Saturday, February 26, 2011

Choices versus Nature: A Negative View

Recently I watched a film about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer made two statements that struck me deeply. First, he said that it was worse to be a liar and to tell the truth than it was to be a lover of truth and to tell a lie. Second, he said it was worse to be evil than to do evil. I find these statements extremely discouraging. I imagine a liar who decides to behave differently, to tell the truth. The liar does so. But it doesn't count. The liar's decision to tell the truth is still bad because the liar's innate badness makes the liar's every action bad. Whatever "good" the liar may do becomes "bad" by virtue of the fact that a "bad" person has done it. The liar has, therefore, no hope. The liar simply cannot do good. This is horrible.

I have had several experiences in my life that put me in the position of this liar, or bad person. I'd like to look now at three of them.

The first one happened in the 1980s. I was engaging in some Christian work that I was considering devoting my life to. I will keep the nature of this work vague; I don't want to be specific about it here. At one point early on, one of the leaders of this work told me that I had a number of faults that I needed to correct. I took what she said very seriously and made strong efforts over the next weeks to do things differently. I made many very specific and deliberate behavioral choices to follow the pointers this leader had given me. I don't think I could have been more dedicated to making the desired changes.

Nonetheless, when this leader spoke to me again after several weeks, she told me that I was worse than ever. She said that I stuck out like a sore thumb - that everything I did, even the way I walked and sat and carried myself, showed glaringly that I was not 100% for Jesus.

In other words, the good things I had done absolutely did not count. They were worthless. Actually, they were worse than worthless - they were actively bad. The good things I had done were bad because I was innately bad. So I simply could not do anything good. Anything "good" I might do became bad by virtue of the fact that I, a bad person, had done it. My badness automatically made my every action bad.

I want to stress that the leader in question was known as a good judge of character, as a deeply spiritual person, and as a dedicated leader in this work - not a mean or spiteful person. What could I conclude other than that she saw through to an innate bad core within me that poisoned everything I did and made it bad.

The second incident happened in the early 1990s. Again, I will be intentionally vague about the nature of this event. What I will say is that I made some mistakes in trying to become friends with a person whom I will call X. X became upset with me. As I listened to X and considered my behavior, I saw how I had been thoughtless and even self-serving. I acknowledged this to X and asked her forgiveness. I mistakenly assumed that we could then resume building a friendship, but I was wrong. My efforts toward this goal seemed pushy to X. Finally, I "got it" that I needed to back away, which I did with apologies. Yet X was really, really angry with me and did not seem able to forgive me for a long time.

X is a committed Christian, a woman of prayer, and a spiritual person. It is highly important to X to live according to Jesus's teachings. Yet X did not forgive me for about a year. She remained actively angry with me. What I concluded from this was that I was so bad that I fell outside the scope of Jesus's teachings, at least as far as X was concerned. Jesus says that we are to forgive - but I was an exception. My badness was so ingrained that even a deeply committed Christian like X could not be expected to forgive me. And I am really serious about X's commitment to Jesus - she truly is committed to Jesus and to her Christian faith, and I respect and admire her very much. I could not take lightly the fact that such a person had so much trouble forgiving me.

The third incident has its origins in something that happened in the early 1990s with a person who is very important in my life and whom I will call Y. Y and I worked together on an activity that places people into certain categories which reveal elements of their character. In my case, one of the elements of the category into which this activity placed me was a tendency to lie. There was also much more to my category than that one element, and I actually forgot about it after some time. But Y did not.

Years later, recently in fact, Y and I had some discussions about truth and lies. I mentioned that there are some select situations in which I would not tell the truth. Y and I also had some conversations in which she doubted what I told her and I doubted what she told me. In the course of all this, Y told me that ever since the above activity of the early 1990s, she has known that when she is with me she is dealing with someone who tends not to tell the truth.

Y and I have talked more about all this and have resolved the difficulties we were having in believing each other, but I am concerned that Y may still keep in her mind a caution about me because the above activity put me in the category of liar.

This third incident is a little different from the first two incidents. The leader of incident one and X of incident two are people who aspire to and live out very high standards and whose opinion about my badness I could not lightly dismiss. While Y is very important to me, I do not put Y into that same very high category. I guess I've had the opportunity to see more of Y's faults - and Y has certainly had the opportunity to see my faults as well. Also, it seems that the leader and X saw a core badness in me, while Y labeled me as a liar based on a category that an activity had placed me into. In other words, the leader and X were evaluating me themselves, while Y was relying on an external means of evaluation.

The similarity among the three incidents lies in the fact that there seemed no escape from what each evaluation said about me. In the first incident, I simply could not do anything good because my core badness made everything I did bad; the leader could look into me and see this. In the second incident, my core badness placed me outside Jesus's teaching about forgiveness - even a close follower of Jesus could not be expected to forgive the likes of me. In the third incident, my placement into the category of liar was a done deal and whatever I said forevermore was suspect because I could not be counted upon to tell the truth - at least in Y's mind.

When you think that you are or may be innately bad, you need to decide what to do about it. It seems to me that you want to diminish the effect of your badness. How to do this? Well, the ultimate way is to kill yourself. If my innate badness makes everything I do bad so that I simply cannot produce any good, then it does seem that I should remove myself from the world.

Barring suicide, one might try to live as isolated as one can from others. There are two ways in which I have actually done this. One is that I have never inflicted myself as a spouse upon anyone nor have I inflicted myself as a parent upon anyone. I live alone - I am not part of a family. The other is that I have stayed out of visible leadership roles at any church or any religious or spiritual group. Suppose that I were to become, say, a reader on Sunday mornings. And suppose that I were to behave in a way that hurt someone else. What if I were to snap at someone or speak impatiently to someone. That person might be even more hurt because he or she had been spoken to in this unkind way by someone who had a church leadership role as a reader. I absolutely would not want to risk this.

My next post will present a more positive view on this issue.

Harry Potter: Our Choices

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry is struggling with doubts about whether he has been placed into the correct House at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

This warrants an explanation of the Hogwarts Houses. Each Hogwarts student is a member of one of four Houses: Hufflepuff, Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. The House becomes something like the student's family while the student is at Hogwarts. Each House has its own common room and dormitories, and the Houses compete throughout the school year for the honor of winning the annual House Cup. Upon arrival at Hogwarts for the first time, students are sorted into their Houses by the Sorting Hat: each student places the Sorting Hat, a large floppy pointed hat, upon his or her head, and waits for the hat to call out the name of the appropriate House.

Each House is associated with a particular character quality: Hufflepuff with loyalty, Gryffindor with courage, Ravenclaw with thinking, and Slytherin with craftiness. Unfortunately, Slytherin has seemed to attract witches and wizards who have gone over to the dark side and become evil.

Harry does not want to be placed in Slytherin. When he places the Sorting Hat on his head upon arrival at Hogwarts for his first year, the Sorting Hat whispers that Harry would do well in Slytherin, but Harry keeps murmuring, "Not Slytherin, not Slytherin," and the Sorting Hat then places him in Gryffindor.

Harry has lingering doubts, however, that perhaps he should have been placed in Slytherin after all. His doubts are increased in his second year at Hogwarts when he learns that he is a Parselmouth, that is, a person who can speak Parsletongue, the language of snakes. This is an extremely unusual ability, most often associated with dark wizards.

Harry eventually expresses his doubts to the Headmaster of Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore. Professor Dumbledore explains to Harry that, when Harry survived a fierce attack by the powerful evil wizard Voldemort at age one, an attack in which Harry's parents died, some of Voldemort's powers had been transferred to Harry, including the ability to communicate in snake language.

Professor Dumbledore further explains that this does not make Harry an evil wizard. I quote the conversation between Harry and Professor Dumbledore, from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, pages 332-333, below.

"You can speak Parseltongue, Harry," said Dumbledore calmly, "because Lord Voldemort - who is the remaining ancestor of Salazar Slytherin - can speak Parseltongue. Unless I'm much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I'm sure."

"Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?" Harry said, thunderstruck.

"It certainly seems so."

"So I should be in Slytherin," Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore's face. "The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin's power in me, and it -"

"Put you in Gryffindor," said Dumbledore calmly. "Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Slaazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students. His own very rare gift, Parseltongue - resourcefulness - determination - a certain disregard for rules," he added, his mustache quivering again. "Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think."

"It only put me in Gryffindor," said Harry in a defeated voice, "because I asked not to go in Slytherin. . . ."

"Exactly," said Dumbledore, beaming once more. "Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle [the Hogwarts student who became Lord Voldemort]. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

That final sentence is very important: It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

What makes a person evil? Choosing to do evil again and again over a period of time.

What makes a person good? Choosing to do good again and again over a period of time.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Harry Potter: Loyalty

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the governors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry ask Professor Dumbledore to step down as the school's Headmaster. Dumbledore agrees to do so and says something very important.

"'However,' said Dumbedore, speaking very slowly and clearly so that none of them could miss a word, 'you will find that I will only truly have left this school when none here are loyal to me. You will also find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it'" (pages 263-264).

These are powerful words. The first part - "'However, . . . you will find that I will only truly have left this school when none here are loyal to me'" - indicates that you can't get rid of a person's spirit as long as others carry that spirit within themselves. This works for good or for ill.

I would say that the following people are among those who have not truly left this world: Jesus, Abraham, Mohammed, Buddha, Joan of Arc, Therese of Lisieux (who promised to spend her heaven doing good on earth), Dorothy Day. Of course, the physical presence of the human being who was Jesus or Abraham or Joan or Therese has left this world. But the spirit that moved them has not. That same spirit lives in others, who are loyal to them and to their spirit. We can call this spirit the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God or the Christ Spirit, if we wish. Or we can call this spirit the spirit of goodness or the spirit of loving sacrifice or the spirit of service.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, this works not only for good but also for evil. There remain also in this world those who are loyal to the spirit of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Benedict Arnold, the Marquis de Sade, Judas Iscariot. This keeps alive the evil embodied by these men.

The second part of Dumbledore's statement - "'You will also find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it'" - indicates that help is always available, even in the darkest of times. The Bible makes a similar promise, but I find it hard to believe this promise. Some people have to face difficulties that are more than they can handle, help is not given or at any rate not recognized, and the person crashes. A prime example of this is seen in teenagers who have endured intense bullying at school and have finally killed themselves. Help was not given. The pain was too great to bear.