How do we know if and when we are committing self-sabotage? We all do it; we probably do it everyday. We likely do it without being conscious of how or why we are doing it. Our prisons are filled with case studies, biographies, depicting the depth of its impact on the lives of otherwise intelligent, creative, courageous and caring men and women. So are our homeless shelters, our emergency rooms, our half-way houses, and the refrigerator cardboard boxes under overpasses in too many cities.
Hillary Clinton’s chosen title of her recent book, “What Happened” can and must be asked about each of those lives. That, of course, will never happen. Those people, the underbelly of our society, are unworthy of such detailed, conscientious and compassionate investigation. We isolate the issues that combine in their lives, and thereby we take away the human being by replacing him or her with a number, a case number, a cell number, a “diagnosis” that names the ‘presenting symptom’ for the professionals, a name and number on a criminal case in the courts, a name on a bag in a morgue, when it is too late to ask the important and dangerous question, “what happened?”
Teaching individuals and by extension the perspective of “consequences” to actions, thoughts, visions, dares, experiments, prescriptions, words uttered, exams passed or failed…..is a task for which we, collectively and too often individually, are ill-prepared to take seriously. Consequently, we are faced with the enigma of having to deal with crises, when, potential, preventive and much more far-sighted interventions would significantly reduce the number of crises we have to face.
There is, however, sadly, a monumental dramatic energy, excitement, and “sexy” quality to the interventions we undertake in a crisis. Is it our obsession with melodrama, the soap-opera quality of too many of our personal and public narratives that undergirds this dynamic? Are we living lives bereft of meaning and purpose to such an extent that we crave a diet of “adrenalin” or the proverbial “testosterone” to remind us that we are still “alive”? Have we capitulated to the cliché narcotic of the perpetual orgasm as our preferred dramatic narrative? Are we so intellectually and socially flabby and lazy and disinterested when the issues we face seem barely noticeable, that we adopt the conventional “so sweat” attitude, preferring to leave the matter alone until it becomes so threatening that we simply have to act in order to survive? Or are we simply so preoccupied with our own little bubble of a universe that what is happening outside that bubble is left to the “experts” whose responsibility we have licensed as our way of off-loading our own responsibility, so that we could dedicate our energies to more pressing issues like our wardrobe, our career, our car brand, our jewellery, our favourite movie, or our treasured vacation destination? Pandering to our own fetishes, it says here, is just another way of self-sabotaging, while we rationalize our fantasies as ‘our contribution to the national income, the national GDP, the way to ‘fit in’ with the corporate propaganda machine’s compelling and creative advertising seduction. (If the GDP is 75%+ dependent on consumer purchases, that argument is difficult to refute!)
However, it is our missed potential to envision beyond the next five minutes, the next five weeks, or even years, that so cripples our willingness and our capacity to face large and shared treats in a creative, pro-active and collaborative manner. And this dynamic reveals itself not only on a national and geopolitical stage, but in the more intimate and personal lives we live in our families and our communities. If there is one lesson that cultures like those of our indigenous people, and of some foreign cultures like the Japanese and Chinese cultures, that we would do well to respect, and to adopt to a much greater degree, it is their concept of their place in time.
For Canada’s aboriginal people, who have been here for some 15,000 years, the celebration of our 150th birthday is a mere hour or two on their nations’ calendars. For the Chinese to celebrate some 5000 years of their evolving and considerably stable culture is, to many in the “modern” west, simply unimaginable. We are not able to wrap our minds or our imaginations around such breadth of temporal landscape. And, if we are short-sighted, geared to our next moment, as a culture, how can we escape our responsibility for projecting that model, motif, way of being normal, onto our children and our grandchildren? We simply can’t!
Compacting our perspective on “time” has other consequences too. It imposes limits on what we are prepared to endure, to what we are willing to consider as “doable” or as “worth doing” and on what we are willing to embrace as our civic responsibility. Of course, we can and do see the immediate benefits to volunteering to pour the footings for a new civic arena, if our village needs one. There are kids waiting for the opportunity denied to previous generations in our community, to skate and play hockey on such a pad of ice. And we can and do see the benefits (to community and to our own lives) of designing and building a civic park.
There is another parallel poverty of perspective stemming all the way back to our narrow and absolutist view about our propensity for evil or sin. According to more than two thousand years of evidence, the ‘christian’ world has been unable or unwilling to view the Garden of Eden story as anything more than a picture of a punishing deity enraged as human defiance/pride/hubris as the archetypal starting point for relations between man and woman and also between man and God.* Our shared capacity to bring a poetic imagination to our exegesis of what we consider holy writ is so impoverished that there must have been eyes rolling in heaven for centuries. Locked into a shame compact for our natural engagement in our most natural and creative act, the act of love, it would seem that it will take more than history to dig ourselves out of our self-generated abyss.
For the ‘fathers of the church’ (‘Saint’ Augustine has so much culpability here) to insist and to persist in a prurient view of human intercourse, linked inextricably to their inordinate control needs is, has been and will continue to be a faulty premise for both deity and humanity. Based on the specious theological notion of the human depravity/evil and the need for the church’s agency in proferring a transformative and reformative relationship with Jesus and God, the church has “assumed” a political/ethical/psychological/historic/archetypal role of critical parent to a mass of innocent and frightened sycophants, more to their parenting power and control than to a supreme being. Casting human beings in a black/dark/sinister/evil and hopeless mode, without God, and thereby desperate to reconnect and be accepted and loved by that God (whose love is ubiquitous, unrestrained and undeserved) promulgates a segregation, separation and power imbalance that a healthy theology would not tolerate.
The separation of the divine and the human is a basic posture that is unsustainable. Our acknowledgement of, celebration of and humble gratitude for “that of God within” could be our starting point in all of our personal, familial and political/cultural self-talk, reflection and public debate. Our failure/refusal/denial/obstruction of that potential starting point holds us individually and collectively hostage to our intellectual, spiritual, moral and ethical blindness.
Such a self-sabotaging posture, however, does trumpet its own “purchase” of salvation and a heavenly afterlife through indulgences, artifacts, bribes and negotiations between desperate humans and their perverted version of a deity. It also boasts the slaughter of millions of innocents in the name of God, murders and crusades and excommunications and indiscriminate trashing of human lives, both within the confines of the church courts and in the public criminal systems, based as they are on a limited interpretation of God’s law and will. Pointing moral and ethical grenades at specific human acts, based on a strict legal definition of right and wrong, without a full reckoning of the complex contexts in each situation, renders some (usually in robes and possibly even wigs, and more recently with guns, mace and tazers) with a kind of power and dominance that far exceeds the need for control. However, having established such an inappropriate imbalance for their (ecclesial and civic authorities’) own purposes, and not for the purpose of reconciliation and healing whenever power is abused, now the snake of tradition, habit, convention and righteousness has dug such a deep trench in our individual and collective consciousness and unconsciousness, that these words will be considered not mere apostasy, but treasonous in some quarters.
It is the concomitant “transactional” feature of our bargaining, negotiating, pleading, and objectifying obeisance to the divine and to the representatives of the divine, in all ecclesial forms, that obliterates our capacity to focus on our “being” and “holding” and “shining” and “sustaining” and “reinforcing” that of God within. We have fallen into the trap of sacrificing our potential “unity” with the divine to our transactional/objective/narcississtic/fearful beings and our modus operandi. And in so doing, we have sacrificed our “being” to our “doing” in a flagrant and obsessive attempt to “prove” our worthiness to the divine whereas, if we were to accept that we are already more than acceptable to the divine, our subjectivity would be free to energize our lives, and to lift our potential out of this constant neurotic pursuit of okayness. God (any deity worthy of the name) has not, does not and will not ever hold such manipulative power over our individual or our collective existences.
Turning our religious institutions, and our personal lives into “functions” that are starting from a “not-okay” stance (psychologically, morally, ethically, spiritually) is a self-fulfilling and tragic “prophecy” under which humanity has struggled for centuries. The ascription of a inherent and dominant “evil” nature, (‘we are all sinners, having come short of the glory of God’) to all humans, in all cultures, ethnicities, nations and geographies in all time, with an range of ecclesial institutions positioned to set that dissonance right, buttressed by secular institutions dedicated to ameliorating, mitigating that evil may have seemed appropriate centuries ago. Not any longer!
Throughout history, the Christian church has demonstrated a penchant for aligning with the forces of social and political establishments, whether they are in city hall, hospital presidencies, university chancellories, corporate boardrooms, judges’ chambers and of course, law enforcement agents of all stripes. In that myopia, the church has also forsaken the very voices of the mot vulnerable, the most endangered, the most abandoned and the most poor, uneducated, unrefined, and undisciplined. In this model, the church has also emboldened parents, teachers, and other “care-givers” to justify abusive behaviour as an agent of reform, including the design and construction of prisons, the exaggerated and unmitigated deployment of physical, emotional, psychological and moral abuse, in the ‘name’ of God, and the narrowest of interpretations of what they considered ‘holy writ’.
So umbilically linked to “power” in all of its many forms is, has been, and will continue to be the churches’ preferred ‘position’, that the church has “sanctified” wars, ethnic cleansings, tortures, be-headings, abdications, and all manner of “respectable” and “politically correct” injustices….under some religiously justifiable epithet or maxim or dogma. And of course, this “Siamese” connection has been aided and abetted by the flow of cash from those in positions of power and wealth to the churches whose existence has come to depend on the flow of those cheques. Doubtless, there has also been some modicum of “ministry” in the form of liturgical rituals (baptisms, weddings, confirmations, and burials….oh and also penitentials) giving a semblance of ordered “markings” in the growth and development of the offspring of church families. Occasionally, there have also been moments of sheer insight and “aha” relief that have emerged from moments shared deeply by a ‘religious’ and a mendicant. Symphonies, concertos, and other pieces of musical composition have also been dedicated to the “glory of God” as have cathedrals, monuments, theses, and hospitals.
It is the abrogation of the divine, in the role of critical parent, in all of its many manifestations that demonstrates the long-standing history of human hubris, given our narrow, and even crippled imagination of a deity “who don’t create no junk”. In order to comport with the “teachings” of the church we submit (in perjorative act of submission allegedly to God, and also to the authority of the church) and then ask for forgiveness for sins that have their origin in our human metaphysic.
In successive period of human history, various human behaviours have been labelled “evil,” “sinful,” and “criminal” depending on the relative political readiness and acceptance of the new standard. Child labour was once appropriate and approved by those in power, (in both the secular and ecclesial domains). Slaves were once permitted and were bought and sold by the same establishment. Corporal punishment was once the ‘norm’ in both home and school, enforced under the rubric, “spare the rod, spoil the child” and “devout” parents were the most violent offenders. Any behaviour that brought social “shame” and embarrassment on the ecclesial institutional reputation was considered “sinful,” “evil,” and often spilled over into the secular law enforcement domain. Separation of “church and state,” a matter taken up with considerable energy in the United States, while not considered as important or even worthy of consideration in countries like Great Britain (where the monarch is also the Head of the Church of England) and Canada where there have been two ‘state’ religions, the Roman Catholic and the Anglican churches.
Punishment of those who committed evil deeds has historically been extreme when church leadership was responsible for the legal boundaries of that punishment. (An example, solitary confinement in prison was a legacy of the Quaker religious movement.) Purity of motive, on the part of self-righteous authority, has too often led to the imposition of life-destroying punishment, too often without the benefit of review, remediation, reconciliation and the requisite healing. “Perfection” in the pursuit of religious conformity and ethical “comportment” has resulted in repressive and exaggerated and extreme enforcement regimes supported by both ecclesial and secular authorities. And as the cliché asks, “How is that working for you?”
Both church, and subsequently, society, have started from the premise of the innate “evil” of the human species and built structures that also adopted that premise, justified by their argument for the “order” and “control” of the civil society. Of course, there are also natural models, like sickness, accidents and mortality that feed into the model. However, we have so stretched both the “evil” dimension of the species and the concomitant and “necessary” enforcement mechanisms to the point where the zeitgeist now is so obsessed with human malignancy, and the monstrous efforts to minimize its impacts.
It says here that a reverse, opposite focus, on the “that of God within each human being” concept would provide a different launch pad for our interventions into human activity, one dedicated to the reconciliation and the remediation and the healing of the aberrant, deviant and ‘evil’ attitudes, and behaviours. Such a starting point would expect, indeed require, a diligent investigation into the contexts that prompted the acting out, a comprehensive interpretation of the roles and shared responsibility for those abhorrent abuses of power, and a commitment to support and to remediate everyone and anyone from their “self-sabotage.”
Love, in its widest and deepest meaning, definition and incarnation starts from acceptance, not from the position of “correcting” the unacceptable behaviour. Love, if it is to be tested and strengthened, needs to be tried from the beginning of any offensive incident, by the culture, and by implication, by the school and the family. Merely pandering to what makes us feel good, and makes us proud, and makes us puff up our sense of importance and worthiness, while reinforcing whatever events and behaviours engendered those feelings, is far too easy and glib. It in fact requires a mere robotic repetition of those words and attitudes that pat us ourselves on our own backs, through the association with the other whose behaviour we approve.
Every act that demeans an individual is an act that demeans all of us. And if, as we do, we leave aside, detach from such acts, and take no responsibility for the forces that produced such acts then, it follows that those forces will not be taken as seriously as they could be. And, while we appear indifferent and unconcerned because the offender is “bad” or “evil” or “deranged” or “depraved” or “sick” or (and our infusion of psychiatric code words has grown to an epidemic) a sociopath, a psychopath, a deviant and an “irredeemable” monster.
Our capacity for empathy, and our willingness to find the time and the energy and the mechanisms to take into account our shared responsibility for the conditions which engendered such horrific and abusive acts, when we are disconnected from the worst evidence in our towns and cities, naturally atrophies, and even grows.
If the laborer who starts late receives the same stipend as the one who began at break of day, and the blind and the leper are healed, and the prostitute is forgiven and urged to ‘sin no more’ then why are we so obsessed with our admitted capacity to hurt others.
If we were to see that of God within everyone, and if we were to begin our relationships from that perspective, we would be far more likely to withhold our vindictiveness, our thoughts of getting back or getting even. If we were concerned about how others impact us, and were to investigate fully, linked to our humble and sincere request of our ‘enemy’, and we were to come to a full understanding of the “wounds” (emotional, psychic, physical, intellectual, perceptive, and cultural) of the “other” we would be far more likely to engender empathy, compassion, and reconciliation than if we adopt the legalistic, moralistic and self-righteous stance of absolute “rectitude” when faced with the onslaught of the other’s enmity.
We have developed a culture in which ‘doing wrong’ is invariably and inevitably berated, disdained, separated from, and alienated when we all know that “there but for the grace of God go I”….and, yet, when that is merely a tokenism, another maxim that we say without meaning or purpose or even authenticity, we fall into our own trap of “superiority” as a cover for our attitudes, our thoughts, our self-talk and our “rectitude.”
And then we build structures to embody the Critical Parent, sanctifying them as agents of a deity, when, if we were fully open, fully vulnerable and fully honest, we would engender a kind of scepticism, and a degree of both humility and togetherness that, rather than dividing the “born-again’s” from the “heathens” and promising a place in “heaven for the former and a place in hell for the latter, we would potentially come to a shared perspective that whatever afterlife there might be is not either earned or received by some act of penance, and the over-riding grace that has to have emanated from the Cross and the tomb and the Resurrection.
On top of this “critical parent” structure, we also construct skill-sets of knowledge and specialization that endow a few with special powers, and permit another group to infantilize ordinary people, most of whom have the kind of decency, common sense and imagination needed to provide valuable insight into whatever crisis they area confronting.
However, if and when there is an stock market tumble, like Black Monday in 1987, we do not hold individuals or specific institutions culpable. Rather we gloss over the cumulative greed of thousands of persons, whose rampant speculation and risk-taking contribute significantly to the financial downturn. Researchers in Cambridge, on the other hand, were reported to be studying the thesis that the 2008 financial recession resulted directed from an exaggerated injection of testosterone, another way of calculating the dynamic, one that would presumably delight feminists while demeaning the male segment of the trading floor, financial services sector.
In a similar manner, we have all felt as if we deserved to seek and to wreak revenge on an institution, or perhaps an individual for some tragic betrayal we have gone through. And, as illustrated so many times in many dramas, the pursuit of revenge carries the weight and the prospect of its own destruction. Iago and Othello both found that out tragically. And while the audience experienced the accompanying and authentic pathos vicariously, the display of both revenge and self-sabotage there will echo through the centuries.
While this is speculation, there is parable that receives much attention in the Christian community, that carries a different and freeing freight, far from the conventional one ascribed to it. The parable is the Good Samaritan, in which a Jew, having fallen in the ditch is passed by by both priest and Levite, and rescued only by the passing Samaritan, the most hated by the Jewish community. Many references to this story have linked the Christ figure to the Samaritan, whereas, the Jesus Seminar generated a very different view. According to one of their members, Professor John Klopperberg, once a professor at St. Michael’s College Seminary at the University of Toronto, the one who comes closest to the “Christ figure” in the parable is the Jew taken for dead in the ditch.
Rather than pontificate the “Christian virtue” of hospitality, rescuing and kind generosity, the Jesus Seminar interpretation emphasizes the vulnerability, the desperation and the need for help, rather than the triumphalism of the rescuer. Not an easy piece of theology to “entice” new recruits to the church, perhaps, but a perspective that, if fully adopted by all Christians, (as examples for others) would reverse the blatant superiority and patronizing attitude that exudes so much of our “caring” for others, both within the church community and, by inference, in the wider world.
David Brooks writes about the concept of humans being social, seeking opportunities to offer help to others, as an innate and compelling human trait. Given the Jesus Seminar’s interpretation, one is prompted to ask, and not merely rhetorically, whether our proclivity for socializing is not better accounted and posited in our shared vulnerability, dependence, need and weakness. Given that we have so sacralised the ‘samaritan’ rather than the ‘Jew taken for dead’, we have in the process (although, admittedly not based solely on this parable) elevated, championed and idolized those whose lives, like that of Mother Theresa and hundreds of others incarnate the ‘messianic’ care-giver.
It is the inverse of what could be attained, if we were all to acknowledge “the light of God within” as our essential truth, operate from that premise, support that premise in every person with whom our lives interact, write and design those pieces of art that depict our walking into that truth, not as some uber-utopia, but as a starting place for a more healthy, and ultimately worthy of support and sustainability in all our thoughts, actions and associations.
Think about the unpacked human potential, that any deity worthy of the name would welcome being released, that could accompany a shift in our perspective from personal, political, cultural and institutional self-sabotage to a perspective in which we have no need to “prove” ourselves to any deity, or to any extrinsic power!
*There have been attempts, citing Matthew Fox as one prominent example, in Original Blessing, to reverse the tide of judgement, punishment and shame.