Archive for April, 2012

“We become what we think we are.”

That was the constant admonition of my life’s mentor, Father Luke McCann. Luke was genius, and constantly ahead of the curve by 20 years in everything. As with so much he taught me, I am still unpacking the depth of it all almost twenty years later.

“We become what we think we are.”

The ascendance of the Culture of Death attests to the fact that ever greater numbers of humans have lost sight of who they are, losing their identity in a morass of guilt and shame. These traveling companions need to be teased apart, and Good Friday is as good a time as any to do so.

Guilt is a healthy emotion, as it is the soul’s barometer, a warning that we have committed a transgression that has harmed others and/or ourselves. Guilt gets a bad name when it leads to others shaming us.

Guilt is about what we have done. Shame is about who we are. If guilt is the soul’s barometer, shame is the soul’s cancer.

Shame is about being devalued, belittled, made to feel worthless. Parents who beat their children with fists and belts for transgressions communicate worthlessness to the child; the same holds true for people being belittled for being “thoughtless”, being “clueless”, being “stupid”.

Note that the behavior is not the issue, but the individual. “Being” is who we are.

“We become what we think we are.”

If we are conditioned to think that we are worthless, we will begin to act that way. People who live with ridicule often cannot separate their behaviors from themselves. In time, they do indeed become what they think they are. They begin to engage in behaviors that will reinforce their feelings of worthlessness, of alienation, of shame.

“We become what we think we are.”

Think of the abortionist who was not the brightest bulb in the ceiling in medical school, who has washed out of pulmonology, oncology, pediatrics, etc… and has endured the ridicule from his/her peers (which is seering and brutal). Abortion is the last stop for these people. It is hard to impress upon such a person the intrinsic value of the baby when they have little sense of their own intrinsic value.

Sure, they’ve made their deal with the devil, but why?

Earlier this week I went to confession and the priest offered the following admonition: “You are not what you have done. You are a son of God who loves you as His own, just as you love your own children as your own.”

That’s the key right there. We are not what we do. If we grasped our true identity and the intrinsic dignity in that identity we wouldn’t cut people to ribbons with our tongues, be they abortionists, siblings, children, or spouses.

When Regina and I had our first real good disagreement, I stopped her and reminded her of the rules of engagement: We address and criticize the behavior, not each other. (I’ve been the biggest beneficierary of that rule.)

How often do we hear people ask if some offender has no shame, when we really mean a conscience. Even Time magazine conflated these terms several years ago when they ran an article asking whatever became of shame.

That’s the problem. We have too much shame with its attendant alienation. We have too many people with poorly formed senses of self (boundary issues), and not enough moral formation.

Morality and ethics only take root in the fertile soil of a self imbued with belonging and intrinsic value. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said that the one who says, “you fool” to his brother is liable to the fires of Gehenna. He knew all too well how those words alienate and isolate people and dissolve the social bonds so necessary for building His kingdom on earth.

To the extent that He came to take away the part of our guilt that carries with it eternal separation from Him, Jesus did so on the cross. Because He did so on the cross, He washed away our shame and restored us to our full dignity. That may not be convincing to unbelievers, but we need to treat them with dignity and value. In time they will come to appreciate Father Luke’s great admonition:

“We become what we think we are.”


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