I ended my recent essay, Revisiting Ancient Wisdom, by recalling Confucius’ view that getting beyond self-adulation improves ourselves, our communities, “and ultimately the world.” This essay expands on that idea.
The Anglican lay theologian C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) wrote many insightful books on Christianity, the most unusual of which was no doubt “The Screwtape Letters,” in which an experienced demon guides his young disciple in corrupting a human being and thereby alienating him from God. One bit of the older demon’s advice was this: “Give [the human] a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation,’” and therefore worthy of belief. He then closes the lesson with a sentence that underlines the demonic mission—“Do remember that you are there to [be]fuddle him.”
That clever demonic advice reflects the truth that the more we humans think we know, the less willing we are able to learn and the more vulnerable we are to manipulation. A related truth is that the more inflated our self-image, the more difficult it is to see our faults and correct them. Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector illuminates this truth:
The Pharisee stood at the front of the temple and said to God, “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, crooked men, adulterers,” while the tax collector stood in the rear with his head bowed and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus contrasted the two behaviors this way: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”” (Luke 8: 9-14)
Traditionally, Catholics have been taught to mirror the tax collector’s attitude in confession by beginning with the words “Bless me father, for I have sinned” and then proceeding to acknowledge their sins and asking forgiveness. The phrasing may seem unnecessarily formulaic, but it serves a crucial purpose. Left to their own inclinations, most people have difficulty being penitent. In other words, they are more comfortable saying, “Pity me father for others have sinned against me.” There is no humility there, so no acknowledgement of guilt, no sorrow, no purpose of amendment and thus no spiritual cleansing and no impetus to self-improvement. Not surprisingly, rather than producing tears or remorse for having offended God, that attitude provokes resentment and anger at their purported offenders.
Jesus warned against that attitude. When Peter asked whether we should forgive those who offend us seventy times, Jesus answered “not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22) In other words, we should forgive so many times that we lose count.
The message of modern culture is very different. It approves not only holding grudges against those who actually offend us, but going further and attacking those who merely disagree with us by ridiculing them, calling them derogatory names, making fun of their appearance, mocking their manner of speaking, and accusing them of being dishonest, mentally deficient, or evil. And those responses, in turn, make it exceedingly difficult to be humble and forgive others, and virtually impossible to feel remorse and apologize for our faults.
Everyone agrees that we need to restore social harmony, and many would agree with Confucius that getting beyond self-adulation is an important step to doing so. The question is how to get beyond that adulation and give others the respect we expect to receive from them. The following ideas may help to address that question:
Self-adulation, like its near-synonym self-esteem, is an extreme perspective that is unnecessary for mental health and an obstacle to self-improvement. We should, of course, value ourselves—that is, recognize that we have aptitudes and potential talents and skills, some of which we may not yet recognize, as well as the ability to develop them further. We should also recognize that, like other human beings, we are imperfect and our efforts to realize our potentialities will sometimes fail and other times succeed, and we will therefore be encouraged one day and discouraged the next, proud of ourselves on one occasion and ashamed on another. Most important, we should understand that every success and every failure contains a lesson that, if we learn from it, can contribute to our progress.
We are not limited to learning from our own experiences. We can learn, as well, from other people. This can be accomplished by observing those around us, as well as people we encounter through reading or in the various media. This means noting their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, vices and virtues, and realizing that despite our differences from them, we all share the same, imperfect human nature and the same striving to make the most of our lives. This realization can create a bond of solidarity and mutual respect that can overcome differences of ethnicity, religion, political philosophy, and opinion.
Here are some brief insights others have gained from observing those around them and reflecting on their own experiences:
“Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.” –Desmond Tutu
“Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.” –Theodore Roosevelt
“Kind words are short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” –Mother Teresa
“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, [putting] others over self.” –Dean Jackson
“Kindness is a language which the deaf can even hear and the blind can see.” –Mark Twain
“Never leave a good act undone just because it’s small.” –Liu Bei
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou
“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another says.”–Bryant McGill
“Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners.” –Laurence Sterne
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” –Dalai Lama
“You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” –Albert Einstein
“Treat every visit with those close to you as if it were the last time you will ever see them. Treat all others with equal kindness.” –Anonymous
Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved