I like both Haidt and Foster’s remarks. This is a comment that got out of hand.
I would observe that it isn’t like we didn’t know – that we hadn’t been warned. Victimization is of course, more common in a culture of feelings than of thought, of sentimentality than sense. It is old in close knit communities where others can be expected to sympathize (think of the power of the younger, weaker child over an older, stronger sibling in making a case to a parent). I suspect that in the past it has more often characterized a small, closely knit group and the wielders of the power were probably more often women (think especially mothers). The boldness with which women project the claim today probably comes from an assurance that counters the value of the claim itself; we are out of the closet in terms of competitive will but we’ve lost the skill to wield it subtly. As a comment observes, this 21st century feminization of American culture enriches Oprah. But on the founders’ ships, embarking on an adventure in itself signaling virtue, it might have been more powerful if the leaders hadn’t been so aware of human nature and condemned it so clearly.
Our culture (most productive ones) historically understood the unruly and prideful nature of our wills. Our beliefs and our social as well as civil rules were set in the commandments of the book that guided most of the settlers and founders. Our wills are us: well channeled expressing our best – our creativity, our perseverance, our useful self-assertion, our individual self that has much to give. But networks of taboos developed to channel those wills. That network protects others from our pride and ourselves from what can be a wasteful and self-destructive squandering of our talents. Implicit in the warnings against sin was an understanding of human nature. Disdaining the belief in or denying the reality of our innate problematic but also divine nature didn’t do much for the twentieth century and promises to do little more good for the twenty-first. The argument that all is society’s (nurture’s) fault has made the social sciences useless but has also, perhaps purposely, reduced the force of those old constraints – diminishing our sense of the value of each human while protecting our wills. And what are the policies of the United Nations refugee programs or, indeed, much welfare but temptations to bottle up the will, turning it bitter, taking pleasure in nursing that very bitterness, that grievance held in the heart. Naturalists, like Crane, diminished man, but understood him nonetheless.
The act of forgiving – gratitude, generosity, love – is the central narrative of a tradition often disdained, one all too aware of man’s nature. The central narrative of Christianity is redemption – of the selfless sacrifice of one without flaws, redeeming a mankind painfully flawed. This moral model can help us. If asked, I’d say I’m a Christian, but it is not a belief system that I am true to nor can immerse myself within. Nonetheless, my respect for it and its wisdom is great and has grown as I have seen the consequences of my mistakes – and seen moments in which it guided others to transcendence.
Warnings that that is another way to express our prideful wills was understood and woven into that old order. The commandments are few, but we don’t see the last one, that forbids us to covet. It is an internalized fault, one that we know, if others do not. I have heard discussions of this move into condemnation of those with earthly goods – surely those with wealth coveted and valued such goods more highly than they should. But, of course, that very argument is neither generous (do we know another’s motives?) nor useful in terms of self-examination. It can be an expression of the flaw itself. This election season brings home to us the ease with which appealing to those natural flawed desires for others’ possessions still works. I’d always though America would dismiss the appeals of Chavez, Castro, Hitler, Stalin. But apparently that arose from an overly optimistic personal and national pride. Bernie is not “adorable” in that context. But his appeal would not surprise those of earlier generations, immersed in our culture and our faith. From the same fount of pride comes a desire for power over another. We don’t just covet another’s goods, we covet another’s another’s contented happiness.
Victimhood covets another’s peace as well as possessions – the very assurance with which others live lives unaware of our misery and brokenness, while we are painfully aware of their confidence and cheer. Victimhood sees human relations in zero sum terms: others are blissfully unaware of a privilege that in some mysterious way takes from us. And so we take offense – an offense made even more intense by the unconsciousness of their words or acts that give rise to a resentment we so quickly – so stridently – feel. Our will asserts itself, meanwhile nursing the grievance, justified by our weakness, our brokenness. The “specialness” of such a grievance becomes a treasure, murmured to rather than dismissed, nurturing passivity rather than productive action, looking outward for validation rather than outward for venues in which our energy might flow productively.
Yes, I hold grudges, I know. But, our tradition has instructed us, surely in the prayer most often spoken by Christians, as we plead for forgiveness that we be given the strength for it ourselves: “forgive us our trespasses [our debts], as we forgive those that trespass against us [our debtors].” I’ve always been struck by how aware the men who led the first groups in New England were of this human tendency. Bradford quotes from Robinson’s letter in Chapter 7 of his history of Plymouth Plantation. Aware of this folly – and its wasteful nature (of action, energy, spirt, indeed, soul) which, unchecked, could destroy a settlement at risk enough from the inevitable worldly challenges. So, Bradford quotes the instructions:
Neither yet is it sufficiente that we keepe our selves by the grace of God from giveing offence, exepte withal we be armed against the taking of them when they be given by others. For how unperfect and lame is the work of grace in that person, who wants charitie to cover a multitude of offences, as the scriptures speake. Neither are you to be exhorted to this grace only upon the commone grounds of Christianitie, which are, that persons ready to take offence, either wante charitie, to cover offences, of wisdome duly to waigh humane frailtie; or lastly, are grosse, though Glose hipocrites, as Christ our Lord teacheth, Mat. 7. 1, 2, 3, as indeed in my owne experience, few or none have bene found which sooner give offence, then shuch as easily take it; neither have they ever proved sound and profitable members in societies, which have nurished this touchey humor. But besids these, ther are diverse motives provoking you above others to great tare and consciente this way: As first, you are many of you strangers, as to the persons, so to the infirmities one of another, and so stand in neede of more watchfullnes this way, least when shuch things fall out in men and women as you suspected not, you be inordinatly affected with them; which doth require at your hands much wisdome and charitie for the covering and preventing of incident offences that way.
Ten years later, leading another group of Calvinists on their way to the coast of America, Winthrop speaks of the “ligaments of love” that must bind them to one another; otherwise, they are likely to be a colony that does not reflect the God they love and the beliefs they share in the kind of positive light they fervently believe that way deserves – a positive light that would lead others to share rather than shun that belief.
But of course, this wisdom was old. The selfish will of man to triumph over others and to desire another’s arose the moment we came to a consciousness of our separation from others– a consciousness as old, perhaps, as language or even man himself. It certainly appears in the way siblings poke at each other in the back seat of a car during long family trips. The litigious cry for the parents to intervene is a comic version of many a small claims suit – and prayer as we go to war. But good parents lead them to more useful assertions of will and an awareness of a community of interests. And the need for man to fulfill himself as part of a community, to discipline that will is probably as old. An undisciplined will can not be a part of a community (consider the self-discipline the great leaders – Washington, Lincoln – exerted to contain their own pride before they could lead others).
This came home to me even more strongly yesterday, as we left the “celebratory service” of a man from the church to which my husband belongs; although the burial had been the week before in Houston, where he and his wife had spent their long lives. I hadn’t known him but the anecdotes made clear that here was a man who understood the message of the belief system in which he was immersed his whole life. And it was also a tribute to the values of a dignity culture, one that permeated American culture as I knew it in the fifties.
In retirement, he had come to this church, where his son lived. It is small, but was packed and many rose to speak of moments when his respect and affection for others had been demonstrated in steady ways. His father had been an early minister and he, his wife, and then his children had been active in mission work, in sponsoring camps and working at the church’s campgrounds. It is a small, ethnic church and as someone observed, he loved his family, one including that tight knit, small sect and those in the churches (in Houston and here) to which he belonged. Tribute was paid by those he had taught in Sunday School, seventy years ago. Indeed, a wife said her gray-bearded and quite accomplished husband was a better man because of that early, formative influence and for that she was thankful.
Perhaps the most moving was a letter, framed with a sketch and given him at his retirement from his last job. Working 40 years in a grocery store, he had been a middle school janitor for the last ten years of his working life. The letter, a poem written with love, had described his gentle steadiness which had slowly banished an autistic child’s fear – of others, of the loud, large vacuum. Calming that fear, he had walked with the child, the two of them holding on to the ferocious machine, during the lunch hours for the whole year. The drawing was of the two and so was the description. That steady, daily act meant much to that child and was a model to his classmates. This was the kind of selfless service of which his old minister had said he would need to find two to replace him as well as two to replace his wife in the church’s work and spirit. His son’s reminiscences were broken by tears, of course, but were of a father who was there and who loved. His was a long life, well lived. His son’s stories were funny, often broken by tears, and a testament to the “wholeness” of the man. Seeing Foster’s post, I was reminded of how hard it is for some of us to forgive and how lovely it is that others accept the family, the human family, not surprised by their flaws but not letting that blind them to others’ worth – nor let an affront serve as a barrier to the love that should and can flow between us.
This is a little preachy for someone who just doesn’t want some people in her house, for someone who left her village and really never went back. My husband readily forgives me, I seldom him.
I’ve had a good life, but it would have been better if I’d been less willful, I’ll admit that. I’d have been better if I’d lived what I always knew, that the “I” that stands, unsubsumed, in Donne’s great “Batter My Heart” is happier at peace and subsumed. And perhaps a little preachiness is appropriate when our society seems to have forgotten that great, obvious, simple fact of our pride and willfulness – our selfishness that we as boomers so often demonstrate. But then, we boomers reacted to the fifties, to that culture of dignity – few of us learnt (or remember if we did) the old traditions, now lying there in the internet as they did in the books around our home, here discussing that tenth commandment.