What does our fantasy life say about us? Do thoughts determine our character, or is it only actions that count? The question has been asked and answered in various ways. Movies like Minority Report have played on the intuitive notion that punishing someone for a crime they have not yet committed is unjust. Or consider a 1961 episode of the Twilight Zone, “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” in which a bank clerk gains the ability to read thoughts. He “hears” an old trusted employee, Mr. Smithers, plotting in his head to rob the bank. Mr. Smithers does not actually rob the bank, because he is too afraid, but the aged employee does, however, admit that he thinks about doing it everyday.
So, how far removed are our thoughts from our actions?
Dr. Cindy LaCom, the director of Women’s studies at Slippery Rock University, worries about the effect pornography is having on men. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, LaCom writes about the recent incident in Cleveland where three women were held captive for 10 years:
We live in a world where the “Fifty Shades” trilogy (which has sold over 70 million copies) presents male domination over women as “erotic,” where the porn industry generates more annual profit than the National Football League, where 30 percent of Web traffic is porn. I am surprised at the lack of national dialogue about the pornification of our culture.
But sadly, in a world that endlessly replicates and sexualizes male domination of women, I am not surprised that this “fantasy” narrative has been literalized. Though there are doubtless myriad factors that contributed to this nightmare crime, I hope that one positive outcome is broader critical analyses of how pornography normalizes the domination and degradation of women in pervasive and damaging ways.
Dr. LaCom thinks that fantasizing about dominating women leads some people to actual carry out that fantasy. Obviously, the case in Cleveland is an extreme example. Many people have awful fantasies they never plan on actually fulfilling, like Mr. Smithers at the bank. But what we imagine does change how we act, and it says something about us if our fantasies are pure.
Pornography is a particularly strong example, because not only is it sinful in itself, but it inclines us toward sin. Even if it does not encourage the sort of violence that Dr. LaCom is concerned with, the lust which it fosters harms our perception of reality. It focuses us downward and makes people objects. In lust we forget God and shift our attention to the pleasures of the body. As St. Augustine says of his father in the Confessions II.3.6:
His glee sprang from that intoxication which has blotted you, our creator, out of this world’s memory and led it to love the creature instead, as it drinks the unseen wine of its perverse inclination and is dragged down to the depths.
The images we take in, particularly those that we associate with pleasure, remain with us. Augustine wrote his Confessions more than ten years after his radical conversion and baptism, but in Book X, he laments the effect his previous life of sexual sin has had on his memory. In his dreams he is reminded of his misspent youth, and is forced to re-confront his temptations.
Lust is called a capital vice, because it is born of a desire that points to a very powerful pleasure. So strong can this desire become, that we are led away from our true end: happiness with God.
In charity, the chief among the virtues, we love God above all things. But to love God, we must call him to mind. If our fantasies take us away from God, if they fix our desire elsewhere, they cost us the one most precious thing.
Christ warns us in Matthew 15 that it is deep within ourselves that our sins find their root.
It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.
. . .
The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile. (11, 18-20)
But lest we fear that we have turned our minds over to evil, that we have absorbed too much of the filth of our culture, God’s mercy is powerful. What we cannot do on our own, God can do in us. As Augustine prays, “On your exceedingly great mercy rests all my hope. Give what you command, and then command whatever you will.” He continues,“Yes, Lord, you will heap gift after gift upon me, that my soul may shake itself free from the sticky morass of concupiscence and follow me to you.” (Confessions X 29.40; 30.42)
A clean mind dedicated to the Lord should be our goal, even if like Mr. Smithers we don’t plan to ever fulfill our fantasies. With God this purity is possible.
Image: David Teniers the Younger, The Temptation of Saint Anthony