“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” (This line is said in every other sentence—accompanied with practiced facial expressions such as the astonished wide-eyed “Who me?” look or the perfectly placed “poker face.”)
“You misunderstood me.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“You’re being overly sensitive.” or “You’re reading too much into this.”
“How could you think such a thing about me?”
“I’m so hurt” (or offended, or whatever).
“I would NEVER do that to you!”
(On cue, the speaker’s voice quivers as she unleashes her crocodile tears. Or, she uses her scrunched-up angry face while yelling and screaming. Or, his voice becomes cold and flat with an equally cold, flat facial expression. Painting herself (or himself) as victim and/or martyr, she proceeds to tell her sad tale to anyone who will listen. After all, she must gather an army of sympathetic supporters to feed her pretense.)
I bet every person on this planet has engaged in the above dialogue—as speaker and as listener. Sometimes, we speak these words honestly and with integrity. Other times, we speak them dishonestly for purposes of stonewalling and subterfuge. We can condense these words into one word: denial. Living in denial seems easy enough. Hiding in the shadows of our denial, we hide ourselves from ourselves. We keep our pride intact and avoid the dirty work of self-examination and change. We also fool ourselves into believing we’re “saving face.” That’s fine. But in doing so, we’ll never arrive in the Promise Land of peace and forgiveness.
My previous post discussed the aftermath of conflict and our journey toward forgiveness. I also pointed out the danger of viewing ourselves as perpetual victims. When we choose the path of perpetual victimhood, we choose to be unforgiving and to live in a state of unrest. In this post, I will discuss the connections between comparison, pride, denial, and the inability to forgive. How do we redeem ourselves and find forgiveness—for ourselves and others? Through our Savior, Jesus Christ. If we let Him, He’ll lovingly serve us a steady diet of humble pie.
Pride and Denial
Psychologist Scott Peck suggests that pride and laziness are the most basic sins “because all sins are reparable except the sin of believing one is without sin” (People of the Lie, p. 73). Thus, pride and laziness are at the root of all evil. Dr. Peck often uses the words “pride” and “evil” interchangeably when referring to sinners. We often bristle at the word “evil” because it sounds so very harsh. But if we can cast aside our pride—for just a moment—we can see ourselves in varying degrees while reading the following paragraphs:
The Pharisees were the fat cats of Jesus’ day. They didn’t feel poor in spirit. They felt they had it all together…who deserved to be the culture leaders in Jerusalem and Palestine. And they were the ones who murdered Jesus. The poor in spirit to do not commit [pure] evil. Evil is not committed by people who feel uncertain about their righteousness, who question their own motives, who worry about betraying themselves. The evil in this world is committed by the spiritual fat cats, by the Pharisees of our own day, the self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination. Strangely enough, evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil. The problem is that they misplace the locus of the evil. Instead of destroying [or hurting] others they should be destroying the sickness within themselves. As life often threatens their image of self-perfection, they are often busily engaged in hating and destroying that life—usually in the name of righteousness. Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them. They dress well, go to work on time, pay their taxes, and outwardly seem to live lives that are above reproach.
The words ‘image,’ ‘appearance,’ and ‘outwardly’ are crucial to understanding the morality of evil. [Evil people] intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness’ is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie.That is why they are the ‘people of the lie.’ Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self-reproach. The decorum with which they lead their lives is maintained as a mirror in which they can see themselves reflected righteously.Yet the self-deceit would be unnecessary if the evil had no sense of right and wrong.We lie only when we are attempting to cover up something we know to be illicit. Some rudimentary form of conscience must precede the act of lying. There is no need to hide unless we first feel that something needs to be hidden.
For everything they do….they [have] a rationalization. The problem is not a defect of conscience but the effort to deny the conscience its due. We become evil by attempting to hide from ourselves. The wickedness of the evil is not committed directly, but indirectly as a part of this cover-up process. Evil originates not in the absence of guilt but in the effort to escape it. Here we are talking about avoidance and evasion of pain. [Prideful and] evil people are likely to exert themselves more than most in their continuing effort to obtain and maintain an image of high respectability. They may willingly, even eagerly, undergo great hardships in their search for status. It is only one particular kind of pain they cannot tolerate: the pain of their own conscience, the pain of the realization of their own sinfulness and imperfection.They hate the light that shows them up, the light of scrutiny that exposes them, the light of truth that penetrates their deception. The submission to the discipline of self-observation required by psychoanalysis does, in fact, seem to them like suicide (p. 76-77).
Obviously, there’s no need to write ourselves off as hopelessly evil. Thoroughly evil people are, thankfully, a rarity. No one is born inherently evil, but as we know, Adam and Eve’s fall made us susceptible to sin and therefore evil. With our Savior’s help, we starve the evil and feed the humility. In feeding our humility, we find forgiveness and peace. In the rest of this post, I’ll share the observations of Doctors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham from their book The Spirituality of Imperfection. I’ve used their book as a tool in helping me to find and to understand more fully the many dimensions of forgiveness.
Comparison and Humility Cannot Co-Exist
St. Bernard, asked to list the four cardinal virtues, answered: “Humility, humility, humility, and humility” (p. 185).
Another pearl of wisdom:
A man went to Wahab Imri and said: “Teach me humility.” Wahab answered: “I cannot do that, because humility is a teacher of itself. It is learnt by means of its practice. If you cannot practice it, you cannot learn it” (p. 185).
Time and again, the authors implore us to find some sort of self-acceptance. Without it, we limit our spirituality:
Humility signifies, simply, the acceptance of being. It is the embrace of the both-and-ness, both saint and sinner, both beast and angel, that constitutes our very be-ing as human. Beginning with the acceptance that being human—being mixed (and therefore sometimes mixed-up)—is good enough, humility involves learning how to live with and take joy in that reality. Humility is above all, honesty. True humility neither exaggerates nor minimizes but accepts (p. 186).
This sounds simple enough. Until we read what’s next:
To be humble is not to make comparisons. Comparisons are dangerous and foolish; the problem with both ‘first’ and ‘last’ as goals is that both are extremes. The humility of ‘both/and’….begins with the acceptance that we are neither uniquely ‘very special’ nor absolutely ‘worm.’ The humility of ‘both/and’ refuses precisely the kind of uniqueness the claim to be exceptional that is the ‘either/or’ demand. [Yet], we try, even demand, to be ‘all-or-nothing'” (p. 187).
I still struggle to free myself from this “either/or” dichotomous mindset. Its tenacious grip demeans and demoralizes. What’s more, its perniciousness detracts and diminishes the redemptive role of our Savior, Jesus Christ. By allowing this fallacy to ferment, we foster a sense of denial. Hence, we cannot and will not fully recognize our goodness or badness. And our relationship with Christ, with ourselves, and with others becomes increasingly tainted. The “either/or” proposition can take many forms. For instance, family and friends often relate to each other in a “win/lose” dynamic.The unwritten rule is this: In order for me to feel good about myself, I must win and you must lose. There can only be one winner—and it’s not you. The “either/or” proposition exists in varying degrees from mild infection to the demise of the relationship.
Can’t Mend It? Then End It.
For these reasons, I ended a friendship for the second time with a woman a couple of years ago. During the 25 years I’d known her, I felt she repeatedly jeopardized and twice gambled away my friendship due to her relentless need to compare herself to me. From my perspective, she framed nearly every interaction between us through a competitive “either/or – win/lose” lens. And I resented it. (For the record, and in all fairness to my friend, I’m obviously speaking from my own point of view. My friend is telling others a different story.) Surely, my friend has many admirable qualities. And with mutual effort, we had reconciled our initial differences years previously. Sadly, our “mended fences” didn’t last. The negative dynamics resurfaced and once again, I felt reduced to her “measuring tool” rather than her friend.
Throughout the years, my repeated attempts at honest dialogue had provided little relief for either of us. Thus, the ongoing tension between us fed our underlying and mutual hostility. Denial and pretense seemed to be my friend’s coping mechanisms while behaving passive-aggressively toward me. Consequently, she could not (or would not) acknowledge any tension between us when I confronted her. Nor would she acknowledge any hostile feelings despite her obvious anger toward me. I suspected my friend’s continual denial was her way of avoiding ownership and accountability for her continued mean-spiritedness throughout the years. Not surprisingly, my resentment grew.
Clearly, she and I were in pain and feeling victimized by each other. Repeatedly, I asked myself: Why can’t we openly discuss our differences like mature adults? How can I extricate myself from this negative dynamic and find healthy resolution? Was the pain of this “friendship” worth the cost? Having run out of options, I finally gave my friend an ultimatum: Either we communicate openly and honestly, or we don’t communicate at all. (Ironically, I had to propose and enforce my own “either/or” proposition in order to make a lasting peace.) Her “I-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about” response struck the final blow. For her sake and mine, I permanently pulled the plug on our “friendship.” The right thing to do is often the hard thing to do. Nevertheless, I have since lived in peace.
As I stated earlier, the “either/or” proposition takes many forms. Using this toxic staple, we also tend to posture ourselves into a saint or a sinner when difficulties arise in our relationships. We are unable to define ourselves as both saint and sinner. If we’re a saint, how could we possibly be a sinner? If we’re a sinner, how could we possibly be a saint? In our attempts to deny our sinner selves, we relegate the role of sinner to “the other guy.” The sad, ridiculous irony of it all is this: Every single one of us is both saint and sinner. Our denial of this fact prevents us from viewing ourselves and others through a healthy lens. Thus, our refusal to define ourselves in any other way keeps us in this toxic quagmire. We slog around in toxic relationships until we die—unless we muster the will to pull ourselves out.
So it was with my friend and me. In my attempts at truth telling (or telling my truth to my friend), I was very tempted to cast myself in the role of “saint.” With no other role left to play, I could relegate my friend to the role of “sinner” because of her manipulative behavior. Conversely, my friend—using her denial—could cast me in the role of “sinner” or “troublemaker” because I confronted her. Thus, with no other role available, my friend could cast herself as “saint” by denying her anger and manipulation. Even more, her denial could now serve as a useful weapon in her future attempts to “kill me with kindness.”
As an aside, the “kill with kindness” strategy is a passive-aggressive form of manipulation and martyrdom. And we’re all guilty of this at one time or another because it often works in the short term. Pretended kindness is adversarial and mean-spirited because it uses false kindness as a disguise while attempting to “kill” or injure another person. False diplomacy is a smokescreen for control, power, and domination.
When continually masking honesty and promoting pretentiousness, role play generates negative energy resulting in toxic relationships. Again, it’s demeaning and demoralizing. Living a masked life on a marked stage while speaking well rehearsed lines (often written by someone else) feeds denial and furthers delusion. Reality is truth. So, for the sake of our emotional and spiritual health, we might want to trash the script, fire the director, clean up our acts, clear the stage, lower the curtain, exit the theater, and get out of show business.
Home is the place where we can be ourselves and accept ourselves as both good and bad, beast and angel, saint and sinner ( p. 191).
This home is where we are safely ensconced in the arms of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t judge us through a dichotomous lens. He loves us no matter how saintly or sinful we are. We can be the vilest of sinners, and it doesn’t matter to Him. He is right there to meet us where we’re at. However, to make the Savior our home, we must be willing to view ourselves as neither complete saints nor complete sinners. We can choose to cast away our denial and become completely accountable in our dual identity. In doing so, we become a vessel for increased grace, humility, spirituality, and power. And our ability to forgive ourselves and others proportionally increases.
Pass me the pie, please,