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Katie van Schaijik

How to rid yourself of gall

Jan. 17 at 3:55am

One of the best moral lessons I ever learned came through the example of a non-religious friend. She and her sister had been the designated heirs of a rich, childless aunt. But a smarmy, conniving distant cousin managed to manipulate the dying woman and induce her to sign over a large portion of her fortune to him.

My friend's mother was furious with indignation when she found out. Choked with gall. My friend, though, shrugged off the loss, and wouldn't let her mother rant over it.

"You know what Mom? He has to be him and we get to be us. Think of it that way."

When she told me the story, besides being stunned with admiration at her generosity of spirit (so unlike the reputedly religious me!), I saw that she was right. The insinnuating manipulater who had just made himself rich by cheating two young women was a miserable, friendless wretch, while my friend was the sort of person that everyone loves and wants to be near—light-hearted, large-minded, full of fun. She knew at least at some level that her happy temperament was a gift from God. Should she now start stewing over her grievance and become bitter, ruining her beautiful personality?

It's a new, more personalist take on the Socratic idea that it's better to suffer injustice than to commit it, isn't it? It's a lived awareness of the fact that, as persons, we both receive our being from God and determine ourselves in and through our moral acts and responses to reality as it comes before us. When we act and respond badly to events, we injure ourselves. When we act and respond well, we are adding goodness to the substance of our individuality. Isn't this what is meant, at least in part, by the verse, "Rejoice and jump for joy" when you are persecuted? To be dealt a blow of injustice is to be handed a priceless opportunity to add moral stuff to our personal being.

I also know from experience that this way of conceiving it is a huge practical help with the problem of gall. Since that day, when I am tempted (as I often am) to become bitter over wrongs done to me or someone I love, I remember my friend's example and find real moral strength in it. Instead of letting myself be consumed with resentment over the ugly reality that this person did that horrible thing, I'm able, in a way I didn't use to be, to say to myself, "Hoo boy, what a wretch. So glad I don't have to live with that habit of being. He must be so unhappy." 

Of course that doesn't necessarily mean that I abandon the pursuit of justice. Depending on the case and circumstances, I may still judge it right to stand up and fight for that—for the good of the wrongdoer and victim alike.

But it does serve to neutralize the gall that would otherwise poison my soul.


 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

Food for thought. Though, of course, sometimes the people who behave abominably towards others appear "happy" enough, and might be popular, comfortable, and generally well thought of. But there's something deeper in "He has to be him and we get to be us" than the utility of behaving morally, and the temporal consequences of behaving immorally, and I think you get at that here, in the meat of your post:
 
"It's a lived awareness of the fact that, as persons, we both receive our being from God and determine ourselves in and through our moral acts and responses to reality as it comes before us. When we act and respond badly to events, we injure ourselves. When we act and respond well, we are adding goodness to the substance of our individuality."
 
And from that angle, this confirms the same truth that Devra wrote on in her resolutions post, doesn't it? We are in a constant state of becoming through our actions. Making resolutions--or choosing to step away from bitterness--help us to be intentional about this interaction between acting and being. 
 

#1 - Jan. 17 at 4:05pm | quote

 

Devra Torres

It also reminds me of something Jacques Philippe said in the retreat he gave here.  (I tried to write about it at the time and gave up because it's easily misunderstood.)  To have peace, he said, you needed to be able to say, "Nobody owes me anything."  Not that you don't stand up for legitimate rights, or seek justice; not that you should be passive in the face of abuse--nothing like that--but that you're whole inner life is not poisoned by thinking "He owes me" or "They owe me."  You choose to do what is in your hands, but you don't center your thoughts on what someone ought to do for you.  You freely choose to not "call in the debt"--not at all the same thing as passively letting people get away with mistreating you.  You don't let the debt hold your peace hostage.

#2 - Jan. 17 at 11:18pm | quote

 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

Hmmm. I know I've found a lot of peace in acknowledging that I cannot force action from anyone--an acknowledgment of their autonomy,which saves me from all of the useless fretting and effort that goes into demanding what isn't given freely. I wouldn't say that nobody owes me anything, but I suspect the effect--that inner process of acceptance and refocusing on my own ability to act--is very similar.

#3 - Jan. 17 at 11:26pm | quote

 

Devra Torres

I haven't expressed it very well. I don't think it was meant as a statement of fact, exactly--because you can't just choose to disbelieve in a debt that really exists.  I'll have to look at my notes and see if I can find a more adequate expression of what he said.

#4 - Jan. 17 at 11:37pm | quote

 

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