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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Selfish 'Compassion'

Every so often, I run across something that bothers me in a deep way, and it usually takes a project in my garage or some manual labor to loosen my subconscious enough to figure out what is banging around in the back of my head.  So, I watched the video below, and I found it really bothersome in a vague way.  

It is well-produced and the speaker is very articulate.  Some of what he says, in  bits and pieces, are things that I have harped on for years.  But, still, there was something wrong.

So, I went outside to build some shelving.  As I was screwing one of the boards in place, I slipped and drove my drill with a screw bit into my thumb, and it all came up at once... blood and thoughts.

I found out later that the speaker in this video was a popular writer and professor, who killed himself a few years later while wrestling with depression and a failed medical regimen.  A tragic loss.

In listening to this presentation, at first I found much that I agreed with.  But, then I began to hear things that I found problematic.  By the time he dismissed morality and religion, I knew there was a huge, gaping hole in this whole thing.  Allow me to explain, since the speech on its own is very compelling.

Wallace talks about the drudgery of daily life, depicting it in painful detail.  The life he describes is without God.  There is no inner struggle, and neither is there any majesty.  Even the compassionate world he seeks to implement is really devoid of anything beyond the narrow confines of daily life as he morbidly paints it.

He talks of self-obsession and the need to think of others for our own peace of mind.  I found both of these rooted in the same problem: he never explains why it is that humans would derive any real pleasure from compassion.  It is self-serving rather than really being altruistic, and so his world of compassion is one of self-absorbed people getting happy off their ability to pardon one another.

Is that bad?  Yes!  Why, because, in the end, one is still alone in a meaningless life.  The checkout line is easier to bear, but you are still in a checkout line and the shuffle continues with you still thinking about yourself.

What if you are not like the attractive actors depicted in the story?  What if the 'ah-ha' awakening is not enough?  In Wallace's own case, it was not enough to overcome his own disease.

That's the rub: there is more to life than how or what you think about it.  There is more to the world than a daily dose of drudgery.  If you are slumping along, it is because you have not yet entered into life.  And, this life begins with God!

The World According to Wallace is a world without that spiritual connection to the Divine.  There is no greater glory or purpose.  What 'interconnectedness' he speaks of is merely perceptual.  If it is, then it has no endurance.  After all, perceptions change.  His certainly did, and look where his perceptions took him.

We are not called to merely change our perceptions from 'A' to 'B,' but to be transformed as persons through Jesus Christ.  We are not just supposed to think differently, but our thinking is supposed to change as we are changed by God. Wallace argues for a world dominated by human will, or at least the will to think differently about it.  Yet, this does not work.

If we could think our way to a better and happier world, then we would not have so much misery.  The world is miserable because people really are doing their best thinking.  We may not like what they think, and they may not be thinking up to their 'full potential,' but they are nonetheless thinking as best they can.  Wallace conveniently ignored the fact that the cashier and all the people around him have a rich thought life.

They are already thinking as best they can, and yet the world is still a place of pain.

Wallace is talking about taking his thoughts seriously, but the spiritual path, the one leading to God and recovery, means realizing that the thinking is the problem to begin with.  The fallen mind is broken.  You cannot rely on it.  It will always create bad thoughts.  We should be on guard against them, but also remember that whatever head tricks we play on ourselves will only work until our head hiccups again and our little plans come crashing down.

We can offer people the half-measures of 'positive-thinking,' but we must be ready to acknowledge that it won't last and it will eventually fail, because the human mind always fails.  We need the healing of Christ, not a formula to cope with our brokenness.

If you want to take this brokenness a step away from the spiritual, let's just consider Wallace's own use of anti-depressants and his intimate knowledge of the limits of his own mind.  Why not just decide to think better of himself rather than suicide?  Some thought patterns cannot be escaped by the force of will, and he makes no effort to examine the obvious limits to the 'power of positive thinking' because, after all, it would really mess up the beautiful narrative.

Yes, I have the same frustrating emotions he describes.  I, too, try to remember that everyone has struggles and that they are deserving of my patience and compassion.  But, they deserve it for a different reason.  For me, the added benefit is that patience and compassion make me feel better, but the real reason that I have to do them is because they don't.

Patience and compassion are hard, and a lot of times there is no obvious advantage to them.  This is the real danger.  If you are expecting to feel better from generosity or kindness, then you will certainly be disappointed.  Most often our good deeds are rewarded with disregard at best and outright evil at worst.  Wallace's narrative skips over the most obvious crack in his plan: the same woman in line with the screaming kid that he 'pardons' my go outside afterwards and back her car into his.

Real patience and tolerance and compassion are not brought about by 'positive thinking.'  As Christians, we believe they are 'Fruits of the Spirit,' divine gifts that come from God through our own work of repentance.  That repentance comes when I realize that I have no ability to reliably pardon others, nor do I really want to.  I must.  It is a Commandment.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Jesus does not offer up 'Suggestions for a Life of Contentment'.  He commands us to love one another.  Let that sink in: He commands us to love.

In the end, when the video concluded, that was what troubled me the most.  I lived for a time in Wallace's world, and it drove me to despair.  I entered the gates of my own personal Hell while trying to 'think' my way out of my problems.  The solutions were always short-lived.

We all need something more than positive thinking.  We need to confront our own broken minds and seek after God's help.  We must also realize that forgiveness and compassion are not options to take just to make the world better, but are acts of obedience to God Himself that we do regardless of the outcomes.  He is the one who rewards, either now or later.

The attractiveness of this film for many will be its promise of peace without God.  We who have struggled to find such peace know how fruitless such an adventure is without Him.

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