Five Dumb Ideas: A Recollection

A secular New Year (and the last half of the Christmas season) brings back memories. Recollecting at fifty is good, though sometimes unpleasant, because I continue to believe dumb things. The only two goods that have ever come from my stupidity has been to share those follies with others and learn from them myself.

Instead of resolutions I am unlikely to keep, this year I hope to learn even more from my past failures. Some of my failures have been wrong actions, but some (not all!) of those wrong actions have been motivated by bad ideas.

Here are five lies I sometimes believe (sadly there are more).

I have a soul mate.

Misreading a great book takes a particular kind of literary perversity: getting the opposite lesson from one from that which the author intended is even more foolish. My oldest copy of Plato’s Symposium has a much highlighted, underlined, and coffee stained page where the “lovers” of the text demand of the god becoming “wholly one.”

If the goal of a bad teacher is to relate to the felt needs or desires of his students, then Aristophanes, the speaker at this part of the dialogue, saw into my needs and wants. Rare is the day when I cannot feel the tug of this desire.

Of course, Plato despises Aristophanes who helped kill Socrates through anti-philosophical propaganda so I should have worried about anything put in the mouth of Aristophanes in a Platonic dialogue. Aristophanes would have me spend my life “looking for my other half,” my soul mate.

This quest is a snare and a delusion, but a seductive one.

After all, it is better to live for “love” than stuff or cheap thrills, isn’t it? There is no amount of angst, folly, and vice this lie cannot justify.

Trust me.

I have discovered that “love” is often just the mask my selfishness puts over my failure to do my duty. Here is the truth: no human being is my other half. No human being can meet all my needs. No human being has the love I actually need.

Plato was right: only the Good is the proper object of my life. The New Testament improves the lesson: I can only behold this glory and truth in the person of Jesus.

Live for today!

Sophisticates say “Carpe Diem” which in Twitter comes out YOLO.

Of course, tomorrow has a habit of becoming today, imprudence now makes the new day worse, and yesterday’s immoderation scars our ability to enjoy the new day.

The truth buried here is that one must live today, but with the past and the future in mind. I only live once, but after that the judgment. God will judge and what happened in my moral Vegas will be proclaimed to the entire watching world.

But even forgetting final judgment (if one can), I should not live for today with no care for the past or the future. The bills, physical, moral, spiritual, and material, of today’s party will harm tomorrow.

My overeating (to give one example) last year has left me less healthy today than I could be. I can fix that problem partially, but I cannot undo all the damage. Why? Partly because past habits of overindulgence make my cure harder and partly because not all evils can be “undone” in this life.

Forgiveness is not the same as restoration. I can only live once, but I will also only be judged once by a Holy God.

Know myself! (Modern Sense)

The ancients told a man to know himself so that he would learn humility: we are small after all. Socrates thought that self-knowledge would teach humility and then lead out of self to the Divine.

Moderns think “knowing self” is knowing their own desires, wants, and needs. This philosophic naval gazing implodes a man on himself. He isn’t led out to community, but instead finds false communities of those who listen to his pain if he will listen to their pain.

Narcissus stared only at himself, but modern Narcissus wants everyone else to stare. In return for this service (since some return must be made with most friends), Narcissus will agree to admire his “friends” in turn.

I am not (of course) talking about psychological therapy with a trained therapist, but self-therapy. This bad idea will lead me to “friends” whose idea of fellowship is to talk about each member of the group in turn.

“How do you feel? How were you harmed by society/family/”the man”?” These questions are asked in sequence of each member of the group and each tells his “story.” The friendship consists of never judging, always affirming, and (mostly) offering the advice that the main problem of the “friend” is his or her failure to love himself/herself sufficiently.

Rejecting this is hard, since the pathway to humility can be confused with self-loathing. “I will hate myself” is not humility, but a focus on self all over again.

I must know myself, but the best way to know myself is to see self in the eyes of God and His Church.

I deserve happiness!

It is true that God created each of us for happiness, but “deserve” is an odd way of describing that relationship. A creation does not “deserve” to fulfill its end . . . it gets to do so.

Happiness is a slippery term: if by happiness we consider “full human flourishing,” then we have to grasp what it is to be human and to flourish. Too often, for me at least, this slogan has been an excuse for selfishness.

One way I have allowed selfishness in my life has been to paint a bleak alternative to submission to the will of God for me. To be meek and to be humble is not tolerate abuse or justify it.

Loving my enemies is not the same as celebrating or tolerating their crimes or vices, but if I pretend it is the same then I am given an excuse not to love my enemies. I am called to be humble, but not to seek out humiliation.

I don’t get to punish myself. I live for the Good, do my duty, and let God take care of the results. The obvious goodness of such a life is only hidden from me by my foolish belief that every hard trial is “bad.”

If I must be chaste, there must be something wrong. If I must fast, there must be something wrong. If I must endure, there must be something wrong.

Too rarely does it occur to me that the something wrong might be “me.”

But even that is not always true: sometimes hard times are hard because they are good for me.

All problems are intellectual problems!

Perhaps the greatest temptation for “smart” people is to intellectualize everything, but emotional problems or physical problems cannot all be “thought” away. I cannot wish away my biology or God. I cannot wish away my age, my mortality, or my desires.

There is naturally the opposite problem for more emotionally gifted folk: All problems are emotional problems!, but I am dealing with my vices not the tempations of other people.

God forgive me where I have sinned, God help me to move on and do Your will. This year, God helping me, I will recollect these five truths:

God is the end of all human desire and I should love Him with my whole heart, soul, and mind. Every lesser love finds meaning in Him.

I should live today with the past and the future before me.

God has happiness and I should seek God, through no deserving I can find Him in the person of Jesus Christ.

Others needs are as important as my own: God’s desires are paramount.

Intellectual problems deserve intellectual solutions, but “intellectualism” is no better than anti-intellectualism: both are lies.


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