washing machine, the fast car, the jet flight – but for what? Never were people more harried by time: by watches, by buzzers, by time clocks, by precise schedules, by the beginning of the programme. There is, in fact, some truth in ‘the good old days’: no other civilisation of the past was ever so harried by time.
And yet, why not? Time is our natural environment. We live in time as we live in the air we breathe. And we love the air – who has not taken deep breaths of pure, fresh country air, just for the pleasure of it? How strange that we cannot love time. It spoils our loveliest moments. Nothing quite comes up to expectations because of it. We alone: animals, so far as we can see, are unaware of time, untroubled. Time is their natural environment. Why do we sense that it is not ours? . . . If we complain of time and take such joy in the seemingly timeless moment, what does that suggest?
It suggests that we have not always been or will not always be purely temporal creatures. It suggests that we were created for eternity. Not only are we harried by time, we seem unable, despite a thousand generations, even to get used to it. We are always amazed at it – how fast it goes, how slowly it goes, how much of it is gone. Where, we cry, has the time gone? We aren’t adapted to it, not at home in it. If that is so, it may appear as a proof, or at least a powerful suggestion, that eternity exists and is our home.
(Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, pp. 202–203)
In the Christian circles I’ve been a part of, it’s conventional wisdom that one ought to focus on others more than oneself. Other-focus is a big part of love, and therefore it’s a big part of growing in holiness.
Strange as it may sound, I’ve started to question the validity of this accepted wisdom. To be sure, if we were all more like Jesus, it would be great advice: focus on others. But the fact is that most of us aren’t all that much like Jesus, and apart from the perfect love that shaped His every action, focusing on other people can actually be a bad thing. In fact, I would argue that most of us in our human relations should focus on ourselves a lot more than we do. There’s an I-focus (an I-factor, if you will) without which focusing on others can damage them in horrible ways. Far from being too self-focused, I wonder if we’re not self-focused enough. Let me hurry to explain.
The human heart has an incurable desire to play god over other people; we flatter ourselves (insanely) that things would be much better if people would just do what we want. We don’t think of ourselves as this prideful, but we are. The proof is right there every time two people face off in a conflict. Most of the energy of each party is spent focusing on the other. Each renders all sorts of judgment on what the other has done, thought, felt, and intended; second person pronouns fly like arrows (“you did X”; “you thought Y”; “how could you have intended Z?”). Each person zeroes in on how the other person needs to change, and exerts as much pressure as possible to that end. Neither adopts the posture of a learner with respect to the other. Neither wants to talk about the fact that he or she has taken offense; both are stubbornly focused on how the other person has given offense.
Let’s picture it concretely. (We’ll use marriage, since most of the ugliest fights on earth happen in marriages.) Jack and Jill are man and wife. They’ve been married for ten years, long enough to carry the scars that inevitably come when you’re joined to another sinner till death do you part. They’ve had a fight recently and are trying to talk about it. It’s not going well. Why?
For one thing, Jack doesn’t really listen when Jill talks about her hurts. He’s immediately angry and defensive, because she’s being inaccurate, unfair, and unreasonable. In his head, he sizes up her hurts and judges them, and then (ironically) he feels judged! This messes up his emotional equilibrium and calls forth evasive measures and/or aggressive countermeasures.
Jill pretty much reciprocates when Jack starts talking about his hurts. Soon neither can talk about any hurts without starting a shouting match, so both parties retreat and fume. End of round one.
Cue round two. Jill again starts talking about her hurts, this time with feeling.
Jill has a way of talking about her hurts that drips judgment. She doesn’t really talk about what’s going on in her heart and head; she talks about what Jack has done, thought, felt, and intended. If he tries to explain, she doesn’t want to hear it. She’s not looking for a way to extend grace to him; she’s looking for a way to make him hurt as much as she does; and if he doesn’t hurt, this messes up her emotional equilibrium and calls forth evasive measures and/or aggressive countermeasures. You already know how Jack responds to such measures. End of round two.
The problem in this marriage isn’t the hurts. Hurts are no big deal, actually. They can be quickly resolved if hearts are right. The problem is that Jack and Jill can’t talk constructively about their respective hurts, the reason being . . . they’re not nearly self-focused enough.
If Jack had a better grip on the fact that God is sovereign and Jack isn’t, he would be able to listen to Jill’s hurts knowing that God, not Jill, is his Judge; this would enable him to listen to her without insecurity and reaction (his self-understanding would regulate his responses to her). He would also know that Jill’s Healer is God, not Jack; and freed from the burden of needing to fix Jill, he could simply care for her. He would also realize that, not being God, he really has very little idea what’s going on inside of Jill, and since Jill is the only one who can tell him, he’d do well to shut up and really listen before he tries to respond. In short, if Jack were more self-aware and less delusional, he would be a better listener and a better husband.
Likewise with Jill: if she had a better grip on the sovereignty of God, she would know that she can’t read Jack’s heart, mind, or motives; and she would spend more time explaining what she has thought and felt rather than judging what he has done, thought, felt, and intended. She would be a better communicator and a better wife.
A passage from Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve (pp. 62–63) speaks to all of this:
Members of chronically anxious families will be quick to interrupt one another, if not to jump in and complete one another’s sentences, and they are constantly taking and making things “personal.” Communication is marked more by diagnostic or labeling “you” positions rather than by self-defining “I” statements. Rather than saying, “This is what I believe,” “Here is how I perceive it,” “This is what I will do,” family members stay focused on the other: “You’re just like your mother.” “You’re a control freak.” “You’re insensitive, unfeeling, irrational, missing the point, or just don’t get it.” The family is thus easily “heated up” as feelings are confused with opinions. Those inclined to become hysterical and those inclined to be passive-aggressive will both find their tendencies promoted.
That’s the trouble with us, and it’s exactly how we’re not like Jesus. We don’t stay focused on our own hearts and actions (the only person God has told me to control, after all, is myself); we think we know what’s going on in other people’s hearts, and we really want to (and insanely think we can) control other people’s actions. Jesus wasn’t controlling in the way He related with people, and He was God; He really did know what was going on inside of them! What’s missing in our relational breakdowns is precisely the biblical “I-factor”: a clear understanding of what we are and what we’re not; and a resolute focus on doing our duty of love before God while trusting Him to take care of everything else.
Every parent is in great haste to have his child grow up and mature, to become serious, and often impatient with the carefree, playful world of childish impulse. Children have the remarkable talent for not taking the adult world with the kind of respect which we are so confident it ought to be given. They refuse to appreciate the gravity of our monumental concerns, while we forget that if we were to become more like the child our concerns might not be so monumental. There is a certain refreshing element of profanation in the child’s world of naïveté and mischief, which blows like a gentle breeze through the stuffy pomposity of adulthood. Often with a simple question or a completely honest remark, perhaps with a quizzical smile or a whimsical laugh, a child can call into doubt the sanctimonious façade and sacrosanct presuppositions of an entire civilization. (M. Conrad Hyers, “The Dialectic of the Sacred and the Comic,” in Cross Currents, Winter 1969)
I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days – quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil – historically considered. But the historical version is, of course, not the only one. All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their ’causes’ and ‘effects’. No man can estimate what is really happening at the present sub specie aeternitatis. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success – in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in. So it is in general, and so it is in our own lives. (J. R. R. Tolkien, letter to Christopher Tolkien, 30 April 1944)
Our experience of things is not a confrontation with something utterly alien, but a way of absorbing, and being absorbed by, the world to which we naturally belong. The mind does not primarily depict, reflect or mirror the world; rather, it assimilates the world as it is assimilated to the world. . . . Thomas [Aquinas] takes for granted this non-subject-centred way of being in the world. We are inclined to begin with the mind, asking how our mental acts relate to the world; he begins on the contrary with the external objects which evoke intellectual activity on our part, and thus bring to fulfilment the capacities with which we are endowed.
We are inclined to assume that the objects of our knowledge remain totally unaffected. To be known, for an object unaware of it, is as if nothing had happened. This surely misses something. On Thomas’s view, articulating as it does the doctrine of creation in terms of the metaphysics of participation, the object, in being known by the subject, is brought more clearly into the light and to that extent its nature and destiny are fulfilled.
It is easy to see how our minds are affected, changed, enriched and so on, by absorbing what comes to view in the world. But for Thomas it makes sense to hold that, even if there were no human minds, things would still be ‘true’ – in relation, that is, to God’s mind (De veritate). He does not look at the world and see it as simply all that is the case, in itself; rather, he sees the world, and things in it, as destined to a certain fulfilment, with appointed ends, modes and opportunities. It is perhaps not too much to say that Thomas sees the way that things are in terms of the way that they ought to be. Certainly, he does not picture knowing as the subject’s projecting value and intelligibility upon raw data. Rather, we exist at all only by participation in being (the doctrine of creation), and, since minds are what we are, we participate, by exercising our intellectual capacities, and of course to a very limited extent, in God’s own knowledge of the world.
(Fergus Kerr, “Overcoming Epistemology,” in After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, pp. 31–32)
Almost every intellectual claims to have the welfare of humanity, and particularly the welfare of the poor, at heart: but since no mass murder takes place without its perpetrators alleging that they are acting for the good of mankind, philanthropic sentiment can plainly take a multiplicity of forms. (Theodore Dalrymple, “How – and How Not – to Love Mankind,” in Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, p. 77)