Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Getting Even

I have been dedicating Wednesdays on the blog to going through the chapters of my new book Idol Thoughts, my presentation of the ancient doctrine of the 'eight thoughts', in later tradition become the seven capital sins, and how to overcome them with the help of lectio divina, the prayerful disciplined reading of Sacred Scripture.

It is not my intention in these blog posts to give the whole content of the chapter--that would be, well, unproductive in terms of getting people to buy the book. Rather, I'm just giving an overview and perhaps a thought or two that didn't make it into the book itself. 

We are now on thought number four. The first three thoughts were all matters of simple desire, gone awry in our fallen natures. Gluttony for food, lust for sex, avarice for security through wealth--all of these are matters of wanting what we want, and the sad fact that we don't always want exactly what is good for us or what will truly make us happy.

The next three thoughts are all concerned with what happens to us when we don't get what we want. Where do our thoughts go, when the original simple thoughts of desire and possession are thwarted? The first place our thoughts go in these moments is towards the thought of anger. 

This is not the raw emotion of anger. Emotions come and go in us and in themselves have little moral significance. But the thought of anger is the thought, confronted with something that is wrong in our lives or in the world, that happiness lies in getting even. Revenge, payback, doing unto others what the others just done did to you, and then some--this is the project of the angry mind. The absolute conviction of the one who has bought into that thought is that 'I cannot be happy, cannot find peace, until I have paid back mine enemies with a mighty smiting.'

This thought does not always come with temptations to physical violence attached to it. There are all sorts of ways we seek payback. There is the whole dreary project of score keeping, the careful tallying up of exactly what everyone is or is not doing, so as to make sure that perfect justice is always being observed in all fields of life.

There is the passive aggressive project - moods, silent treatments, making darn sure the person knows you are displeased with them, not that you intend to tell them why or what they should do about it. They should know! There is verbal abuse, nagging, pick-pick-picking at people until in desperation they just give in and do whatever it is you want. And just plain coldness, withdrawal, the deliberate intention to hurt someone who hurt us, even if it is just by the frigid refusal of any basic warmth or humanity. And oh... a whole host of other angry, vengeful ways--we're not, most of us, the Count of Monte Cristo hatching elaborate schemes to ruin the lives of our enemies, in other words.

Anger is a deep thing in the world today. Be it the truly monstrous evil being done by actors like ISIS and Boko Haram, or the increasingly vicious political climate in our own countries, there is a spirit of anger in the world and every one of us has to address it, first in our own hearts, lest we succumb to its allure. And it does have an allure. Anger comes from something in us that is so deep and true that it has great power in us.

Namely, anger comes from our innate sense of justice, which in turn comes from our being made in the image of God the All Just One. It is indeed a matter of 'getting even', of restoring balance and order to an off-kilter, unjust world. The lie of anger, however, is that we attain justice through violence, through exerting our will on others to deal out reward and punishment as we see fit.

It doesn't work. Never has, never will, not on the personal level nor on the societal or international level, either. The revenge motive, coming so deeply out of this sense of justice in us, has done nothing in human history but beget more evil, more unbalance, more violence, more wrongs that in turn need to be avenged in an endless cycle that leads to mass graves and killing fields.

It is a hard lesson that may take many years for us to learn, but the only way our lives can be a force of healing, restoration, and justice in the world is the path of suffering love, of sacrificial generosity, of forgiveness and mercy. In particular, to be vigilant in our mercy and love for our 'enemies', whoever they may be, and for our neighbour--that is, the small group of human beings who are in our immediate proximity.

It is this and this alone that brings order into the world, this and this alone that 'evens up' an uneven world. And it starts at the level of the individual, of you and me and the choices we are going to make today, in the face of whatever injustice or frustrations we encounter today. Vengeance or love -- what will it be?

And you can read the rest of my thoughts, and the path of the Gospel laid out for us in these matters, in my book, if you would like to buy it! Have a great day, and remember - don't get mad, get even!

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