A Community Examination of Conscience

Lent is a time for examination of conscience, and perhaps it’s one for a society. I’m not talking about either an exercise in beating people up who don’t agree with me, or an infinitely expanding group hug. The root of the word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth, dirt. Being humble means being down to earth with yourself: seeing all the flaws you need to work on and all the gifts you have that are useful. So here’s an exercise in humility as a group, as a country, as a Church; something to reflect on together and individually:

-We as Americans have a great heart. There is no other people I know of in the world ready to help a victim of a disaster anywhere rebuild without promoting an agenda. We are willing to accept the value of almost any individual person if they show us a good heart, even if we’re not willing to accept their background, orientation or other problem their group of origin or association may have. When one of us goes down, we tend to flock to their support, especially if they’re serving our country or an innocent victim of a crime or catastrophe, and if we can’t do anything tangible, we give them our moral support.

-We tend to pursue happiness blindly. The greatest confusions are: equating feeling good (a surface emotion) with joy (a prevailing attitude), acquiring power and material things with success, and equating wants with needs. The first one means we self indulge without thinking about or avoiding the consequences, and are disappointed when the rush of the experience wears off. The second means we keep trying to climb ladders of authority, sometimes in spite of our abilities, and increasing our power by buying a new tool or toy we think will make us better or happier. The third means we equate food, shelter, and essential health with recreational pursuits and hobbies, and spend our money without discriminating what should come first.

Happiness is something we discover when we have our souls in order and are living a good life based on good values. It’s the kind of thing we usually catch out of the corner of our eye, and it’s probably better done that way. Trying to wallow in happiness is a special kind of blindness. It’s all right that Love is blind, but it shouldn’t be stupid.

-We have a love/hate relationship with knowledge. We want it and value it, use it to succeed in our endeavors, but we distrust it coming from someone else  unless we know and trust them. Seeing wisdom in people we don’t like or disagree with is a great challenge we should embrace better. We also equate technical knowledge with wisdom, and fail to distinguish one from the other. The greatest problem is probably we don’t learn how to use and evaluate knowledge. There’s no way for one person to know all the details of a situation from their learning and experience, but managing the vast amounts of knowledge and experience out there is something we can learn.

As the Good Book says: “For everything there is a season.” There are times to poll the audience and times to call an expert; there are times to act on impulse and times to think before doing, even think a lot before doing. Our education never seems to address how to pick those times. We also need to learn how to rate the advice we get, find out whether we’re getting a biased viewpoint or whether it’s objective enough to transcend bias.

-We should rate the experience of others higher. Learning from our own mistakes is great, learning from others’ mistakes and successes is better, especially the former. Slavish imitation is a path of learning, not a goal: it may be the most sincere flattery, but it also leads to a lot of half baked ideas and efforts that go nowhere. When Hollywood has one successful movie, there’s always a dozen bad to mediocre ones that follow quickly.  Trying to replicate success can take almost as much research and reflection as learning from a mistake.

-We have high standards. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t complain about how bad things are. Nothing wrong with having high standards, provided they don’t become an obsession. Knowing when to stick by them and when they’re not that important is a good thing to learn, and something we should work on.

-We should be quicker to recognized rigged games when we see them. The story of Susanna from the book of Daniel (Chapter 13, which is in the Apocrypha for my Protestant friends) is a great illustration of the abuse of power: the elders, who are part of the ruling elite of the villiage, figure they have leverage to get Susanna to do what they want. Susanna’s only crimes are she’s beautiful and in a place the elders can catch her alone. When she refuses to something most ordinary women wouldn’t do today, they rig a rushed trial to convict her and incite their neighbors to mob violence in order to stone her quickly. It’s only when Daniel settles everyone down and points out the deception with an elementary technique that justice is done.

We’re fair people, tend to assume we deal with people fairly, and tend to assume people like us deal with other people fairly. That’s very, very good, but it’s not something we can always assume, even with people we trust, even with ourselves. I win all the time at a favorite computer game of mine because I know how to cheat, and justify it because I’m not playing a real person. There are rigged games all around us, spun by liberals and conservatives alike, theists and atheists alike, young and old alike, rich and poor alike. If we’re going to be a people of Justice, we need to expose and bear witness to these rigged games, and admit to them when we catch ourselves doing it (because we tend to deceive ourselves when we do it, or turn a blind eye to our own cheating).

This is a starting place: God isn’t finished with any of us yet. We don’t have to worry about finishing the job, because it’ll never be finished, there will always be something to do or say. There is a danger in getting sidetracked, and the greatest diversion to our best interests is ourselves. Pope John Paul II said we should put out to deeper water, and the greatest challenge we always have is to look beneath the surface of our desires, our feelings, our lives and our attitudes. It’s only when we can get deep that things come into focus, and we can make some real progress to becoming who God means us to be.

Please don’t think I’m perfect or think I’m better than anyone else. I know where I stand in relation to what I preach. As Gandhi once said:

“I have only three enemies. My favorite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian people, is far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. With him I seem to have very little influence.”

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