To fall short of the standards which recommend us

For the religious to fall short of the standards [a standard is a type of flag ordinarily used as a type of identification], which recommends them to the world and to be found out is devastating in at least two ways. First, there is that terrible accusation of hypocrite and second, the expected attacks against their faith. Not only is the individual called a ‘fake’ but their long-held belief system is also called into question. The believer or the secularist for that matter who dares to go public with their moral standard is setting himself or herself up for the inevitable failure. In different but also in some very similar ways there is a resistance to both the believer and the non-believer who exists and moves about in the world. Moral excellence belongs to none. We are all works in progress saint and sinner alike. Who then is the perfect one ["as good as it is possible to be"] living and walking amongst us? The only question seems to be whether our transgressions remain secret or are exposed by some ‘accident’ of history; or a betrayal by a friend; or by our own digital footprint.[1] Nowadays, too, there is the added pressure and anxiety on the believer to appear ‘church like’ on account of the cynical view and increased scrutiny placed on faith-based communities, particularly by the progressively popular ‘anti-religion’ movements which ironically share demonstrable rudiments with religious fundamentalism.

Quotation: Satsuki Shibuya

Quotation: Satsuki Shibuya

So what to do especially during times when everybody seems to be on the lookout for ‘virtue signalling’? Human beings who are trying to practise some form of goodness within one of these faith-based communities are being more and more hunted out of existence as if some kind of sport. There is a hard choice to be made. Keep testifying to those things we hold of value knowing full well we shall fall short of our standard, or remain silent before an increasingly cynical world and say nothing that we might remain protected from scorn and likely ridicule. Writers for instance of such little and imperfect reflections as this present one are particularly susceptible, for compromises and contradictions knock everyday on their door. So then, it has been more than once that I have questioned myself whether I should stop uploading such entries. But I cannot stop. Even, if only for the entirely selfish reasons of self-therapy. And so the inner turmoil of being “mine own executioner” is the price I pay.

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12)

This anxiety of being ‘caught out’ [whether a religious or not] has the potential to paralyse the sensitive heart, to silence and to instil a sickening fear into the mind. It could leave a fellow human being in ruins as they go about trying to conquer their own private demons. Is it let's say hypocritical, to warn and to speak out on the shattering consequences of addiction if one is in secret fighting against an addiction himself or herself? Who knows more than the compulsive obsessive for example or the addicted of the limitless lure and ‘bloodletting’ of their diseases? Understanding the neuropsychology of addictive disorders is a lot harder than the easier option of a too hasty judgement. Our greatest teachers have been the “wounded healers” of our world who have dared speak when they themselves were near enough to burning.[2] Is he or she to keep silent, lest they be called out and labelled a ‘hypocrite’? It is a question which a large number of us will have to face. Whether and despite our imperfections and deviations from our ideal standards, for we are all broken in one way or another and we are [most of us at least] a walking quilt of patches, to keep on spiritually striving or to allow for the fear of falling short to dowse our spirit and so burying our authentic voice? We all want to appear credible and for our reputations to bear significance, the accusation of hypocrisy fills most of us with a sickening dread. Particularly in present times with that appalling association of ‘brand name’ to identity. It is for the individual to decide, to accept all manner of calumny if need be, or to be a crowd pleaser. “Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident,” writes Michael Josephson in a thought-provoking reflection. For there is little doubt that sooner or later we will hear that demoralising sound of stones crashing into our windows.

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn. 8:7)

It is a sad but undeniable truth that we fall, and fall ‘short of the mark’ daily. Transgression of one type or the other is our common lot. We also carry a big sack of contradictions which discourages and holds us down. But we should not despair nor disregard the intent of our hearts which point to the nobler side of ourselves. What things are these heart, and soul, and spirit? They are your inner voice [your conscience], and those invisible forces [of nature] which animate you and give you awareness, which differentiate between The Odyssey and the Apocalypse, that is, your consciousness.[3] It is vital we do not betray ourselves by giving up on what our soul whispers to us in the still of the night, when it reveals to us the truth of who we are called to become. Endurance will bring its own restoration. Every path worth taking is strewn with obstacles, but in essence that is what growth is all about: the ‘struggle’. This is the ongoing story behind all of the great odysseys in literature. Think also on the ‘lowly’ caterpillar which despite its unglamorous state continues on its journey to reveal itself one of nature’s most ethereal creatures, the butterfly. In terms of “us” this could be translated into the psychology of human development and the search for meaning.

To have tried our very best, to have remained vulnerable to attack, to struggle and to agonize [from the Gk. contest] over what it means to be a good person [when in truth none can be all good] even if ‘caught out’ for our transgressions, and to try to hold to the standards we have set ourselves right through to the last hours of our life, may well be our hardest and most beautiful work. More useful than any successful poem or grand score of music we might leave behind. It will certainly be our most enduring. It is what we would normally call our legacy. And so do not give up. The essence of life is growth. It is the ongoing process of broadening and heightening. Allow for no one to stop you from striving to reach the highest within you. As for perfection it is one of the great lies, it does not exist in the corruptible flesh, it’s a mythology in the service of the other ‘walking dead’. Pretending, that is being hypocritical, is very different to trying your very best.[4] The secret here is not to call out others by name. Here, as well, this is very different to fighting for justice instead of going after retribution. If we practise “true love” by forgiving “insults” directed at us, Saint Mark the Ascetic (5th cent. AD) encouragingly counsels, we have found a surer way of becoming “free from hypocrisy”.

There remains the real possibility we will continue to fight and struggle against our fetishes and failings and inconsistencies to our last breath, when we would have hoped to have loved more at the end than at the beginning. That is the glory then, even in the face of defeat to never give up on the ‘conquering’. I recollect here the story of a monk who had no intention of staying in his monastery after experiencing the rigours of the monastic life even after a few weeks. Every evening when alone in his cell he would remove his cassock to place it on the hook behind his door with the sincerest intention of leaving his vocation come morning. He went through this routine to the final days before his death, more than sixty years later. So he remained, he conquered. Was he right or wrong in his endurance? That is for him alone to know but his example is not without its merit. Is it worth it then, ‘wasting’ ourselves in the pursuit of our higher ideals? By ‘wasting’ I do not at all mean ‘destroying’ but giving up on those things which would in fact destroy us. Yes, as one of my favourite authors had once replied, it is worth it when it means stretching our human limitations and digging to the depths of our being even past “the darkness”. I am here referencing the much misunderstood Nikos Kazantzakis who was relentlessly driven to understand the purpose of life:

A command rings out within me: “Dig! What do you see?”
“Men and birds, water and stones.”
“Dig deeper! What do you see?”
“Ideas and dreams, fantasies and lightning flashes!”
“Dig deeper! What do you see?”
“I see nothing! A mute Night, as thick as death. It must be death.”
“Dig deeper!”
“Ah! I cannot penetrate the dark partition! I hear voices and weeping. I hear the flutter of wings on the other shore.”

“Don’t weep! Don’t weep! They are not on the other shore. The voices, the weeping, and the wings are your own heart.”[5]

To outwardly identify someone with their lapse, the reasons which we should probably never know, would be one of our cruelest acts. It is a denial of all their other possibilities. So let us practice compassion in its place. It does matter how we treat others. Love is a combination of many motivating qualities, both known and unknown, but it is compassion [to ‘suffer with’], which is its most recognizable expression. When people are crushed for air and the world around them seems to be falling apart their discernment can fracture into a thousand pieces. A man I once knew, a good man and a respected member of his believing community, had in one unthinkable moment lost all but one of his family in an automobile accident. He turned to alcohol for some years in a hopeless effort to numb the pain which could not be numbed. Yet all along he would say that he understood liquor was not the answer and would in his sober hours warn others of its uselessness. He remained accountable to himself. That was enough. So what was he then? Was he a grieving and suffering soul struggling to survive or was he an unrequited drunkard and a fake? So, yes, let us hold off from such quick judgements. Could we even for a minute put ourselves in the shoes of this modern day Job? To what shadowy places would our own desperation take us or has taken us already? He recovered, by the way, the best he could, to be a source of real hope for others. Even to this day his is one of the names which does help to sustain me.

“It is not what you are nor what you have been that God sees with His all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be.” (The Cloud of Unknowing, anon.)

Do not rush to expose your brother or sister nor to find delight in their humbling. We are all in need of reproof during our times of carelessness but a gentle correction is very different to overlooking the log in your own eye. What if the multiplicity of your own secret transgressions were to be suddenly exposed to the world? I would want for the ground beneath my feet to open fast and to be quickly swallowed up. So let us, then, give the benefit of the doubt to those who struggle yet truly believe in the nobility of the better man or woman, and if they are caught out judge them not by their inglorious fall but rather consider whether they have spread a little more compassion and sunlight into their community. Therefore we should also be very careful of value judgements, that is, judging others based on our own standards and priorities. And let us ask ourselves the following question why is that we do not hold to a similar account the more famous amongst us? We punish the everyday man or woman to the point of persecution, but the celebrity or the powerful we admire and elevate even more when they fall short of those ideals which we would normally consider inviolate. Amazingly, it is as if our idolizing is an inoculation against the charge of hypocrisy against the ‘stars’. If we do not worship the Creator we will worship the created order. We will elevate the corrupt and the decaying material body to a space it cannot survive. We are hurting ourselves and those around us by drinking in the opiate of superficiality, and by lowering our standards we are also selling short the future of our children’s generations. We teach them that success belongs to others and that to them is bequeathed the measure of mediocrity. Because you are wounded, because you have fallen, because you have made a trainload of mistakes, these are not good enough reasons to give up on the person you have been called to become. You are a unique presence in this world “made of star stuff” as Carl Sagan once famously quipped and for the community of believers the very temple of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 6:19f). Do not allow for the stone throwers to diminish your self-worth.

To keep trying to be human till your death, this would be a life well lived. This is then, too, what it means to try to be good. Each day is an opportunity to grow deeper into that eternal potential breathed into us from the moment of our creation and to live out in greatly richer expressions the radiance of compassion. Therefore this is the hardest truth, to “die daily” (1Cor. 15:31). This is the geography of the “unseen warfare”. Ultimately, what really matters in this everyday struggle of ours with all of its ups and downs, is that God alone knows and discerns the true intent of “the hearts of all the children of men” (1Kgs 8:39).

“Dear Lord, you know I am not perfect, too often I have been anxious that I would be found out to have fallen short of the mark, scared of being held to account for not being perfect to my word, yet allow for me to be at peace in the knowledge that trying my best will be my chief and most enduring work.”

[1] By transgression here and throughout, I am referring to a personal moral lapse or weakness, and not to any crime which might have to do with a violence inflicted upon another. This is another matter altogether and would require a different and more immediate response.

[2] Henri J. M. Nouwen’s famously insightful reflection on the healer as wounded himself or herself yet in the service of ministering to others has rarely left my side: https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Healer-Ministry-Contemporary-Society/dp/0385148038

[3] This is a truly huge topic, even when it comes to definitions with many disciplines contributing to our understanding of self and the question of human spirituality, which then naturally spills into the complex connection between the mind and matter. A good start would be with an initial introduction to these subjects from the reliable Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/about.html

[4] Of all places I came across a marvellously discerning article in The Guardian addressing hypocrisy in the modern context [and how we can accuse people wrongly] very useful and certainly worth sharing: https://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2016/nov/17/its-only-wrong-when-you-do-it-the-psychology-of-hypocrisy

[5] https://www.lifemasteryhacker.com/blog/nikos-kazantzakis-on-life-death-and-the-meaning-of-it-all

On the Hidden Dangers of Cynicism

“For better or for worse, I have watched people die in front of me. I see how they are in the end. And they’re not cynical. In the end, they wanna hold somebody’s hand. And that’s real to me.” (Mitch Albom)

Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind which can strike at any time, though it can be more treacherous when it attacks in middle age. Cynicism for a younger generation might be a call to action of some sort, to inspire inward reflection, to instigate political change, and negatively, to espouse anarchy, to become apathetic, or to adopt a scornful way of thinking. For the older person, when it is removed from life experience, it can prove devastating with the passing of the years and with aspirations no longer on their side. In both instances it can lead to ennui, apathy, and despair. What exactly is cynicism then? It is a distrust of people’s motives or the belief that they are generally motivated by self-interest. It has taken on a much nuanced definition since the times of the Ancient Greeks when it was associated with the school of the Cynics [from the Greek kunikos commonly ‘doglike’ or ‘churlish’] characterized for its contempt of ease and pleasure.

For the religious cynicism can be a double temptation, to not only entirely mistrust the social and political infrastructures which surround and support him or her, but also to question the fundamentals of their creed. Revelations and ideals once considered inviolate are now looked upon with a great degree of suspicion if not humour. Disappointment with integral infrastructures and first-hand knowledge of the moral failings of the militant church, only add credence to the cynicism which can threaten the foundations of a life. So what to do when cynicism is no longer a safeguard against naiveté but an ongoing pessimistic disposition? It does help to remember it is part of life and only natural that during certain stages of our growth we will experience a whole range of disappointments or ‘let-downs’ which will hurt. Cynicism and irony during such times could be seen as a defence mechanism or a ‘balm’ to help soften the blow. It is when these attitudes become ongoing states of mind that they grow into hopelessly destructive emotions. We are robbed of interior peace and great lessons of the past are too readily forgotten.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition cynicism is typically considered against the loss of belief (Job 7:14-16) or trying to catch somebody out (Lk 20:20-26). In Buddhism it is often contrasted with equanimity. In the Hindu scriptures cynicism is the source of hatred and anger. In more modern times these expressions can be marvellously summarized in the philosophical words of the American writer and amateur fiddle player Jackson Burnett:

“A thousand years from now nobody is going to know that you or I ever lived. The cynic is right, but lazy. He says ‘You live, you die and nothing you do will ever make a difference.’ But as long as I live, I’m going to be like Beethoven and shake my fist at fate and try to do something for those who live here now and who knows how far into the future that will go. If I accomplish nothing more than making my arm sore, at least I will be satisfied that I have lived.”

Cynicism is especially dangerous for it compels us to lose hope and interest in others. Our heart grows cold and we become overly introspective. To be cynical of someone trying to turn over a new leaf is to be cruel. To dismiss a religion because its followers are less than perfect makes no sense. To patronize a fellow human being because we in some way feel superior to him or her is the height of folly. What is more we risk growing cynical with our very selves which can lead to self-hate. It can damage the spirit which is the animating force behind creativity and love.

So what to do if we are gripped by the negative outcomes of cynicism?

Talk is cheap and ‘easy positivism’ is everywhere accessible. Engagement with the world and giving a helping hand to the ostracized, to help bring about change where change is needed, is not always an easy thing to do. It will very often demand a great deal of sacrifice and on occasion an agonizing re-evaluation of the notion of trust. Cynicism, similarly to ‘bad faith', has at its core an element of self-deception and a refusal to confront alternatives.

Allowing for the benefit of the doubt is to not allow for cynicism to grip our hearts. The encouragement of our neighbour is a great antidote. We are not called by the wisdom literatures of the world to become ‘naive’ to the realities of the human condition nor is it expected of us to abandon sceptical doubt. Unconditional love is to be over and over again forgiving and to continually see the potential which is breathed into the soul of the other. It does not mean to ignore wrongs or turn a blind eye to wickedness. We might also do well to remember how hurtful it was when we ourselves were dismissed and denied the goodwill of our intentions. Social infrastructures as well, might be improved with our considered input and made better through our direct involvement. We will not change the world, but we will surely spread some sunlight and make a real difference to at least a few lives, including our own.

And is that not enough of a good thing and well worth the doing?

“My dear Lord, protect my heart from the hidden dangers of cynicism and allow for me to be a humble yet present doorway for others to pass through. Help me every day to remember, our Father who art in Heaven, that life will not deliver to me all that I want.”

Not Tonight My Heart

“Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them” (Vincent McNabb).

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's  Sadness  (2012)

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's Sadness (2012)

Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. If you should move your hand to extinguish the light, this light, it will all be finished, there will be no turning back. This was not how your life upon this earth was meant to end. What has brought you here, to this darkest of places. Who has robbed you of hope? Who has stolen your dreams? And who has sought to diminish your worth? Stay with me for a while. Let us keep each other company, at least until the morning hours. We need not talk, a few words might be all we need, stay with me, at least until the morning hours. If it grows cold, if it gets too dark, I am here, with you. What are you thinking? That no one understands? That people, even those you love, have stopped listening? I know it is what you are thinking. I know. It is frightening to feel completely alone. Yes, it hurts, in places too deep for names. Nameless places, there is no room for alphabets here, only sighs, and moans, and groans. Not even tears they were spent long ago. I know. Your thoughts are real, like a broken bone, but they are not you. Tonight especially you must distinguish between these thoughts, and your will to live. It is difficult to breathe, even to breathe, that too I understand. If only this pain would go away, if it would stop, at last. Your suffering has become unbearable, I can see this, any moment it can break you, break you into a thousand pieces. Is your agony greater now than it was an hour ago? You are still here, you see, all things are possible. I do not ask of you to take a leap of faith into the limitless abyss, but to be still and to incline your ear, listen, sometimes you need to say good-bye to the old self, and it can only happen on nights like these. On nights like these when you are tested, when you are brought to the scorching edge, to be forged, and to be made stronger. Do not allow for despair to swathe its binding around your eyes. Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. Understand pain for what it is; an invaluable helper to keep your spirit awake and alert that you might respond both to the light and to the fire of the Sun. Your fight is not with your pain, but it is a battle against your suffering. Pain is your hurting, but it is your suffering, it is this, which will give you meaning.

And so ask yourself, this is not the time for half-truths and excuses, and so ask yourself, what has brought you here, to this valley of the shadow of death? Let go of things and places and people which are pulling at your soul, allow yourself the joy and lightness of heart which can only come with the great abandonment. Release your ego, it is weighing you down. Just for these next few minutes, allow for yourself to see through those swathes which are binding your eyes, just for these next few minutes. I will let you in on a simple secret, known to angels and anchorites of old, what is unspeakable can yet be lived. Let this suffering be your way to a deeper understanding of who you are, and who you are called to become. Tonight this could be that place of your greatest and most important discovery, here in this bloody battlefield, you are given your second chance. I know you have had this revelation of the ‘other self’ in the past. It is you, it really is you, do not be afraid of the splendor. “So do not fear, for I am with you.” (Is. 41:10) Hope cannot be taken away, it can only be surrendered. Dreams cannot be stolen, they can only be forgotten. Worth cannot be diminished, it is forever a measure of your dignity as a child of God. Your wounds, these great big wounds, which you think are beyond any possible healing let them become windows, dazzling openings to Love and Light. Become the refuge and the source of belief to others. You will have the most to teach.

Do not feel guilty it is all right to sometimes feel like this, for your soul to ask of you to nourish it with new meaning and content, it is shedding old skin. It refuses to become stone. It is good that you can still feel, even down to these very depths of your anguish, this is your proof, you believe in something. Hold tight onto this grace. Is it your own voice you are hearing? Wonderful, this is how the new day begins. Things will be much clearer, you will not have all the answers, but you will be closer to the reasons. You will have drawn nearer to your purpose determined even before the foundation of the brightest star. And so not tonight, this is not the night, let not your trembling hand turn to extinguish the light. I am here, with you. 

Hope

“And you shall be secure, because there is hope; yes, you shall dig about you, and you shall take your rest in safety” (Job 11:18).

George Frederic Watts  Hope  (1886)

George Frederic Watts Hope (1886)

Hope is my favourite word. It has helped me survive and not give up looking for meaning during hard times when all appeared lost. It gave substance to the other great words which I needed to trust in: love, faith, and prayer. Why do we place such confidence in these profoundly spiritual expressions of life? I think one of the reasons is because of our 'expectation', that not only are these movements into grace possible, but also do-able. Outside the living-out of hope, this longing for delivery and restoration, how else are we to put into practice those other hope-inspired acts which give purpose and meaning to our lives? Hope is the opposite to despair. It means refusing to surrender or to believe there is no way out. Hope can change everything, and it usually does. Hope is “to bend your ear over your almost shattered lyre,” recollecting George Frederic Watts's evocative painting “Hope” (1886), “to catch the music from the last remaining string.” Needless to say, hope can be experienced in different ways, like our unique reaction to the ringing of a doorbell past midnight.