The truth about ourselves can be difficult to handle. We are reluctant to spend time alone in silence with ourselves and often go to great lengths to avoid it. We become busy—sometimes wasting time, other times with worthwhile activities—and we avoid allowing ourselves to come to rest. Unfortunately, we are not alone in this great work of distracting ourselves. Society as a whole and entire industries frequently give us a constant cascade of distraction, on which we can become dependent.
The internet has provided access to an endless supply of content. Schools, employers, and even coaches giving team talks in NFL locker rooms must work hard to keep the attention of the perpetually distracted.
Young people suffer especially from nomophobia, the fear of being out of cell phone contact. Chevrolet knows that adults share this fear and promises that with its new Cruze 4G LTE WiFi you will always be “connected.”
Amazon Fire-TV understands our fear of falling into a #showhole—that painful moment when the show ends and we must return to reality—and promises to rescue us with its “vast library of best shows ever.” Finally, the show will never end.
In his 1932 novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley prophesied a world where God, religion, love, and the meaning of life were replaced by production and consumption. (Pope Francis, quoting St. John Paul II, describes today’s world this way in Evangelii Gaudium, 196.) To fill the empty void left in their souls the people in Brave New World engaged in ritualized orgies and went on drug-induced “vacations” thanks to the miracle drug Soma, which offered its users an escape from the stress of life “without side effects.”
It seems that in addition to the hookup culture we have now developed our own version of Soma: a digital drug, which offers us an apparently harmless escape to a virtual reality. The information age has conveniently supplied us an overwhelming amount of information, while shielding us from an encounter with ultimate truth. However, this is merely the latest strategy in dealing with a problem that has challenged man since ancient times—facing ourselves.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus describes two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector, going up to the temple to pray. Prayer is a time when we step away from distractions and speak with God and in this context, standing before the Lord, we can be most honest with ourselves. The Pharisee, however, does not speak to God, but prays “with himself.” He justifies himself by comparing himself with others.
When we start to look honestly at ourselves we can find things that are not so pleasant. Like the Pharisee, we are tempted to justify ourselves. We are afraid to admit our faults. Why is this? We are afraid to admit our faults because often in our experience “bad people” with “real faults” are unpleasant, they hurt other people, they are often considered unlovable, and in justice they deserve to be punished. We do not want to be one of “those people” and so when we find evidence that points to just such a conclusion, we are tempted to ignore that evidence (which makes distraction so attractive) or to provide counter-evidence by rationalizing our actions or comparing ourselves with others. The task of perpetual self-distraction or engaging in an internal propaganda war to justify our actions is exhausting and does nothing to improve our situation. We end up constantly running away from ourselves, which is hard to do. This is the miserable self-alienation of sin.
What is the solution? The tax collector begins his prayer with God. “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
We cannot handle self-knowledge without the greater knowledge of God’s love and mercy. It can be hard to admit our faults, to ask for forgiveness, and to endeavor to change. We fear our imperfection. But the truth of God’s goodness and love frees us to admit our weakness and sinfulness, to trust in God’s forgiveness, and to hope that with his grace we can be healed and grow in holiness. In the light of God’s love and mercy we see ourselves as God sees us. We are sinners who are loved by God, weak persons who are helped by the Almighty, mortal men who are created to participate for all eternity in the divine life of God himself. Jesus Christ reveals that in God’s eyes, even the worst of us are literally worth dying for. In the light of God’s love we discover that honestly admitting our faults and receiving his mercy and forgiveness are far better than trying to justify ourselves by hiding in the darkness of self-deception.
After receiving God’s love we no longer feel the need to focus on the faults of others or to rationalize our actions to justify ourselves. We are freed to love others and begin to show them the mercy that we have received. This is far superior to merely tolerating others. To rationalize, minimize, or ignore other people’s faults is no more helpful to them than denying the reality of our own faults is to us. But, knowing ourselves how intimidating it can be to face one’s faults, we can start by sharing the truth of God’s love and mercy.
As we prepare to enter the Jubilee Year of Mercy, may we accept Pope Francis’ invitation to be Missionaries of Mercy who accept the truth of God’s love ourselves and go forth to share this merciful truth with the world.
Image: Murillo, The Return of the Prodigal Son
Br. John Paul Kern grew up in Annapolis, MD where his father taught at the United States Naval Academy. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Science in Nuclear Engineering from Penn State University, where he entered the Catholic Church through the campus ministry's RCIA program in 2006. Before entering the Order of Preachers, Br. John Paul worked as a reactor inspector for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and attended Mother of Divine Providence in King of Prussia, PA. On DominicanFriars.org