The other night, watching an episode of Downton Abbey with Jules, I was struck by something the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, said. Someone she'd been helping had come to a hard decision about her future and was seeking reassurance from Mrs. Hughes that she was doing right. "It's not for me to have an opinion about that," said Mrs. Hughes.
It wasn't indifference; it wasn't false humility. It was, rather, conscientious self-restraint, and it cost her some effort to exercise it. It was an expression of a value that I think has been almost completely lost in our culture—the idea that I ought to try not to form, nevermind express, opinions about matters that are—objectively—none of my concern. That idea has a corrollary: I can wrong another person by forming or expressing an opinion about what he should do in a given prudential matter. (I am of course speaking of matters where there is no absolute right or wrong at stake.)
Is anyone taught this anymore? I wasn't. I wish I had been. I know that I have hurt people I care about by my inappropriate opinions and unwanted advice. I'm also conscious of having been hurt by others' opinions about me and my life. I don't mean hurt in the subjective sense of "feeling hurt"—the way a child feels hurt when she's scolded for naughtiness. I mean it in the sense of being wronged. It's not only the wrong of being misjudged (though there's that too), but another person has encroached on my domain in a way that disrespects and interferes with my right and responsibility to judge for myself in matters of my own concern.
The point connects with two other things I read today. The first is Karol Wojtyla's analysis of shame, in his book Love and Responsibility. He speaks about the way sexual shame is bound up with personal existence. It has to do with the mysteriously reality of our inwardness and our inviolability as individuals.
We see clearly here the intimate connection between the phenomenon of shame and the nature of the person. The person is its own master (sui juris); no-one else except God the Creator has or can have any proprietorial right in relation to it. It is its own property, it has the power of self determination, and no-one can encroach upon its independence. No-one can take possession of the person unless the person permits this, makes a gift of itself in love. This objective inalienability (alteri incommunicabilitas) and inviolability of the person finds expression precisely in the experience of sexual shame. The experience of shame is a natural reflection of the essential nature of the person. [Emphasis in the original]
A little later in the text, Wojtyla reminds us that one reason for sexual modesty is the "realization that a person of the other sex must not be regarded (even in one's private thoughts) as an object of use."
It's not enough that I don't act out my objectivizing of the other; I must refrain from even thinking of him in that way. As I see it, this corresponds to the responsibility not to form opinions about what others should do in prudential matters. It belongs to the nature of the person that he has a inward, spiritual terrain that is exclusively his own, for which he is responsible, and about which we are entirely unentitled to judge. If we do judge, we commit an impertinence. And, worse, we may make that person's task of judging well and properly much harder and more complicated than it ought to have been.
The second thing I read was an essay on Simone Weil by Marie Meaney, which is not yet published. (We mean to publish it soon!) It included a paragraph on Weil's analysis of the problem of force, which has plagued human relations since the fall.
Force unfortunately does not only affect human beings in terms of their external (and often internal liberty), but also in the way they read the universe. Lecture, reading, was an idea Weil was in the process of developing, but was unable to complete. We tend to read the universe like others do, are pressured unwittingly into this common reading by current ideologies and/or by a tyrant who imposes his vision on us; or, if we have force on our side, we will make others read reality the way we want them through manipulation, peer-pressure etc. We tend to categorize others and reality as a whole according to our hard-hearted prejudices. However, it takes a non-lecture (a non-reading), a stepping back, a withholding of judgment to achieve an adequate and just perception of reality. This is not merely an epistemological question, but means embracing the Cross; for it implies, for example, not holding the other responsible for his affliction and thus sharing in his pain; it means not judging another though he may be extremely annoying; it means humbly acknowledging one’s limitations and letting oneself be stripped of one’s fantasies, when we prefer to live “in a dream world populated by our fictions”; it means letting go of our idols which cover up the emptiness inside of us. It implies sanctity, the ultimate revelation of the supernatural within a mere human being. In the final analysis, the answer to what Weil’s diagnosed as a deep spiritual crisis of her time was personal conversion, or retournement, as she preferred to say. Therefore she thought that the world desperately needed saints, like a plague-stricken city needs doctors.
Jules could add a beautiful passage from Guardini about how the first act of love is not a moving toward but a stepping back.