Monday, January 17, 2011

on self-examination

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? You are a human being. Though you are a person that has been born into this world with specific personality traits, etc., you are not really who you are, not yet at least. There is a sort of pre-condition to your being in the world: we are all sinners and therefore naturally imperfect. Yes, this is the great equalizer. There was a temptation to sin in the garden, our venerable mother and father failed the test and we are presently inheritors of that consequence. Once they sinned they were humiliated and longed to hide from God and from each other in their shame. This shame we also inherit at our birth. This is the precondition of our existence, such that when we live in the world we have problems from the very start; shame, guilt, sorrow, anxiety, etc – sin – sin is our point of departure into existence. This is the wall that we will continually hit our head against throughout our lives, repeatedly, over and over again. We (those who actually even notice the problem) can’t help but feel that we cannot escape this condition we are in. We are tempted to resign: “What’s the use?”, you may say to yourself in despair, clutching for meaning and purpose when all that you do just never seems to work out and you feel trapped within your own fragile frame searching for a way to escape. Only, the world cannot provide that escape for you, can it? No, all of your attempts have failed. You just want to be happy and content, but even this is denied you. The sorrow of it all is that it is you who has denied yourself, and you are aware of this but cannot do anything about it; the wall is always there mocking you and your pitiful attempts to break through its thick skin. You have failed yourself in the sense that what prevented your attempts was your own weakness or inability. What is it you do next then, dear sufferer? Where have you left to go when the problem is you and you cannot escape yourself?

Inclosing reserve [det Indesluttede] is an existential term Kierkegaard uses throughout his works for this poor spiritual condition of suffering over one’s existence. You in your awareness of your personal weaknesses and imperfections turn inward and magnify them. In fact, it is these negative facts about yourself that are brought to the forefront at all occasions. Perhaps you stutter when you get nervous around others, or you make a stupid comment or remark without thinking and thus introduce imagined spiteful glances upon yourself, and any time this happens you immediately recognize this fault and for hours and even days or weeks afterwards, screaming at yourself for your stupidity (all inwardly, let’s remember). Nothing can be done to change what happened and so you torment yourself mockingly for what you did and swear that it will never happen again as long as you shall live, but what should happen next…you do it again, perhaps that very night! In your inner anguish, you no longer seek the company of others and you reserve yourself away from everything else; you become reserved for the main purpose of examining yourself all the more closely without distraction.

Perhaps you are a Christian. Yes, of course you are: you’ve been attending church every Sunday of your life, haven’t you? You might even be looked upon as an authority in your church; people look up to you and you even fancy them saying about you: “Now that is how a Christian should act”. – Yet, only you know the truth. You’ve been so long in your reserve that you’ve even perfected a way to make your external appearance an acceptable character to others. So you use that character you’ve created to the best of your abilities, because as long as the outer is properly displayed no one would even bother with the inner. So much you thought to yourself, and you would even in your reserve work and perfect upon your character that it has given you a sort of spiteful pleasure in making your mask so cunningly normal and acceptable. You still are examining yourself on a regular basis; constantly aware of what your faults are and that you are hopeless to change them. You meet a person, a fellow Christian, and perhaps she seems to understand you. “This is a problem”, you say to yourself when you watch her reactions to what you say and you do: she doesn’t believe you. This is just more torment for you, so you go back over every minute detail of everything you have said or done in her presence, yet you cannot find a satisfactory answer as to how she knows. You performed flawlessly, yet it does not change the fact that she is the one who has seen right through you. “What am I to do about this?” you say to yourself in frustration. You resolve to reserve yourself again, for it is not safe out there anymore. Only you soon see that she will not let you alone; you see that she still comes to you provoking emotions unlike you’ve ever felt from anyone else before, at least not truthfully; she still comes to you with questions that you don’t want to answer, because to answer would ruin the whole act: to answer would leave you utterly exposed. So you lie to her, she doesn’t believe you; you run away, she finds you; you push her away, yet she still comes as before. “How can I make this end?”, you think as you submit to giving her just a little, “I say as much just to appease her enough so she will let me alone once and for all”. So she comes. You tell her a little of your personal issues and history, only surface details, for you are a good actor after all so you can make that enough, can’t you?…only she wants more. “How can she expect so much from me!”, you say to yourself in frustration. Let’s say that this time your fuse runs to its end. You lay it all out there in the open, you tell her everything; you tell her everything out of pure spite, for you want her to feel your pain in full and you want her to suffer what you have suffered. You hold nothing back as you lay scorn upon scorn: “Do you know what it feels like to live with this every day?”, you’ll scream at her, “…to live with the unbearable torture of your own self being the problem, the root of all your problems? I can do nothing to change it! Have you ever punished yourself for something that wasn’t even your fault, yet you had convinced yourself that it was you who had failed and that it could not be otherwise? You torment yourself simply out of contempt for yourself because you feel that it is what you deserve. I have a demon over my shoulder mocking me every second ‘you don’t believe in God or love, you are only lying to yourself.’ Do you know what it is like to have this darkness breathing down your neck, poking at your every weakness and magnifying it to an unbearable size that you cannot help but collapse under its weight? Do you? Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? You say all this and more to her, holding nothing back. You expect the worst and prepare to return to your hole and close yourself all over again – but something different happens this time. She smiles at you, a sweet smile of innocence; she smiles at you in love. Love, do you understand?

This is the beauty of Christian love. The task is to love your neighbor as yourself, without distinction, even in their sin and imperfection. Our reserved individual is suffering from pride, or self-love in the wrong way. You may ask how that is so, but is it not pride after all that would place such importance on one’s weaknesses? The pride results from one not being able to feel pride in their weaknesses; the despair results from not being able to feel prideful about oneself. This is an interesting dialectical twist, isn’t it? What once was considered weakness has been turned into pride. Isn’t that the goal of the clever masks we create for ourselves? We are able to create an external self that can replace what we perceive our weaknesses to be with attributes that we can in turn be proud of. So, attention is now drawn to the consequences of the mask and defenses we put up around others. We are essentially being inauthentic selves and denying who we really are for this lesser copy. We are afraid of people finding out who we really are so we hide away, does this sound familiar? Yes, do not be fooled, we have come no further than the garden. That is our precondition so if one is still hiding behind the mask he has not fully become who he really is yet, his eternal self. Therefore, one cannot love nor experience real love, Christian love, yet because he has not recognized himself eternally. Christian love is an eternal love, an infinite love. In order to give this love to others, one must possess it himself, but in order to possess it himself he must be in the right condition to receive it from God, because all love comes from God who himself is love. So you see how our natural self-love must turn into self-love in the right way. Yet, as is clear from the start, Love can only come from God. We are all sinners, let us never forget this, so we can only receive love from God’s hand and not on our own. Only once we have received this love from God can we give it to others; and we can give it freely to all, as we shall do, because the love comes from an eternal source. It is in love that the infinite and the finite meet and through love one is able to be one with his spirit and rest transparently in his Creator.

This love requires transparency. You cannot hide before God and all is made open before him. This is terrifying because we naturally are shameful and anxious about being so completely exposed. So we fear God’s presence and try to get as far away as possible, only this is not possible and at one time or another we are put before God. Inclosing reserve is an example of this hiding, only here you are even hiding before others. Yet, we are called to bear one another’s burdens and this is an act of love for one another. The young girl saved the man because instead of turning from him, she accepted his outpourings in love and was willing to bear his burdens so he did not have to carry it any longer. This is love, unselfish love: Christian Love. An important aspect of this love is its eternal nature. Love, being eternal, is a becoming. In this sense, one is never complete because the source is eternal: one gains more and more each day. This removes any semblance of presumption because we are all a becoming in this Love. None of us is higher than the other. Look at the gravestones! Their lives have ended and yet after their final moments all the worldly distinctions their lives were dedicated to establishing fade away into eternity in an instant; all that is left to show of their time on earth is a stone with a name: just like their brothers. This is not meant to discourage, but to prove that worldly distinction is meaningless when compared with eternity; we have a task and our time is short to complete it. Yet, it is not a race but a becoming, don’t you see? It is not about who wins but about how you came to win at all. Love is how we accomplish the task and the task requires selflessness, so everything becomes about the other and helping one another along in their faith. You may be further along than your brother, your job is to help and love him so that he may receive the joy that you also have. Only remember that you only have that joy because of your relation to God, which is what this all turns on. Those without this relation are missing out on the most important thing of all – salvation in eternity. This is only accomplishable through love.

We are also dealing with a love that looks past the finite externalities of man and looks instead at the eternal within. See, Christianity is not concerned with the external, because the external is not your true self, it is the inner. In your inwardness is where Christianity rests. Our love for our neighbor should be a love that is unconditional and not determinant on what they do so much, because they are sinners, as we all are. It is our expectation of others that leads us to pass judgment and thus we create barriers for ourselves that prevent us from loving one another in truth. Our neighbor is human, as you also are, and therefore subject to be a disappointment to our expectations. But, is the failed expectation just the other not being who you would like them to be? What is it that disappoints you – is it not their relation to how they affect you? The barrier to you loving them in truth is you yourself in your self-love. No! Christianity demands selflessness and requires that you love your neighbor as yourself, without distinction, even in their sin and imperfection. The sin in others should not be a barrier for you, because to judge others because of their sin is to claim that you who judges is without sin; thus, you become a hypocrite. You have not right to judge another. We are all guilty before God and before all. Yes, we are guilty before one another as brothers, bearing each other’s burdens and helping one another along on their walk in faith. Dostoevsky speaks of this love: a love that loves all without distinction; a love that loves the sin in man, because that is ‘divine love’ and the ‘summit of all love on earth’. Is this not a beautiful representation of what it means to love one another? We are to cast off all prejudices and become guilty before all, no one greater than the other. Jesus says that we are to hater our mother and father, brother and sister, etc., and this represents our absolute duty to God. We are to love our neighbor without distinction, and yet we have barriers to this love as well. We construct hierarchies of love and we love each only according to their due. This is how we often love our neighbors. We love them according to how they affect us. But Christianity presents a challenge that offends reason as it demands that we love the unlovable. Loving those whom we have placed higher up on our hierarchies is no task. No! The task is to love those whom we rank low on our list or who do not rank at all. Jesus even says that we should love our enemies. Does this not offend your reason as it doesn’t make sense at all? But, ask yourself why it doesn’t make sense to you. Is it not because there is no advantage in loving the unlovable? With our highly ranked persons, we receive things and love from them in return, but with these others we do not receive anything; we are forced to love selflessly and this affronts our nature as we would rather not give our love to someone who may not even give it in return. Do not forget though that your love is not a love that will run out if you give it away to someone who doesn’t return it; your love is endless if it has its root in the eternal. To love and love without expectation of reward or reciprocation is the task.

Perhaps we should examine ourselves and our love for others as to whether we are loving one another in truth. I have the ability to say all this here to you, but to act it out in truth is an entirely different matter altogether. Christian Love has thus become something far more difficult than we think of it daily. This offense is necessary to our growth in faith, because the struggle is our becoming that is testament to our learning what it means to live the Christian life. What you are fighting is that wall we fought against earlier, only now we have a better understanding of what it is we are up against and we now have the eternal on our side. Without this inner struggle we would have no inner peace; if you are not struggling, then you are not growing.

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. –I John 3:18

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