10 September 2009

Remove the Beam from Your Own Eye: On Passions and Projection!

I saw a TV program a couple of years ago where a brilliant eye surgeon became schizophrenic soon after finishing his residency and establishing initially himself. His symptoms included visual hallucinations and an extensive delusional system so, delusional and in denial about his own illness, he attributed his symptoms to a mysterious eye problem which he decided to research and work out a treatment for. Most of the research involved taking poor and disabled persons in halfway houses and convincing their caregivers that they required SIGNIFICANT eye treatment including multiple laser and other surgeries. He sincerely believed that this work was helping people and that it would save his own life and career (this was all part of his illness afterall), but what he did was both criminal and destructive. Minor all-too-usual untreated eye-problems in the poor were magnified in the doctor's mind and became the justification for sadistic and careless experiments which always did more harm than good and were often irreversible. In a way it illustrates what happens to all of us in smaller and less floridly psychotic ways with regard to our own faults and the faults of others, and especially it reminds me of tomorrow's parable from Luke.

Jesus reminds us that a blind person who tries to lead others will lead everyone into the pit. He notes that an untrained person is apt to harm someone and needs to get proper training before trying to act as a teacher. And he reminds us via this parable that we ourselves are often afflicted with a beam in our own eye but that we are equally often one who blindly criticizes and offers to extract a splinter from another's eye. We hear one of Jesus' most damning judgments as he says: "You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your own eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from in your brother's eye!"

Jesus clearly understands several things: First, humility is the opposite of hypocrisy rather than of pride, just as Matthew told us a few months ago. Secondly, he knew that the way our attention is avidly drawn to the splinter in another's eye SHOULD lead us to suspect the beam in our own. And thirdly, I think Jesus understood very well what became the monastic teaching on the passions: namely, that passions are those habitual ways of seeing and behaving, those characteristic attitudes of the false self that serve as lenses which distort our own vision and prevent us from seeing rightly with the heart.

We use the term passion today very differently than 3rd and 4th Century monastics, and very differently from the use of the term in monastic literature generally. For us passions are strong emotions or desires: we say John has a passion for social justice, Ted has a passion for health care reform, Mary is passionately in love with her husband, Nadja has a passion for playing the violin like no one you have ever seen, etc! But monastics use the term in a different sense. Passions in this literature are invariably negative and need not involve strong emotion. In fact they may prevent us from feeling emotions which are really one way of perceiving and appreciating the world around us.

The passions are obstacles to humility, that is, they are barriers to recognizing and celebrating that loving truthfulness about who we are in regard to God and others. They are most often the beams in our own eyes and hearts which cause us to overreact to the splinters in our brother's or sister's eyes. They are the symptoms of woundedness and disease in our own hearts which cause us to project onto others and fail to love them as we ought and as they deserve. As Roberta Bondi reminds us, "a passion has as its chief characteristics perversion of vision and the destruction of love." (To Love as God Loves) Common passions we are all too familiar with include perfectionism, a kind of habitual irritation with someone, anger, envy, depression, apathy or sloth, gluttony (which often has more to do, Bondi points out, with requiring novelty than it does with eating), irritable or anxious restlessness, impatience, selfishness, etc. In each, if we consider their effects, we will notice these habitual ways of relating to ourselves and our world cause us to see reality in a distorted way (this is one of the reasons we think of seeing reality through the green haze of envy, or the red film of anger, or the icy wall of depression, and so forth). Further, they thus get in the way of being open to or nurturing the truth of others --- that is, they are obstacles to love.

Similarly they are destructive of sight and love because they cause us to project onto others our own failings and woundedness. Recently I had the experience that what I wrote on a listserve was misinterpreted negatively. Even the way I punctuated posts was taken to mean something completely negative as was my writing nothing at all! (For instance, because I rarely mentioned God in my posts on eremitical life, I was considered to have no genuine spiritual life or be inadequately centered on God. When I noted that my writing (or anyone else's) should be read without attributions of negative motives and attitudes, something I considered possible because I had not written them with those motives or attitudes, I was instructed that my conscious motives were one thing, subconscious ones were another --- as though the reader could claim to know these better than I did myself! Projection. It is a serious disease Jesus apparently understood well, a result of our own brokenness and sinfulness, and it assures not only that the person being projected onto CANNOT be heard or seen for who they are, but that the one doing the projecting becomes more and more locked into their own blindness and inability to love the other as neighbor. The wisdom of Jesus' admonition, "Remove the beam from your own eye before you attempt to remove the splinter from your brother's" as well as the apropriateness of his anger in calling hypocrisy just that is evident.

There is also a bit of monastic wisdom here we should remember which is closely related to the importance of dealing with our passions. In our own time we are very used to acting as though we only know someone really well when we see their flaws. We approach people and things "critically," searching out their failings and weaknesses and when we have discovered them, we believe we have discovered their deepest truth. How often have we heard someone say something like: "I thought I knew him, but the other day, he acted to betray me. Now I really know who he is!" But monastic wisdom is just the opposite of this notion of knowing. It is strikingly countercultural and counterintuitive. In monastic life we only really know someone when we see them as God sees them: precious, sacred, whole, and beautiful. We only see them rightly when we look past the flaws to the deep or true person at the core. We only see them truly when we see them with the eyes and humility of love. As we were reminded by Saint-Exupery and as tomorrow's Gospel implies strongly, "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly," --- and only once we have removed those distorting lenses monks call passions, that is, only once we have removed the beams from our own eyes!