As a freshman at BYU, I took a terrific course clunkily titled Honors Intensive Writing. One of the course's principal virtues was my instructor Keith Lane, a kind teacher and scholar, who has since become a friend and virtual colleague. Another was the thick course packet, a well-considered collection of essays and excerpts selected to stimulate emerging critical skills: King Lear, The Grand Inquisitor, Letter from Birmingham Jail, and similar. Among these was nestled a short personal rumination titled "The Miracle of Faith, The Miracle of Love: Some Personal Reflections." The piece was written by Bruce Young, a professor of English at BYU whom I didn't know at the time but who would later become my teacher, then my teaching mentor, and, finally, another valued friend and virtual colleague.
The essay is a perceptive personal account of the blossoming of the author's capacity to accept love and exercise faith, capacities which Bruce sees as emotional and spiritual twins. As an 18-year-old freshman, never having fallen in love or fallen out of faith, I wasn't fully able to appreciate the sensitivity of Bruce's insights. But I remembered the essay with enough interest to revisit it from time to time over the next twenty years. Each time I return to it, the essay amply rewards the reading as my intervening experience—with love, faith, doubt, and everything in between—further deepens my frame of reference.
The structuring observation of the essay is that a buried emotional refusal is often at the heart of our difficulties in forming and maintaining loving relationships, either the relationship with a spouse we call "marriage" or the relationship with God we call "faith."
My thesis is that most people are putting up . . . resistance to their own happiness, to the possible transformation of their lives, and to their perception of the realities on which the gospel is based. And like me, most have somehow kept themselves from seeing that they are putting up this resistance. They honestly believe they would accept happiness and personal change and evidence for the existence and power of God if it were offered. And so they take the absence of these things from their lives as an indication that such things probably do not exist and that hope and faith directed toward them are futile and illusory.
This strikes me as trenchant and true, because I feel myself convicted by the force of its reality. In both my own occasional interpersonal conflicts and my frequent failures of faith, my default emotional script is a prophylactic acknowledgment of my own frailty, as if such an acknowledgment were absolution in itself, followed by the satisfaction that I am no longer responsible for the problem. It doesn't feel like I'm holding onto the grudge, or feeding the doubt; it feels like I've virtuously done my part and can only wait, resigned and patient, for the other party to reach out and do his.
Yet it is precisely this self-flattering virtuousness—especially when that virtue consists in readily acknowledging my own weakness—that prevents me from recognizing my ongoing complicity. Bruce describes the spiritual process of breaking down this self-protective illusion as a kind of "yielding,"
[A] painful, long-term process requiring us to take responsibility for the confusion, fears, and resentment we feel, realizing they are largely of our own making, and give them up—a hard thing for all of us who want to cling to everything we have created.
These ego-protecting self-concepts are especially insidious for those of us who nurse my particular form of self-doubt, the kind that readily 'fesses up to our failings yet sees our own clear-eyed (so we judge) self-assessment as a kind of merit in itself, proof that we are somehow superior in our self-reproach to those who lack the extra layer of self-consciousness. Bruce describes his escape from this reflexive ouroboros of self-delighted self-hatred:
I let go, for a while, of my great burden of preconceptions, judgments, anticipations, and concerns, and became—in at least one respect—as a little child . . . Our entrenched notions about how things are and how they must be, set up barriers between us and the world outside ourselves.These barriers keep us from seeing and experiencing the world as it is. They keep us from experiencing the greatest of realities—other persons, including the mortals around us and others we do not (in the usual order of things) see with our physical eyes.
As Bruce crystallizes here, a calcified self-concept not only conceals our own complicity in our troubled relationships, it also distorts our perceptions of the beings and structures that surround us. We view the world through a screen of expectations that flatter the ego (even if that flattery takes the form of comfortably confirming our self-reproach) and flatten the real nature of the world as it offers itself to us.