Sean O’Conaill © Reality Apr 2010
What do the following have in common:
- the wealthy banker who takes out massive loans from his own bank in order to enrich himself still further – ruining both the bank and his own reputation;
- the global pop ‘icon’ who is so dissatisfied with his own appearance that he disfigures himself through repeated and unnecessary plastic surgery;
- the successful professional boxer who incriminates himself by involvement in drug trafficking;
- the brilliant politician who looks for huge handouts from wealthy business men so that he can afford the lifestyle of an 18th century landowning aristocrat;
- the farmer who ‘diversifies’ into risky property development – just in time to lose everything in the collapse of the property market;
- the civil servant who is so afraid to challenge an obviously unjust system of state ‘care’ for impoverished children that he helps to disgrace his country many years later when the horrific scale of the injustice is revealed;
- the gifted athlete who injects anabolic steroids to win Olympic gold;
- the brilliant scientist who fakes research results to make a bid for the Nobel prize;
- the government minister who uses his ministerial expense account to hire a limousine at absurd cost to take him from one airport terminal to another – and is later forced to resign over many other excesses of the same kind?
Long ago St Augustine put his finger on what is constant in our extraordinary human tendency to harm ourselves: our endless dissatisfaction. But what is the root of that dissatisfaction?
We are chronically unsure of our own value!
Almost from birth we humans confuse our needs with our desires – and our desires can become limitless and wholly destructive. This problem is chronic in the sense that we can never say we are wholly immune to it. The best we can ever say, in the contemporary idiom, is that we are ‘in recovery’.
Ireland is currently in recovery from the greatest period of self-indulgence and self-harm in its history – but anxious to believe every rumour of a resumption of economic growth and a return to the times of plenty .
Because we are chronically unsure of our own value as we are.
Brilliantly insightful into the historical problem of evil, St Augustine of Hippo explained this problem in terms of Original Sin – an inherited defect to do with an act of disobedience as soon as the first humans were created. Deeply troubled by his own youthful sexual excesses, Augustine seems to have believed that the first sin – the sin described in the Book of Genesis – was essentially a sexual sin and that all sin is transmitted through sex – and many Christians still focus on sexuality as the central human problem.
But Genesis does not say that, and can be interpreted in an entirely different way. What it tells us is that from the very beginning humans responded to a temptation to disobey God. The temptation was to believe that if they disobeyed they would become ‘as Gods’.
They could not have responded to that temptation unless they had a pre-existing problem – before they ever got around to sex.
They could only have wanted to be ‘as Gods’ if they were already chronically unsure of their own value as mere humans. They were already vulnerable to temptation. This is the root of the problem of being human.
The Problem of Consciousness
Every one of us is given early on the gift of consciousness, of growing awareness of the unpredictable context into which we are born. Immediately this gift poses a problem: we become aware of our own smallness in comparison to what surrounds and encloses us. Definitely not ‘masters of the universe’ we are faced with the inescapable fact of our own total powerlessness.
Soon enough we become aware also of larger, more powerful beings on whom we are wholly dependent. And soon enough after that we become aware that those beings are aware of us, and very capable of judging and punishing us. If we are fortunate we will experience their unconditional love, but the chances are that this love will be imperfect and conditional: we will be loved best if we ‘behave ourselves’.
There is now conclusive evidence that the more variable and unpredictable the love experienced by a child, the more likely that child will be to suffer extremely from the basic human problem.
Our problem of being chronically unsure of our own value.
Every adult has seen the following happen at some stage. A child is playing happily, not conscious of being observed. She seems entranced by a simple toy – maybe as simple as a cardboard box. She is singing to herself, and throws the box, to see it bounce and tumble.
Then she suddenly becomes aware of us observing her – and everything changes. Fascinated a moment ago by the box, she is now dominated by her awareness of being observed – and starts to show off. She has become self-conscious.
Everything changes when we become conscious of being observed by others. That fact becomes a dominant fact – the fact that we are ‘under observation’. And especially so at puberty, when ‘how we look’ becomes so important. If we are already unsure of our own value, and not reassured by the praise and admiration of others, our vulnerability grows further.
This unsureness can be vastly increased by the electronic window in the corner – the window into a vastly greater sea of observers, most of whom look very different to ourselves. The TV screen fixates on and tracks ‘personalities’ with gifts and ‘looks’ that are obviously much more fascinating than our own. Some are declared ‘icons’ – uniquely valuable beings. This window never seems to find us here in our own little corner – so we must be of little value.
No wonder that today so many of us have totally lost any sense of our own value – to the extent of becoming easily capable of extreme self-harm through addiction, self-isolation, depression, unnecessary plastic surgery, crime -even suicide. The planet itself is threatened by insatiable human desire.
Because we cannot live happily if we are convinced we are of no value.
If we are fortunate we will know at least one person who is sensitive and attentive to us as a person – and constantly caring. The unselfish love of a parent or aunt or friend or spouse can make a huge difference to our self-esteem. It can help us grow into persons who are less unsure of their own value – and even capable of showing the same loving attention to others. This seems to prove the truth of a saying often repeated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “A person becomes a person through other persons.”
However, there does seem to be always a deficit of love in the world, and a continuing problem of people seeking a sense of their own value, self-harming if they cannot find it, and harming also those who need their attentive love.
We would definitely mostly be lost if there were no power outside ourselves seeking to make up that deficit, no transcendant source of unconditional love that intervenes in human history to convince us of our value, whatever deficit of love we have ourselves experienced.
That source of boundless compassion springs from an understanding of why we are the way we are – the creator’s understanding of the problem of the conscious creature. So that source is infinitely forgiving of our tendency to harm ourselves. It is a mistake to believe that the God-given rules we so often break were intended to trip us up and send us to Hell. They are there to keep us safe.
We are already half way to Hell if we mistakenly suppose ourselves to be unloved and unlovable. And half way to Heaven when we realise our mistake.