"It's hard for me to judge," I said to my spiritual director, "whether I'm being too hard on myself or too easy on myself." (I'm pretty sure I was being sincere.)
She didn't hesitate, not even a split second.
"Too hard on yourself in theory, too easy on yourself in practice."
Bingo. She knows me well.
It's so easy to overthink these things. We can tie ourselves in knots, trying to build up an image of ourselves as people of high standards, people who approve all the right things and disapprove all the wrong ones. The worse we do at living up to our false little image, the more miserable we get--but it's not the kind of misery that leads a person to pull herself together and live up to higher standards. It's a much more sterile kind of suffering.
My old pastor, Fr. Ed Fride, used to talk about "one of the Snake's oldest tricks": while you're in the throes of indecision, the Tempter is the first to tell you, "Aw, c'mon, t's no big deal. Don't be such a perfectionist. You're only human." Then, once you've caved, there he is, the Accuser, horrified and disgusted. "I can't believe you would do such a thing!" he gasps. "Why would you expect to be forgiven after doing that?"
And this fits right in with what another priest friend once told me in confession: "Don't be twisting back on yourself and thinking, 'What an awful person I must be to have done that.' That's not the point. Don't be all preoccupied with yourself. Look outwards, towards God, towards goodness. It's not just about you."
And one more related piece of wisdom: before she got Alzheimer's, my mother was talking to someone who feared he was losing his faith. She was trying to express the same kind of thing, I think. She told him: "You don't look inside yourself and try to locate this thing called 'faith.' That's not how it works. You look outward at the One you have faith in. You're not examining your own spiritual innards and trying to dig out this thing that you think is supposed to be there. You get out and look at the reality outside yourself." (This is, of course, paraphrased from memory.)
It's tricky, what I'm trying to say here, because of course self-knowledge is a good thing. But twisting back on yourself is not the way to get there. Morbid introspection is not the same thing as fearless contemplation of your own inner reality. The wrong kind of self-contempt is just as easy to fall into as the wrong kind of self-love.
It's not that the personal self is unreal or unimportant. It's not that what goes on inside the personal subject--the whole realm of interior acts--is less significant than objective facts about other sorts of beings. We at The Personalist Project has expended lots of virtual ink trying to demolish that error.
Maybe the problem arises when we try to theorize too hard about what's going on inside of us. Some realities, even though they're unfolding within us, are opaque to us. When we do that, we we distance ourselves from our own experience.
I'll wrap up--if you could call it that--with a thought from another of my favorite sources of wisdom, Jacques Philippe. "God is realistic," he says. He doesn't want to shower His grace on the person we're supposed to be, or the person we would have liked to have been. He addresses Himself to the person we are. Once we accept our real selves--it's then that He can get somewhere with us. As long as we insist on fiddling around with our little collection of fake selves, mistaking that for self-knowledge, His hands, you could say, are tied.
Or so it seems to me. Does it make sense to you? Does it ring true? What do you think?