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Marie Meaney

“Boxing” Others

Feb. 17 at 2:35pm

I’m not speaking here of a boxing-match or of bullies who like beating up others. What I’m referring to is the widespread human temptation to put others into “boxes”. What makes this so terrible, and yet so tremendously tempting?

It can seem an innocent enough pastime. What I tell my spouse or mother, or what I talk about in the inner recesses of the family, won’t hurt anybody, right? I can trust my mother or spouse sufficiently that he or she won’t be going round, spreading the bad news about Aunt Emma’s character faults. Perhaps I can trust them, and neither of us will share this with other members of the family or let alone, God forbid, with Aunt Emma herself (nothing worse than having the confidant of one’s critical thoughts relate them to the person in question). But what has been said has a life of its own and a way of coloring many aspects of life. Having spoken about it means that it will “want out again” (except under some conditions, which I will address later); I might not tell Cousin Jane in so many words, but I might just slightly curl my upper lip, when Aunt Emma is mentioned, saying much about my opinion of this person. It is impossible to control everything we express through our body and especially our face. I once read that 95% of our communication is non-verbal. Perhaps this estimate is too high, but it points in the right direction, namely that we reveal much about what we think and are in non-verbal ways.

The way I “read” Aunt Emma may have a tremendous impact on the way I treat her - however many efforts to the contrary - and how others “infected” by my opinion will approach her as well. Though gossip goes further than pigeonholing others, the latter is certainly an aspect of gossip. The well-known story of St. Philip Neri, who told a penitent guilty of gossip to pluck a chicken and strew its feathers all over town, and then to gather those feathers again a week later, expresses the way it spreads. One cannot counter-act the many bad effects of gossip, the harm one has done to another’s reputation, any more than one can collect the dispersed chicken-feathers on the same day, let alone a week later. Furthermore, having “boxed” Aunt Emma, this will more likely than not express itself in my dealings with her. Perhaps she is thick-skinned and won’t notice it (though don’t count on that), or perhaps I’m simply very good at hiding my thoughts and feelings from others, but chances are that her inner radar will sense that she’s been pinned down by me.

Pigeonholing another is terrible, since it freezes him at a given point in time and reduces him to whatever warped vision I have of him. It determines him to a certain extent and impinges on his inner freedom. Yes, he might rise above my petty judgment and be detached enough not to care what others think; but this takes great humility and grounding in God’s love (or a thick skin). Chances are he is not yet that holy, and anyway, my judgment remains a sin against him either way. It is a sin, since the other is a mystery to anyone but God. Nobody can know the inner recesses of another’s soul; nobody knows his motivations or his level of responsibility, if any. Only God does, for it takes somebody omniscient and absolutely good to plumb the inner abyss of the soul, be it that of others or my own. In his Confessions St. Augustine attempts to understand his own past motivations, and, despite his best attempts and his psychological finesse, he ultimately can’t. Nor can we, notwithstanding the developments in the field of psychology. Something ultimately escapes us and remains opaque. We have to pray for the grace to know the twists and turns of our heart; as we grow in the spiritual life, so we grow in self-knowledge. But if we can’t even know ourselves fully, how can we expect to do so regarding another?

“Boxing” the other furthermore fails to take into account the freedom of the human person who can, until her last breath, change to the very core of her being. It goes against the virtue of hope, for it says “you will not improve, you cannot better yourself, you are a hopeless case; you are essentially small-minded, egotistic, addicted etc.” It attaches the other to his vice, nailing him into the coffin of his weaknesses. Hence it also goes against caritas, for instead of affirming the other with love, I am placing myself above him, putting him down and reducing him to his vices. It is a sign of great pride to think I am able to grasp somebody who contains a universe of feelings, decisions, perceptions within himself; it means putting myself in the place of God. It is not surprising therefore, that the devil, who likes to take God’s place, is called the accuser; for he is a “specialist”, so to speak, for all vices, spotting them from a distance, gloating over them, and demanding that God condemn the accused in cold justice. Since he cannot understand love, he cannot get the full picture – nor do we, when we judge.

For pigeonholing another is a form of judging, and is so tremendously tempting, since it feeds my self-righteousness; it dwarfs the other to a size that I can lord over him (at least in the court of my mind, if not in action), and means I can manipulate him more easily, since I understand how he “ticks”. It’s a way of staying in control, while an open heart carries the risk of being hurt. It’s also a way of remaining outside another’s pain, and it’s an easy way to make the other responsible for his suffering. I don’t have any patience with Maggy, because she doesn’t do x, y, and z which, according to my own lights, would certainly improve her situation. I might not know that given Maggy’s situation, she cannot try out x, y and z. The more unknown her suffering is to me from personal experience, the more I will be tempted to judge her.[1]But the more I love, the more I will be willing to empathize and understand her pain from the inside.

The most common and most understandable reason for pigeonholing another is because he has hurt me. It’s a way of getting back at him. “You have hurt me through your insensitive remarks, hence you are insensitive”. Pain makes me transition from my experience and hurt, to judge the other. Therefore the point is not to close one’s eyes to what the other has done to me – especially if it has happened multiple times –  for this would pave the way to abuse, but to abstain from reducing him to this fault, ascribing intentions and a full responsibility to the other, which are simply not mine to know. This can be very difficult, especially, when it seems so “obvious” to us what is going on.

Many are the people who have been falsely accused of character-flaws, when they were in reality ill: the paranoia which can come with the early onset of Alzheimer, the strange behavior stemming from a yet undiagnosed brain-tumor, the socially jarring interaction with an undiagnosed autistic person, or simply the seeming laziness and selfishness of a person suffering from chronic fatigue, are wrongly held against them.  Motivations and evil intentions are ascribed to them, when the reason for their behavior is completely other. Now these are “merely” illnesses, which, once diagnosed, help us read the other differently. But what about a person’s past history which I don’t know or can’t understand and which might reduce her responsibility to little or nil? Hence, it is not for us to judge; only God can, and we will probably be surprised on the other side of the grave by the heart of gold hiding behind Aunt Emma’s aggressive nervousness, or, in contrast, by the manipulative streak which lurked behind Uncle Peter’s easygoing optimism.

I can’t (and shouldn’t) close my eyes to the faults of others or to the ways in which their behavior hurts me. But I can abstain from judging them, and from claiming to know the core of their hearts. This sometimes requires heroism, for it can mean bearing some tremendous pain inflicted on me without lashing back through judgment - and judging another can be tremendously gratifying. This doesn’t mean I can’t vent my frustrations and voice my pain to someone trustworthy, who won’t judge the other in turn. The purpose of this exercise will precisely be to avoid judging another by letting off steam. Abstaining from judging another doesn’t mean either that I should let myself be victimized: I might have to stay away from a person who continuously hurts me, or stand up to her.

Let us not underestimate the difficulty of abstaining from judging others; simply biting one’s tongue – though a good beginning – is not enough.  It is the sign of great sanctity to desist from doing so, especially in the face of intense hurt. Only burning charity, fanned by the infinite love of God, can make us capable of perceiving another without “boxing” her, but see her with the eyes of love. Only true love makes us bear all things, hope all things and believe all things (1 Cor 13:7); and this, sinners that we are dealing with other sinners, is a miracle in its own right.

 



[1] The most opaque to people, who haven’t suffered from them, are therefore mental illnesses; the terrible thing is that judgment and lack of compassion make these ten times worse.


 

Katie van Schaijik

Marie, I've been thinking about this a lot since I first read it. It's so, so challenging. It's painful to think how often (even habitually) I've offended against this norm of not judging.

The whole thing brings to mind Sunday's Gospel passage, which was like a primer in personalist ethics. It's not enough not to break the law. What is wanted is an interior transformation.

I'd like to hear more about this part:

This sometimes requires heroism, for it can mean bearing some tremendous pain inflicted on me without lashing back through judgment - and judging another can be tremendously gratifying. This doesn’t mean I can’t vent my frustrations and voice my pain to someone trustworthy, who won’t judge the other in turn. The purpose of this exercise will precisely be to avoid judging another by letting off steam. Abstaining from judging another doesn’t mean either that I should let myself be victimized: I might have to stay away from a person who continuously hurts me, or stand up to her.

In my experience, being able to voice my pain to a trusted other is key to my coping with wrongs done against me.

#1 - Feb. 18 at 11:20am | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

But I feel constantly the difficulty of discerning when my "voicing the pain" is a genuine, valid and wholesome working-through the injury, and when it's an indulgence—one that makes it harder for both me and my confidant to stay focused on good.

I feel it, too, when I'm the confidant.

#2 - Feb. 18 at 11:23am | quote

Marie Meaney

"But I feel constantly the difficulty of discerning when my "voicing the pain" is a genuine, valid and wholesome working-through the injury, and when it's an indulgence—one that makes it harder for both me and my confidant to stay focused on good.

I feel it, too, when I'm the confidant."

That’s a hard one, Katie. I’m with you on this.

But I think you’ve also hit the nail on the head, when you said:

“It's not enough not to break the law. What is wanted is an interior transformation.”

It’s not enough wanting to get it right. It takes a profound inner transformation. If we don’t realize that this is necessary, we are like the person who thinks that by jumping up continuously he will one day be able to fly (an analogy used by Simone Weil regarding the moral life). Until and as that transformation happens, all we can do is try, and as we try, get it wrong, sin, repent, and try again.

#3 - Feb. 18 at 2:11pm | quote

Marie Meaney

I think it’s already a very good step to discern whom we can trust with our “venting” (trust not just that the other won’t betray our confidence, but that he is a person with wisdom, who can truly listen, distinguish the pain from the judgment, and will still love us warts and all) , limit it to very few people, and know that together with our pain a good deal of nastiness and vindictiveness will also show themselves, which could become the path to greater humility.

The role of confidant is a difficult one as well. The two main temptations are to either judge the one venting, not allowing him to unburden himself by a “holier than thou” attitude, and thereby not letting the truth come to light as to what has been done to him (thereby creating greater hurt); the other is to chime into the condemnation of the “guilty” party, thereby hardening the heart of the one venting, and confirming his judgment about the other.

#4 - Feb. 18 at 2:12pm | quote

Marie Meaney

Empathizing genuinely with his pain, saying that it was wrong what the other did (if this is the case) are truly helpful to the hurt person; this doesn’t mean we need to agree with his condemnation of the other, if any. But getting this right is not easy.

Therefore when Mother Teresa said she’d never been guilty of judging another, this showed her level of sanctity. It takes great self-knowledge, humility and willingness to embrace the sufferings inflicted by others to be able to do so.

#5 - Feb. 18 at 2:13pm | quote

 

Katie van Schaijik

I have a few friends who have this beautiful gift of being able to listen to my pain, fully sympathize and enter into the wrong of the injury done, and at the same time constantly encourage me to a deeper level of conversion and faith. 

They make me want to learn to be like that. The more I live life, the more I learn the importance of listening and receptivity in friendship, and the more I discover how few people—even very devout Christians—are able to achieve it.

It's all about that deep personalist insight articulated by Newman: Each person is "an abyss of individual existence."

The temptation to ego-centrism is almost overwhelming. And yet, in truth, we cannot thrive as selves unless we learn to genuinely open ourselves to the mysterious reality of others.

#6 - Feb. 20 at 5:12am | quote

 

Jules van Schaijik

Thanks for this insightful post, Marie.  Katie has been telling me to read it ever since it went up, but, knowing it required my full attention, I didn't get to it until yesterday.  Very challenging stuff indeed!  More a matter for self-examination than for further discussion.  (Like some of Kierkegaard's writings.)  I especially appreciate the way you bring out the motives of pain-avoidance and control, and also your explanation of how boxing others impinges on their inner freedom.  I have never heard that point mentioned in connection with this issue.

I also think the word "boxing" well chosen.  It is much more descriptive and less ambiguous than "judging".  Perhaps it would also help to distinguish more clearly between "having a read" and "boxing".  The former is both natural and helpful.  It is only when a "read" turns into a "box" that it becomes a problem.  That's when it becomes incorrigible, i.e. stops being responsive to the ever-unfolding truth and reality of the other.  That's also when it freezes the other in time and goes against hope and charity.

#7 - Feb. 28 at 2:25am | quote

 

Jules van Schaijik

The distinction between "reading" and "boxing" also sheds light on the discussion between you and Katie about the legitimacy of confiding in others.  Part of the reason for confiding is to test and adjust one's own read of persons and situations.  But this confiding turns into mere gossip or venting as soon as it becomes a mere matter of spreading my negative read to others and infecting the larger community with it.

#8 - Feb. 28 at 2:28am | quote

Marie Meaney

Thanks for your comment, Jules! Yes, I think it’s a very good idea to distinguish between “reading” and “boxing”. It can still be painful for me to notice that another is reading me wrongly (through his reactions, comments, even if they are charitable). But I don’t feel pinned down, boxed or frozen by this; it doesn’t impinge potentially on my freedom in the same way and it is not at all as painful. It doesn’t contain any sin as such (it is simply due to the human condition to have a limited vision of the other) as boxing does, though it too can be shaped by our attitudes. When the other reads me more positively than I think is true, this can give me wings to grow and conform more to what I am called to become.

Your distinction, as you rightly say, also makes the difference between confiding and gossip clearer: in the one case, it’s a testing of one’s reading (as well as finding some support to bear the inflicted pain better), while in the latter case the purpose is to spread my negative thoughts and to box the other further through another’s judgment.

#9 - Feb. 28 at 5:22am | quote

Marie Meaney

By the way, Simone Weil spoke about “non-lecture” (non-reading) as a goal, where the person focuses with full attention on the object of perception, leaving all prejudices behind, and lets herself be stripped of all expectations and quick judgments, while waiting patiently on a fuller discloser of the other (or of the mystery, problem, paradox etc. looked at). My guess is that her concept of “reading” is a mix of the way you understand reading and boxing. Interestingly she makes the point that tyrants try to make others read the world, each other and themselves like they do, while slaves are forced to take on their master’s perspective. Only somebody who lets go of power or “force”, as she termed it, allows the other the space to take the world in on his own terms. Non-reading includes a suffering, a letting go, for patience comes from “pati”, to bear – and this means going through a dark night, of not being able to find the quick meaning I’d like to have to control the situation. The Cross, it seems, is always at the center of love this side of eternity.

#10 - Feb. 28 at 5:23am | quote

Marie Meaney

Thanks also for your last comment, Katie! I find it truly exceptional to find someone in whom I can confide – not just about others, but also about my own dark side – without judgment, while finding true understanding (I have one such friend). With her I find not only a lack of “boxing”, but a reading which is so open to the truth and therefore to be corrected, that I can get through her to the bottom of a complicated situation which would otherwise have escaped my understanding. It takes great charity and openness to the truth –and also great humility. For I often find that one wants to bring something down to one’s own experience, to be able to “nail” it, and to pride oneself in having been of help to the other. Empathy, in contrast, allows one to enter the other’s experience, even if it is completely other than my own; and humility permits me to say that for some reason I have a hard time understanding something though I do grasp and empathize with the other’s great pain.

#11 - Feb. 28 at 5:25am | quote

 

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