The Personalist Project

Something like this happens in me a lot: I can't find my keys and I start mentally berating my children for getting into my stuff.  Then I remember where I left the keys. 

Once, Jules' very expensive watch went missing from his drawer.  For months, I was pretty sure the painter had stolen it.  My "evidence" was that he had been in the house since the last time we'd seen the watch, and I could picture him taking it.  Then one day we pulled our bed out from the wall, and there was the watch.  Did I feel the need to go to that painter and confess I had suspected him of stealing?  No.  But I did feel the need to make an inward act of contrition—a conscious act of realizing to myself, in front of God, that I had done the man an injustice.  I had thought worse of him than he deserved.  The next time I saw him, I made a point of being kind.

Jules mentioned in one of his person class lectures that we sometimes become aware that we have been using another person—treating him like an object in one way or another.  That other person may not know he's been used, but we realize it, and we're ashamed of ourselves.

That shame is a moral good.  I would say it's even an important interpersonal moral good, even if it's never expressed outwardly.  Properly realized inwardly, it humbles, purifies and dilates the soul, making it ready and able to achieve real communion with others.  And it "raises the moral tone" of the "interpersonal space" we all inhabit.

The failure or refusal to repent our mental injustices, on the other hand, hardens the heart, alienates us from others, and lowers the moral tone of society.

I mention it because I've often been surprised by the discovery that many Christians seem not to realize this at all.  They seem to take no responsibility whatsoever for their mental wrongs against others.  

So, for example, I was once accused of being the ringleader of a movement of opposition.  When the actual ringleader told my accuser that it wasn't true; that, in fact, I'd had nothing to do with it.  Her response was utterly nonchalant.  She appeared not to realize at all that she had wronged me.  She seemed to think her unjust assumptions about me no different and no worse than a perfectly reasonable mistake, about,  say, what time the party started. This alienates.

I remember another time being accused by a fellow college freshman of deliberately trying to make her jealous.  I was hurt and taken aback.  It wasn't true.  In fact, I had been earnestly trying to establish some basis for friendship with her.  Her response to my assurance that it wasn't true was to say flatly, "Well, that's just what I think," as if the question of whether her opinion was just or not was completely unimportant.  

To me, though, as a would-be-friend, it made a big difference.  She had misjudged me.  She had thought worse of me than I deserved.  She had interpreted friendly acts in an unfriendly light.  And she showed no willingness to acknowledge as much.  

Please note that I'm not talking about thinking "positively" rather than "negatively" about someone else.  I'm talking about thinking justly.  By that I mean that our thoughts about another person duly "match" the reality of that other person.  My suspicion about the painter wasn't unjust because it was "negative", it was unjust because he hadn't stolen the watch. 

"Positive thoughts", too, can be unjust.  They're not usually as wounding, but to the extent that they're unreal—a projection, not a reflection—they do hinder authentic communion between persons.  Take, for instance, a parent who assumes and asserts, against the objective evidence, that her child is brilliant.   That child may develop an irrational fear and guilt about not being able to measure up to her expectations.  He may worry that his mother would be bitterly disappointed if she knew the truth about him.  This fear causes him to hide his real self from her...

The only basis for communion between persons is truth.  A willingness to do others justice, and to repent our interior failures, is a condition for love.

This Lent, let's be sure to include mental acts in our examinations of conscience.

Comments (5)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Feb 9, 2013 7:43pm

To my friend whose father once did some painting for us: I promise it wasn't him! :)

Devra Torres

#2, Feb 9, 2013 9:27pm

Yes, now that I think of it, mental acts like this can powerfully foster or sabotage self-knowledge, which is something most people would recognize as crucial to any kind of personal and spiritual progress.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Feb 10, 2013 12:28am

This is a very useful distinction and term! It has helped me clarify something that I have been having a hard time with. I didn't know how to handle a situation with a person who took a whole series of (as it turned out) disastrous actions, all based on a false premise. He has been unwilling to apologize for it since he holds that his actions were correct according to his knowledge at the time.

I don't know whether an apology is exactly necessary in a case like that, where there is (likely) fairly good intentions...but this post has helped me see that the reason I still feel unsafe around this person is because of his lack of REGRET or shame over this 'mental injustice'. Instead it seems like the response is to attribute responsibility for his ill judgment to the person wronged - as though your college aquaintance's response had been to say, "well, if you hadn't done such-and-such I would never have thought that."  I wasn't taking into account that mental acts are also *moral* acts.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Feb 10, 2013 2:21pm

Yes exactly, Kate.  "You have it," as Alice von Hildebrand likes to say.

I have had many similar experiences.  People who feel no remorse about having been wrong in their judgements, as long as they deem those judgments not objectively unreasonable. 

And, as you say, their tendency is typically to blame you for

1) having caused the misunderstanding

2) having any objections to the misunderstanding

They think it's unreasonable of you to expect anything more of them.  

But, as persons—concrete individuals—we do expect (and require) more than "reasonableness".  We require justice. 

And, like you, I don't feel safe around people who withhold justice from me, while demanding love.

I may be open to loving relationship with them, as I was to my college acquaintance.  But friendship with her couldn't come about, because she wouldn't say, "I see I was wrong about you.  I misunderstood.  You deserved my better opinion.  I'm sorry."  Instead, by her nonchalance about her false judgment, she implicitly asserted a right to regard me as less than I am—to treat me like the kind of person who goes around trying to make others jealous. 

That's not okay.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Feb 10, 2013 2:28pm

Suppose we hadn't found the watch yet.  I accuse the painter openly of having stolen it, and he protests he's innocent. Suppose I then say to him, "It's okay.  I forgive you.  We can still be friends."

How will he feel?  Will he be eager for friendship with someone who has so generously forgiven him?  Or won't he rather feel indignant towards me for accusing him unjustly and thinking of him as the kind of person who would steal a client's watch?  Will he want to keep working for us?  Or will he rather wonder what else I might accuse him of in future?

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