The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 12:45:40

Mental injustices an obstacle to communion

Katie van Schaijik, Feb 09, 2013

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.