The following arises from experiences in Rehabilitation counseling. The perennial problem is, how to address compassion to people who are so possessed by the pieties of mass culture that they scarcely have selves at all to which we could address any message. A Christian knows such people are not different from himself, but some are more transparent than others as we address the question: What is the meaning of being God’s people, and nothing unless his?
Putting on faces
We live and move and have our being in God. We don’t know God as a datum, God is not what we think, not a thing to have opinions about. Rather, God is where we are and whose we are. Whatever we know and whatever we do, we do in him.
Something there is about us which dislikes this truth. We go to absurd lengths to deny it, or disguise ourselves in a distracting exterior. There is an aquatic insect which covers its sticky body with streambed debris, a low-rent version of the hermit crab. This, not the charming chimpanzee, is our spiritual ancestor.
People who are relatively well off are in special danger. We easily believe that we are in charge of ourselves. Our covering is not trashy, but beautiful. We make a show, and our show works. As the poet says, we prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet. We assert ourselves; we make believe we create ourselves; we say, ‘My life is my art.’ We are proud of our spirituality and other attainments; we even see them as virtuous strivings in God’s direction—as though we were not already in God from the start. Our faces—our denials—relieve us of our debt to him.
In this as in most other things, poor people don’t have it so good. Unpolished, with few resources for artifice; less self-possessed, susceptible to mass suggestion, their masks are more obvious, coarser, easier to see through. This might make it easier to learn from them. Badly protected egos, out of touch with their real ground, make a pathetic spectacle.
1. successful con
A man finds a handful of junk car parts in a dumpster. He puts them in a sack with a business form made out to look like a bill. He takes them to a gas station just after the boss leaves, and foists them on the cashier with a story: the boss ordered them, needs them first thing tomorrow morning, and cash payment is required. The cashier pays him, and he goes away laughing. He put one over that poor schmuck. His ability to do so is his distinction, the thing that separates him from the common run.
2. superior intelligence
A woman tells her story to a vocational counselor. The apogee of her career was a brief period, managing a bar with her boyfriend in Germany. Probably the managing consisted of little more than being alone with the business while he was out. She never learned any German; the bar would have been the same near any American military base in the world. The boyfriend dumped her long ago. Now she is depressed. Her psychiatrist tells her she is highly intelligent; the cause of her interpersonal failures is that others don’t know how to cope with her superiority. In the Rehab office this entitles her to be blustery, angry, weeping, laughing, cajoling, and disdainful by turns. The counselor retreats into a stilted courtesy, which to her only confirms the doctor’s assessment.
3. sensational diagnosis
Another woman comes with the chichi diagnosis, dissociative personality disorder. She is a victim of satanic abuse. We are supposed to think of the sensational Charles Manson. This diagnosis used to be considered rare; its cachet is based on that fact, and on a best-selling book, Sybil, now discredited. However that may be, she enjoys her superiority over the general run of depressives and substance abusers we see. That entitles her to lash out, whenever we remind her of some villain in her past—which past? some newly imagined past? no matter. She keeps people around her off balance, and maintains the upper hand in every exchange.
4. sick ritual
Another woman comes with the same diagnosis—for a while it became a commonplace. She has a prop with her: an elaborate pill box with doors in a grid by days and hours, a bizarre travesty of an Advent calendar. She interrupts the interview to perform her pill-taking ritual whenever any coherent structure or expectation of commitment emerges from the conversation. Thus she keeps sanity at bay. We, like the monk repeatedly rescuing the scorpion which stings him, take the straight part, and remain utterly frustrated.
5. fake innocence
One of my colleagues’ name makes a pun on ‘bear’. But for a few spaces, her office wall is covered in teddy bears. The two other objects are her diploma from state university, and a dime store poem on the supposed etymology of her name, and a personality profile. According to this, she is sensitive but realistic; she can speak authoritatively to others because they know she is so kind inside; she loves nature, children, etc. It is pathetically clear that this woman needs these aids to remember who she is. She is grasping at straws—a teddy bear is a sack of them.
6. transcendentalist poseur
A man goes out in the morning to a public park near my office. There, in sight of the main street of our town, he does his Tai Chi exercises, slow, balletic movement, with bare torso. He could have done it indoors, but that way the neighbors would not see his physique or his stylish dog. To a certain eye he only looks silly, but he must have some eye upon him, lest he feel his nullity more clearly than he can stand.
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These people are white-knuckle cases. They have turned away from who they really are, Christ’s own, and built replacement identities out of the cultural flotsam all around us. They find it more attractive than anything of their own. Of course such a project is doomed to failure. The brittleness and shallowness of their results ought to prove this, but they can’t admit it. They are stuck. Repentance, return to the true ground of being, would mean death to the selves they have constructed and now believe in. Their falsehood is its own punishment.
We better off people distract ourselves too. If anything, our incentives and resources for doing so are greater. We have a rich store of symbols to impress new acquaintances: our jobs, our addresses, our cars, our favorite travel destinations, restaurants, books, football teams, rock bands. When these things seem too trivial, we get serious—and we are very serious indeed—about race, ethnicity and gender. We think of all our identifiers great and small as positive virtues. Who introduces himself as ‘your brother in Christ’? It’s a mad suggestion; better be the trickster, the convivial drunk, the class clown, the environmentalist, the bon vivant, the humanitarian—anything but acknowledge that God has made us and we are his.
Part of us knows this: that we are free creatures among others, without a shell or a label, and the knowledge makes us queasy. It means freedom, in a sense which is not reassuring. Christians have been warned that faith will mean the loss of friends and family, alienation from typical associations. The freedom of a Christian feels dangerously like anonymity, a kind of death. Integration with one’s surroundings, even if it is stultifying, is preferable. So the restless soul makes a bargain with the devil. He agrees to retire, to feign death, in exchange for relief. In the place of a protean being nakedly confronting the indeterminate future, he gets a recognizable, attractive, static identity.
Unfortunately, churches contribute to this process. They have their ideologies which take precedence over theology. That ideology usually consists of a political morality, whether it be liberal or conservative. Whichever it is, it is based on the notion that Church and culture are or ought to be virtually synonymous. Church is meant to be the moral core of culture. The idea of God over against culture, or of judgment in any shape, is anathema.
To be a member, to enjoy affinity within a Church, one subscribes to its ideology, which exacts due regard for labels. The liberal set is largely made up of the names of “marginalized” groups. The conservative set is made up of “family values.” Thus we make ourselves good before him who said there is no person good, except his Father in heaven. And thus the Church makes itself one identity among many: an elective affiliation, a demographic fact like any other. It behaves like other philanthropic corporations, it markets itself, supporting rather than challenging the thinking which is killing us.