Monday, May 04, 2015

Let the Right One In

by Shannon Hoff

Sometimes, in looking at people, I find myself noticing the way in which they deviate from an ideal of beauty, an ideal of beauty that I get from magazine covers, TV shows, advertising, Hollywood movies, and so on. When I look at them, what I see in them is their flaws in relation to that ideal. And when I see this, when I notice this, I am surprised, because in principle I am deeply opposed to this ideal of beauty. I think of it as highly destructive and highly problematic, disorienting human values and wreaking havoc with people’s sense of confidence and sense of self, and having nothing intrinsically to do with what makes a person good or interesting.

In this situation, I find myself doing something to which I am deeply opposed. I think in one way, but I perceive in a different way; I find myself conflicted, divided with myself. My perception operates, it seems, according to its own rules; I notice something that I do not want to notice. My conscious commitments—the thoughts and beliefs that I have developed through the process of observing and thinking about what is good and right—are at odds with my unconscious commitments, which have their way in my perception. What this experience illuminates to me is the fact that I’m actually not strictly in control of my perception or of myself. On the one hand, I think of myself as a person who has developed ideas, beliefs, and commitments, and so on; I think of myself as in control, as deciding and thinking for myself. On the other hand, however, I experience myself as out of my control, perceiving in ways in which I do not want to perceive.

What this experience illuminates to me is the fact that I'm actually not strictly in control of my perception or of myself.

Now, upon reflection it shouldn’t be surprising to discover this problem; it’s understandable that I perceive in this way. Ever since childhood I have been subjected to these images of what people should look like. The world effectively tells me: “this is what beauty is”; “this is what you should expect to see when you look at people”; “this is what people should look like,” and so on, and I have internalized those messages. In operating in the way that I do, it is apparent that I am a receptacle for the “world’s” beliefs, for the “world’s” ways of looking at things; I am passive to its power, susceptible and vulnerable to perceiving in the way it teaches me to perceive and to acting according to that perception. I am vulnerable to a world that operates according to principles that I do not actually endorse; I become divided, in conflict with myself, because of its influence on me.

There are other and perhaps even more troubling ways in which we come to be at odds with ourselves; to illustrate these we can think about the example of anger. Let’s say that I have a bad relationship with anger: I find myself responding angrily when it isn’t in fact appropriate to do so, and I experience other people to be attacking me, to be angrily responding to me, when in fact they are doing something much milder. My tendency toward anger and my tendency to perceive anger reveal that I am approaching a situation of human interaction not as though it were a situation of cooperation but as though it were a fight, as though human interaction were essentially a matter of struggle or conflict, a matter of a choice between dominating or being dominated, in which I experience the temptation to be the strong one and to suspiciously look around for opposition to my authority, ready to counter it. Just as in the earlier case of “beauty,” if I do have the experience of feeling anger or perceiving anger in someone else, I might in fact be surprised, because I may believe that I hold the value or ideal of cooperation; I may believe, in other words, that human interaction is most productive and human life most rich when it is approached with the goal of cooperation and collaboration. The way I act, my immediate behaviour, would thus be at odds with my conscious commitments, with what I actually believe human interaction should be like. Here again, in my predisposition toward anger I would find myself at odds with myself. While I believe that this instance of human interaction could be really productive for both of us, or for all of the people who are participating in it, and while I believe that we could have the opportunity, in cooperation, to do more than we could do on our own, I live according to my habits and I make cooperation difficult because of my anger. I act as though this situation of human interaction were a fight, I feel angry, and my anger effectively makes this situation into one in which productive collaboration is impossible. In this context, just as in the context of my perception of “beauty,” I can find that I am not strictly in control of myself; while I believe one thing, my habits lead me to act differently.

The way I act, my immediate behaviour, would thus be at odds with my conscious commitments, with what I actually believe human interaction should be like.

Again, upon reflection it is not in fact surprising, sometimes, that we act in anger. It is often the case that the behaviour modelled to us when we are young and vulnerable is angry behaviour, behaviour that communicates: “This is how one should deal with a situation of human interaction: think of it as a fight, think of it as a situation in which one dominates or is dominated.” When we are young, uncertain about how things work, and trying to figure out how to act and how to be human by looking around at others, we may unknowingly pattern our own behaviour after the bad behaviour manifest around us. Just as in the example of our exposure to certain kinds of standards of beauty, this example shows us that we are not necessarily in control of ourselves, but that we are receptacles—open, absorbent, and vulnerable to adopting the views that are manifested in the behaviour of the people around us, if not in their explicit beliefs. While I may in principle be committed to a situation of cooperation and collaboration, and while I may in principle think that cooperation allows for excellent and powerful accomplishments—that when we work together we have the opportunity to develop a reality that we could not develop on our own—my anger prevents that situation from coming into being, and my behaviour shows that my beliefs about a situation are less powerful than my habits, that I am “run” by something other than my conscious commitments.

I use the examples of beauty and anger here so as to describe what I think Paul is identifying in Romans 7:15-25. He writes:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members… with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
I think we can take Paul to be identifying precisely the division in the self that I have been describing: between one’s sense of oneself as a self-choosing, self-determining, and relatively good kind of being, and this impulse, this immediate behaviour, that takes one in a different direction from one’s commitments. Paul seems to be identifying the strangeness to ourselves that we find within ourselves, the ways of the world that have made their home within us and that manifest themselves in images of what is beautiful, in conceptions of human interaction as conflict, and so on. The question here, of course, is: what are we going to do about this? If it is my will, my desire, that is undermined—if I am not strictly in control of myself—then it’s not an option to say that I am simply going to will to do this differently, that I will just choose to do something different. If the very problem is that we do not will to do this evil but do it anyway—if we are not strictly in control of ourselves in this domain—then fixing ourselves is not a matter of simply becoming more self-controlled, more in control. Furthermore, if what is actually happening here is something that we are not exactly conscious of, something that operates outside of our conscious beliefs and commitments, then it does not make itself available to us for immediate expulsion. If this behaviour is something that we are not really conscious of and something that we do not really understand, and if it is something that we cannot just eradicate by the sheer force of will, then what is required of us is a project of self-study, of self-discovery, whereby we look at our behaviour, at the things we actually do, at the ways in which we actually perceive, and try to understand them. Why am I acting in this way? What kind of values does my behaviour reflect? Where did this behaviour come from? What is at work in my perception? What is the meaning behind my activity? Through such a project of self-study, it might be possible to learn what it is that actually motivates us, which may not be the same as what we think motivates us, but lower, deeper, less open to our access.

Paul seems to be identifying the strangeness to ourselves that we find within ourselves...

I would like to suggest that there are three important aspects or tasks available to us in this project of self-study and self-understanding.

The first and most simple one is simply the commitment to be concerned, the commitment to exerting some effort in figuring out who we are. Do you care about this project? Will you put effort into working on it, enacting and maintaining the course of self-study? The crucial starting-point is simply to show effort in committing to this project and tenacity in seeing it through.

Once we embark on this project, the second task involves dealing with the difficulty of discovering things that we might not like in ourselves. Once we engage in the project of self-discovery and self-understanding, we may actually find things that we’re troubled about or opposed to—things that we don’t like and of which we are critical. This is, I believe, one of the most difficult things with the project of self-study: that it could lead a person to notice about herself that she does things she thinks of as wrong or bad. What is required here is an open attitude toward what we might find, and willing engagement in self-criticism. I may find something inside of me that I do not like, that I do not want to see, that I have spent my life concealing, but if I want to deal with it I have to be open to seeing it, to acknowledging its presence. With self-criticism comes also the commitment to being open to the criticism of others. The way we act can be unclear to us but clear to another person, who could actually be of help to us in identifying what lies beneath our behaviour and what actually motivates us. Again, it is difficult to be open to the possibility that others could identify negative aspects of our behaviour to us, but it is central to the project of self-study to be open to the possibility of discovering things to which we are opposed, and we can enact this project only if we can deal with this critical attitude coming from ourselves and others.

With self-criticism comes also the commitment to being open to the criticism of others.

The third ingredient in the project of self-study is the development of a forgiving attitude toward the things we find in ourselves. As Paul suggests, we did not become bad through choice; we do not do the things we do because we choose them. This should give us a sense of freedom and lightness with regard to the things we might find within ourselves. We are essentially vulnerable to adopting the practices that are demonstrated to us by the world around us; this porousness essentially defines us as human beings. We become human by adopting the practices that are presented to us; we are weak, vulnerable, susceptible, open to being affected. Since this is true, it isn’t proper for us to respond in anger to ourselves and condemn ourselves for the nasty things we might find, asking: Why am I so bad? Why am I so stupid? If it is not the case that we are immediately under our own control, then the proper approach to ourselves in this project of self-study is a forgiving approach.

This idea that we are vulnerable and open and weak is the transition to the last point that I want to make. That is, in addition to being vulnerable to the bad making its home in our souls, we are also vulnerable and open to the possibility that the good will make a home in us. In Romans 12, Paul says: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” I want to call attention to the passivity at work in what Paul is saying. He doesn’t say, “Transform yourselves!” or “Renew your minds!” What he says, rather, is: “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Other translations mark this passivity even more; the Contemporary English Bible, for instance, reads “let God change the way you think,” and the New English Bible reads “let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed.” Given what we have noticed so far, we might also notice here that, in addition to being passive to the bad, we are passive, open, and vulnerable to the good making its way inside of us, to God entering into us. Just as the bad can have its way with us, and can turn us into beings who do the bad even though we don’t want to, so also can the good have its way with us. This is why Paul emphasizes over and over in his letters that pride has no place; it is not we who accomplish the good, but the good that happens to us. It is not human excellence that is at work and on display here; it is not a human accomplishment that we become good; we open ourselves, rather, to the incoming of the good. The good, just like the bad, is not something we do or make or control. Here we should be reminded of Satan’s temptation of Jesus attested to in Matthew 4—that Jesus think of himself as all-powerful in relation to things (by commanding stones to become bread), in relation to God (by throwing himself off the temple to move God to save him), and in relation to other people (by ruling all the world’s kingdoms). This is the temptation that must be resisted: we are not simply in control, whether of the bad or the good.

"St. Matthew and the Angel," Caravaggio, 1602

It is, of course, natural and important to want to do something, rather than simply sitting around and waiting for the good to come to us. A helpful way to think about what can be done here is to think of it in terms of the language of preparation. I have mentioned a kind of preparatory activity already, by talking about the importance of care, effort, openness to criticism, and a forgiving attitude to the project of self-study. All of these are virtues or activities of preparation, involving making ourselves ready and open to the possibility that the good will affect us, that the good will enter. Along these lines, we can think, further, of what Aquinas calls “theological virtues” as such “virtues of preparation”: the virtues of faith, hope, and love. When we love, when we engage in loving relations, we allow others to have insight into us and to interact with us; we put ourselves in a position of trust in which their words of love can also be words of challenge and inspire our transformation. Let us love, then; let us allow each other to be the occasion for good in each other. Further, when we hope, we hope that our projects of self-study will lead to transformation. Let us hope, then; let us hope for our transformation, for our betterment. Finally, when we have faith, we have faith that the power of the good will reveal itself to us. Let us have faith that God will be revealed to us, that when we make a place for good in our souls, when we make a place for God, God will enter.

Shannon Hoff is Associate Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and President of the Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy. In 2013 she was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, Germany. She is the author of The Laws of the Spirit: A Hegelian Theory of Justice (SUNY Press) as well as of numerous articles in modern and contemporary political philosophy. In July 2015 she will take up a new position in the Philosophy Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Caravaggio's "St. Matthew and the Angel" is in the Public Domain.

1 comment:

  1. Two things I resonate with in this piece Shannon. First is the deep ambiguity of our being in the world. That ambiguity goes so deep that it transcends our volitional power. We can will or will not: it will not matter if the point is to be and act with integrity or single-heartedly as the scriptures often speak of it. Paul seems exquisitely aware of the depth of ambiguity marking the lives we lead. Secondly, I like the way in which you tell the story of Grace as a story of actions. Your three-fold task is also at the same time a gift and a mystery in the sense that our capacity to persevere in such self-work seems to be enabled beyond what our inner resources would seem to account for. Availability to God, that great monastic asperation, what might be called the very Grace of intentional living, seems to me to be a second site for gift and mystery in your story. In your telling, awareness of Grace is not about apriori convictions leading to a series of intentional life deductions (practical syllogisms all). Rather, openness or availability as Grace emerges out of a life practice, a trustful letting the right one in. And isn't another name for that what has long been called the life of faith or faithful living? Anyway, that is how I made what you had to say my own Shannon. I hope I wasn't too far off the mark. Thanks for posting this. When I first heard it I thought already that it should be disseminated in written form. And then presto! here it was and is. Nicely done.