Well do I remember late one night my freshman year at the university walking back to the dorm from Perkins with a full backpack and more books in both arms feeling pretty good. But strolling out of the dorm was John Ryan in his baggy corduroys looking as carefree as ever. “Spew,” he said. “It’s not all in the books you know.”
Yes, my nickname among those who knew me at the time was “Spew.” Obviously, my classmates at the time did not appreciate the wisdom of my torrent of ideas. What can I say? But now at least 35 years later I feel called to start writing. But you are well advised to take a deep breath and pause. Why are you reading Spew’s Views?
Hopefully, now the Holy Spirit will enlighten me. I think it is a little different when you are writing after many years of being humbled.
John died the summer of my freshman year in a boating accident. What a tragedy. He was a champion junior golfer and about as confident and at ease as anyone I have ever met. We would invariably lose our foosball games to Bobby Sonnier and Reed Mayo. You might get the idea that we all had a lot of fun in college and you would be right. But it was also a place for serious learning. This column is dedicated to John and to the men of House CC.
I want to write about the process of thinking and of making a good decision. And first I want to mention a second highlight from my time at the law school. My roommate first year was in Section 1 and I was in Section 4. One day first semester I was in the hallway between classes sharing a rare moment with classmates from different sections. The one student in Section 2 was complaining that his Torts professor was so slow that they had barely gotten through 10 or 15 pages in the textbook.
I was in awe of that Torts professor. Of course, our Torts professor in Section 4 was not too shabby himself. But I realized that the Torts professor could care less what the students thought of him. Rather, he was interested in teaching these students how to think. I imagined the students flailing away at each of his questions with their every response. The torts concepts are inherently abstract: duty and breach of duty; negligence; causation and proximate cause and but for causation. What exactly do these words mean?
You could go to the Cliff Notes for law school for answers to these questions. Believe it or not, they exist. Those books will tell you the facts and the issues. But they do not tell you how to think. They do not leave you completely at the mercy of the professor. I greatly enjoyed going to the classroom clueless to listen to a guide who offered no explanations and only questions. I imagined being a young American Indian in a forest that I would somehow someday be able to navigate with the courage of a blind man in a New York City subway.
And yet another story for you. I arrived a few years ago in San Antonio to visit Terry Bauch, a classmate from the university from 20 or so years ago. He is a cardiologist now practicing in Pennsylvania. As soon as I got out of the car, he exclaimed in wonder and disgust as to how people make such bad short-sighted decisions. He did not understand why people fail to consider the long term. Always glad to listen to him.
You might agree with me that we see that no matter the issue, people have no clue as to what to do. Why is that? Let us stop and consider any major societal problem we currently face. What to do? Spend a lot of money to fix it!! But how?! What is the solution?
If you want to learn how to make an informed, considerate, thoughtful decision that you will be pleased with for many years, you have to look at the root issues and problems. You have to understand the underlying reality and not be fooled by what appears on the surface. But how to see things correctly?
The first step is to have self-knowledge. Atop the Oracle at Delphi were the words “Know Thyself.” And we also know that any religious text will tell you the same thing. For example, St. Teresa of Avila in “The Interior Castle” counsels self-knowledge. But what exactly do these words mean?
More than anything, self-knowledge means that you must have perspective and humility. First, we have to understand that we do not run the show. Second, that we are small and insignificant in the scheme of things. St. Teresa of Avila wondered as to how God could commune with malodorous worms.
In Greek mythology, the young man Icarus gained perspective when he flew too high and the sun melted the wax on his wings. Icarus fell. He was humbled. It seems that we must repeatedly fall flat on our face to gain perspective, don’t you think? We must constantly correct ourselves. And the person who is undaunted by the apparent failures of the past, or those yet to come, may be able to calmly direct himself to the task at hand.
My hero, Abraham Lincoln, had many setbacks and reversals. He was intensely emotional but he was also a deep thinker. He did not let his failures and mistakes affect him but rather developed a great understanding of human nature – a great wisdom. He was able to speak to both sides of the aisle not because of a smooth tongue but rather because he spoke the truth to everyone.
I feel called to write about how my own experience of mental illness has provided me a certain perspective and understanding. When I was 20 years old and studying in Paris, I flew too high. I can remember that I could not quiet my mind. I was later told that everyone else was the same as I am but that I had a mental illness because I had such a very large amount of energy and emotion.
I am now 55 years old. My life may not have gone exactly as I imagined but that mystery I accept as God’s will. Overcoming a great challenge has made me feel grateful and it also has made me united with others who wish to help others.
What does self-knowledge look like for me personally? 23 years ago at night I started to pray the mysteries of the Rosary. I allowed my mind to wander over events of my day and then directed myself to meditate about particular virtues related to the events in the life of Christ. That meant I gained perspective by deliberately shifting the attention away from myself so as to reflect on the experience of another. As a consequence, I did not exaggerate my own situation.
These Rosary mysteries run a gamut of emotions from sorrowful to joyful but are all tied together with one thread. You might compare them to the first-year law classes: torts, contracts, constitutional law, criminal law, and civil procedure. And again you might compare them to the instruments in an orchestra: winds, percussion, brass, and strings. Different voices but the same language. As the years went by, I would come to realize that the same gamut of deeply-felt emotions from plea to praise may be found in the Psalms.
To combat the stress of trial when I was a young lawyer, I took a drawing class. The teacher taught the technique of perspective. I was impressed as to how it was possible to change the whole understanding of things so simply. Art and music and prayer are so helpful in providing perspective because they take something flat and make it three-dimensional. You constantly welcome the inspiration of creativity that I call the Holy Spirit and boy does it sure come and go as it pleases. But when you taste that Beauty, you are all the more determined to create a space for its return.
It is a commonplace that people say that you must take medications to combat mental illness. But what people talk about much less is the value of this self-examination that I am describing. If you have pain, for example, it is easy to take a pill. But how about if you endured some of that pain with the specific purpose of maintaining your alertness and vigilance? The pain would not go away but you would be ready to face that difficult situation creatively. You might decide to respond to the seemingly adverse situation gracefully and with equanimity as you have an opportunity to learn about yourself. My message is certainly counter-intuitive.
You can see that what I came to value had nothing to do with money, sex, property, or power because none of those things helped me in any way. Those things are desirable to other people and we sure hear about them all day long and all night long seems like to me. But because I fell flat on my face so many times, to this day you cannot persuade me to pay any attention whatsoever to what you see on TV or in magazines. It is not that it is fake news. It is more that it betrays a complete lack of understanding of true reality. And there is irony in that statement considering the source.
Being humbled up and down and to the left and to the right means that you have to travel your own individual path and learn to think for yourself. It is as if you are on a small boat and you are learning to walk but of course the waves make you have to make constant adjustments. And even when you get your sea legs, you realize you are in a sailboat in the ocean facing the elements.
The third requirement of humility is to be able to fully direct yourself to what is at hand. It means that you are to disregard your personal predilections and attachments and preferences because you understand that they simply do not matter. Do you sophomorically always want to have things your way? Or do you seek to have the ability to listen and to respond?
Let me give you yet another metaphor. You seek to free your palate from the cloying taste of sugar. How are you going to similarly free your spirit so that you can be free to live? To the degree that you are obsessed with your sexuality, money, and property, you are obsessed with yourself. There is something that can get you to stop thinking about sex far more quickly than a cold shower – that is when you see someone in a bad way. That means that those exterior things that you think are so important to you simply are not important, buster! And believe me, if you get your head out of the ground, Mr. Ostrich, you will notice that your neighbor is struggling.
The great Spanish spiritual writers St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. John of the Cross speak about ridding oneself of attachments. It is not an easy thing to voluntarily give up something that we hold dear that is killing us. But that is the task at hand. And to the degree that you fail to do so, you will continue to suffer. But the person who has been greatly humbled places no value on these things exterior.
The message of the Gospels is that we are to direct ourselves to respond to the needs of the poor but we are to do so on our own volition. In contrast, the Jews had beautiful laws of restraint by which, for example, the farmer did not harvest his entire field but rather allowed the poor a certain section. Also, the Jews were always aware that they had come out of Egypt where they were second-class strangers. As a result, their laws championed three specific classes of helpless people – the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien.
Jesus teaches us that we are to find him in the hungry person, the thirsty person, and the homeless person among others. Why this teaching? You should consult a man of the cloth. But for our purposes, he is telling us that for our own good we may develop humility and perspective by communing with someone who has less materially. He is showing us how we can escape our own current prison of self-absorption.
Dante’s Inferno shows us how the sin punishes the sinner in the here and now. (Wallace Fowlie, A Reading of Dante’s Inferno). For example, the lovers Paolo and Francesca in Canto 5 are shown as starlings tossed about in a tempest. Dante equates the passion and lust of courtly love (carnal sin) to perpetual agitation. Instead of faithfully following reason and finding rest, they yield to desire and never find rest only to punish each other forever. This canto inspired a great opera and many other works of art. It also teaches about true love.
Jesus tells us to carry our cross and to follow Him. Such a message is difficult for the Christian and non-Christian alike. Who welcomes adversity? Who wants to work on his own failings, addictions, problems, sins? Who wants to hang out with the poor, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned, the alien? It is clear to me that if you do all of these things and more, you gain self-knowledge. If you do not, you are punished in the here and now by a lack of self-knowledge and consequent bad decisions. I also firmly believe that you will be punished eternally in the hereafter for not caring for your neighbor who you ignore today and each and every day.
The person who is not interested in self-knowledge hates to be corrected. Although God preferred the offering of Abel, he intimated to Cain that all it might take was for Cain to do so as well from the heart. But Cain did not accept the larger perspective and instead killed his brother.
We have to believe that even when we make a bad choice, God will forgive us. We have to forgive ourselves as well and demonstrate our contrition by our constant acts of love for our neighbor. We have to seek the self-knowledge that allows us to have our eyes open so as to maybe make an occasional good decision. When a community acts out of self-knowledge, great things happen.
In my next column, I will talk about the process of making the good decision specifically as applied to the current immigration question.