The Personalist Project
Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 6:10:15
Sin attempts to dwarf the other, sizes him down to the level I want him to be. If I gossip, the other simply becomes something to be gloated over, belittled, and judged. In anger, I try to strike him down, so that he is nothing more than my perception of him; in my eyes he is nothing but the despicable act or vice to which I have reduced him. I will lash out at him again, if he tries to find excuses or claims to be other than my view of him; only if his anger matches mine, might I have to back down and get to taste my own medicine.
That this feature of dwarfing the other is present in many kinds of sin, is something I was struck by when discussing Katie van Schaijik’s blog-post on Elizabeth Esther’s book Girl at the End of the World with her. In her book, Esther described her life in a cult founded by her family and her subsequent liberation. Esther’s experience was terrible, for it included the “systematic violation of the central features of personhood, i.e. the suppression of a person’s freedom, autonomy and conscience”, as Katie summarized it. Elizabeth Esther was brainwashed to think, feel and react the way her family and cult thought she should. Authority was stressed to the point that all questions or doubts were treated as disobedience, and a complete control of her emotions and thoughts was attempted. That she was developing some serious psychological problems and health issues did not seem to worry her family.
While reading Esther’s book, I was struck how sin directed at another generally attempts to dwarf him, sending the message, “you ought not be yourself, but should conform to my wishes and perception”. Let us look at a few examples to make this clearer. Lust is an obvious case, since I am simply using the other as a means to satisfy my sexual desires. I don’t care what this does to the other, what his wider world, feelings and moral outlook are; or if I do, then simply as another way of tickling my appetite. Should he come to me with legitimate demands, which I don’t happen to want to meet, then he is no longer of any interest to me.
What seems to be at the other end of the spectrum, namely idealizing another, putting her on a pedestal and turning her into an aesthetic object, sends the same message: “I admire you with these particular features, which I imagine you have. Don’t shatter my illusions, otherwise I will be sorely disappointed in you and my interest for you will wane.” She has become the means of satisfying my need for beauty, and her weaknesses are not acceptable to me. The next step would then be to try to “fix” her and manipulate her into being what I desire her to be. This comes ultimately down to wanting to control the universe and not accepting suffering and sin in others as a cross for me to bear. Pride is at the origin of this, and pride always implies dwarfing the other, so that I can take center-stage.
But what about envy? At first glance, it might look like a sin, which doesn’t cut down the other. For envy seems to acknowledge implicitly the other’s superiority in some respects, that he has or is something which I desire to possess or be like, and that I am therefore in some way less than he is. However, envy doesn’t allow the other simply to be what he is with all his talents and keep what he possesses; I don’t want to give him the room to breathe and enjoy what he has, if I can prevent it. I am cross-eyedly looking at him, hoping that somehow he will lose whatever I covet, so that I can better bear the fact that I don’t have it either. Instead of rejoicing about his qualities and possessions the way love would, I am either hoping for his downfall or competing with him, in order to put him down (hence a certain kind of competitive spirit can in reality be a hidden kind of envy; I want to be best, since I can’t stand being second).
Lying demeans the other whom I don’t think worthy of the truth; I want to manipulate him into thinking of me in a certain way or doing what I want him to do. If I am lying out of fear of being found out, then I am still trying to use him for my intents and purposes. Curiosity, on the other hand, turns the other into an object of voyeurism; he simply becomes food for idle talk. Generally, curiosity wants to discover what is low about the other person; but even when it desires to find out some flattering secret, it fails to respect the other’s inner life, which is his to guard and reveal.
What about impatience? This vice is mainly about my reluctance to submit to time, wanting things to go according to my pace and liking. Yet, here too I have a hard time accepting another with his slower rhythm and weaknesses, when I want my schedule to regulate him. In my impatience, I would like to tailor the other to what I want of him, to my desire for speed and efficiency. So there too, I’m telling him that he may not be himself, that he better change, and my impatience is in reality a kind of anger directed at him for not being what I would like him to be.
At first sight, laziness seems to be a sin going in a different direction. To the duties of the day, to the demands put upon me, or the invitation to go beyond the call of duty, it answers with, “I can’t be bothered”. However, most obligations are related to other human beings, at least indirectly. So my laziness is telling another that he is not worth my energy, time and trouble, which is certainly a kind of belittling.
Not every vice attempts to cut down the other (gluttony, for instance, is not directed at another, though it too will lead to sins against others), but my guess is that it is present in many sins to some degree. Clearly only love allows the other to unfold, to be the unique individual God has created without idealization or pressure, while accepting him also in his fallen state, warts and all. Only within the context of love is the other given the space to transcend himself and to overcome his weaknesses. While my anger and impatience might jolt him temporarily into being and doing what I want him to, he has not undergone a real change of heart. Chances are he will become resentful, which might express itself in hidden ways, perhaps by him slowing down even more.
Yet, we are not determined by the other’s attempts at dwarfing us. Christ even tells us to walk the extra mile. But this can only happen from within a great inner freedom, making us capable of rising above the other’s manipulative attempts. Only love can override another’s efforts to belittle us. God’s love gives us an inner space and a strong foundation from which we can respond lovingly to people who fail to respect our boundaries (though this might involve removing ourselves from them, if they are abusive). René Girard speaks of Christ as the first to unveil fully the dynamics of sin (which Girard calls mimetic desire leading to scape-goating) while going through His Passion; Jesus neither responds to a cruel execution with hatred, nor by taking on His persecutors’ point-of-view, which are both the typical reactions of victims. He had the inner freedom to respond justly, truly and lovingly to those around Him, despite immense suffering, without giving in to their lies. He has thereby shown us how to respond to sin; for otherwise, we are pulled into its dynamics by resentment, retaliation or by paradoxically clinging on to our oppressors (of which the Stockholm syndrome is only an extreme manifestation).
The call at the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle is to go “further up and further in” to Heaven. This shows the length, width and depth of divine love, allowing for the full unfolding of each person. Love creates an infinite inner space, where human beings can be themselves and yet grow. Through the piercing of Christ’s heart, this space was fully revealed to us; it is there, within His divine heart, in communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit that He has gone to prepare many dwellings for us.
We often experience our wounds merely as the sore reminder of past hurts and sins perpetrated against us. They seem to be the living proof that the other has won, that he has dwarfed us, sized us down, and robbed us of our capacity to trust and love; we tend to turn back on ourselves, lick our wounds and try to protect ourselves by growing a thicker skin. Yet, like nothing else, Christ’s passion and resurrection show us that sin does not have the last word, even though one may break down physically and psychologically under mistreatment. Our wounds can become places where God may enter, if we let Him in, and will become new channels of love, reflecting like Christ’s wounds the glory of God in the other life. Love and forgiveness have the last word, despite sin, if we accept suffering. Then sanctity will tower, where sin has tried to cut down.