ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
Inside the Vatican
March 1, 2016
Recognizing how we hurt other people can be the first step in becoming more charitable to our neighbor.
One of the sad facts of human existence, as mentioned by St. Augustine, is that, wittingly or unwittingly, we hurt other people’s feelings. Of this, there is a whole gamut of possibilities; let me mention some of them.
Some people are terribly thick-skinned, suffering from what I might call "affective anemia," and do not realize that by saying certain things and making allusions to certain facts, they inevitably wound others. Here are some examples taken at random.
Let us suppose that a wife has reasons to suspect that her husband is unfaithful. Having heard this "rumor," an acquaintance makes a point of mentioning in conversation all the disastrous consequences that this can have in a woman’s life and the lives of her children. It is very much like turning a knife in a wound. Whether or not the pain is willfully inflicted, such remarks are not only insensitive but also very uncharitable, and should never be uttered by anyone who truly loves his neighbor.
Rare are the families that have not been affected by some tragedy: it can be crime, betrayal, psychological disorders, genetic diseases, or political treason. We need only glance at the Book of Kings to discover that more than once a very evil character was a close relative of a very noble one. Cain was Abel’s brother.
The noble and lovable Louis, Duke of Thuringia and husband of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, had a contemptible brother who, upon being apprised of the Duke’s death, promptly robbed his widow of all her possessions and threw her out on the street with her four small children.
We are all talented in detecting flaws in the persons we encounter in daily life, and some of us find keen satisfaction in needlessly spreading unsavory information we have collected on them. But, for example, that someone happens to be the fruit of rape — not a desirable ancestry — should be no obstacle whatsoever to his attaining holiness, even though this knowledge is bound to be very painful and should prohibit those in-the-know from spreading this piece of information. Yet it is a sad fact that at dinner parties and social gatherings, the most entertaining topics are spicy news about those absent. A cynical Frenchman by the name of François Choderlot remarked that when a conversion becomes dull, the reason is often that the theme had been praise of the absent.
This is, alas, rarely the case when the topic under discussion is scandal; in no time, laughter and chatter are such that one believes oneself to be in an aviary. All the saints must have meditated on the golden Epistle of St. James about the harm that a very small organ, our tongue, can do, and for this reason always sing the praise of silence. St. Bruno required absolute silence from his monastic sons; St. Benedict makes it clear in his Holy Rule that a monk should not speak unless there is a need for it.
How lovingly wise and charitable was St. Teresa of Avila, who writes in her autobiography that whenever she was present, the absent were "safe." She certainly knew the danger of the Spanish proverb: "Muertos y idos non tienen amigos" ("The dead and the absent have no friends").. This is worth meditating upon. How many of us, at the end of the day, humbly ask ourselves: What have I said today that should have remained charitably unsaid?
Let me emphatically mention that at the Last Judgment, all of us will be held accountable for every unnecessary word that we have spoken. This should make us tremble.
Over-Sensitivity and Self-Centeredness
Alas, life teaches one that, surprisingly enough, over-sensitive people—those praising themselves for their own "exquisite sensitivity"—are often dangerously loquacious and particularly cruel. Like wit, sensitivity is a "gift," but precisely because they are "gifts," it is of crucial importance that they should be "baptized," that is, purified by love and humility. He who praises himself that no one, absolutely no one, is as sensitive as he is, often advertises this "talent" by making remarks that are exquisitely wounding and insensitive to others. A person who confides some suffering to this "sensitive" friend will receive the response with lightning speed: "What you suffer cannot possibly be compared to what I myself have experienced." The suffering "friend" will then be inundated with an avalanche of dramatic details, enriched by a powerful imagination which are bound to make the other "ashamed" to be such a crybaby.
Such "over-sensitive" persons are also talented at making subtle remarks which are particularly dolorous, such as reminding a person whose love has been rejected why it was to be foreseen, and pointing to features in the person rejected that fully justify this rejection. This is most likely to be accompanied by a list of the lovers that she herself has turned down. The list is always long, and might take by surprise some of the rejected admirers!
Others will play a similar game, advertising their intellectual and artistic gifts to people totally lacking these talents—victims of today’s "inferiority complexes." I do not say that such remarks are intended to wound others, but the tragedy of some people is that, being totally self-centered, they are inevitably blind—and yet blissfully unaware of this very grave defect. Blessed are the blind who "see" that they are blind.
Some can make a remark, apparently innocent, but nevertheless offensive to another person. A professor in a small Catholic college had applied to a larger university; having been accepted, he hastened to tell one of his colleagues: "You will understand, I do not want to spend my life teaching in this small college; the level is too low for me." Indirectly he told his interlocutor, "You might find it satisfactory, but to me, this narrow intellectual cage is suffocating!" Had one told the former that this remark was wounding, he would have remained stunned, but in fact, being a very self-centered man, he could not see that his remark was indirectly offensive.
When a very sensitive mother, who definitely intended to be a very good mother, was asked by her four-year-old daughter—preceded by a brother and a sister—whether she was happy when the child was born, and the mother replied: "At first, I was disappointed because I wanted another son, but I was soon consoled because you were such a sweet baby." Is it surprising that the very young child said to herself: "This is something I would never say to my own child"? Yet the mother had no awareness whatsoever that she had created a wound in her child’s heart. (It is sad indeed that one’s entrance into the world should at first be a disappointment; over-sensitivity can be a cage that only the golden keys of humility can open.)
But the very same mother, when her little girl, at age five, was deadly ill, bent over her bed and murmured; "Darling, how I wish I could suffer this for you." The child—too weak to reply—said to herself: "Do not ever forget this; it is true love." And she never forgot.
Man is a mystery not only to others, but also and mainly to himself. There are people who, for some mysterious reason, are deeply convinced that their mission in life is to guide, direct, and dominate other people’s lives—particularly those of their own families. This justifies their sincere conviction that they have the strict duty to warn them about traits and tendencies in their character which, if not radically eradicated, might lead them to their eternal damnation. Let us charitably assume that they mean well (is not the way to hell paved with good intentions?); such remarks are, nevertheless, deeply wounding. Were a young girl reminded that a close member of her family committed a murder, and that therefore she should never forget that she has criminal blood flowing in her veins—this would be an illustration of what I have in mind.
Chronic Anger, Revenge, and Self-Gain
There are also people who are eagerly on the look-out for someone to criticize and shout at. Such people are, I suspect, deeply unhappy people, constantly "at war with themselves." Having no inner peace, they are inevitably tempted to project the cause of their unhappiness onto others and make them pay for it. They are professional grumblers against life and "feel relieved" by exploding in nasty and offensive remarks toward wife, children, neighbors, or their long-suffering employees. They suffer from what I shall dub "metaphysical sulkiness." There is an Italian proverb which expresses this truth in a very subtle way: "Mal commune; mezzo gaudio" ("Shared misery is half a joy").
One classical case of wounding others is revenge. Someone, rightly or wrongly, is convinced that another has offended him. Then comes the very "human" response: I ought to revenge myself. ("Sweet Revenge" is a powerful aria in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.) Revenge is seen as a form of justice that cannot be expected from the state, and must therefore be taken into the offended person’s own hands. The problem is that, usually, the harm done to one is paid with interest. If someone punches one in the face, the response is most likely going to be two punches.
Some people wound others because it is to their interest: for example, to slander one’s colleague might guarantee their own promotion—alas, a "temptation" not unknown to some university professors. Many of us take for granted that universities are places dedicated to "the pursuit of truth" and goodness. "Ojalá!" ("I wish it were so" or "hopefully"), the Hispanics will say. Only those acquainted with the political games played in institutions of higher learning know that they can be battlefields: "Corruptio optimi, pessima" ("The corruption of the best is the very worst").
It should be said emphatically that "truth" and "mine" necessarily clash: if something is true, it is there for all men to see and to accept, but is often unperceived or rejected when it happens to go against one’s grain or, self-interest. This is why slandering can be a trump card in the professional game: one can either speak for the sake of truth or for the sake of self-gain, but not both together. Slander is always for self-gain.
The Joy Of Hurting For The Sake Of Hurting
The most puzzling, and in a way, most tragic case to come across is that of people who go through life seemingly animated by the desire to hurt others just for the sake of hurting them. They do not seem to gain any advantage by doing so. This is the question that Christians must inevitably raise: why does Satan, like a raging lion, keep trying to devour us? What does he gain by others suffering the same fate as he? His own torments will not thereby be assuaged. This is the "mysterium iniquitatis" that we cannot possibly solve while on this earth. A thief benefits by his theft, a liar escapes from difficult situations by lying, and the adulterer enjoys his adultery. But why aim at wounding without gaining by it?
This is such a horrible theme that I shall limit myself to a few brief allusions. A man who abuses, tortures, and then kills an innocent young child triggers in us a feeling of metaphysical horror. There is no word that can adequately express one’s revulsion at such devilish abominations. That we are all desperately in need of redemption is a truth that we should not forget, be it for a single day. I nevertheless raise the question: Are these not cases of diabolical possession when madness and diabolism marry? This is a question which I leave to people who have some competence in this kingdom of darkness.
A great educator, St. John Bosco, who devoted his life to the youth, was fully aware of the dangers that threaten them. A prominent one is, alas, boredom. Some of us are privileged by not knowing what it is: a young child’s life is a marvelous adventure, going from discovery to discovery. He is fascinated by his five fingers, or by his toes, wriggling them with delight. He is fascinated by the sun, by the dance of the clouds in the sky, by a storm… even though frightening, it is exciting.
However, tragically enough, there are children who are bored for whatever reason; it might be intellectual sleepiness, but they do not know what to do with themselves. Then almost inevitably, their fallen nature will inspire them to "destroy." They cannot build, but they can damage whatever exists; man cannot "create"—but he can kill.
Cain did not give life to Abel; but he could murder him, and he did.
When the atomic bomb—the fruit of long years of experimentation—finally was "born," the first thought that came to my mind was: man cannot speak the short word "Be" and bring a new object or person into existence. But now he can say "Be not," and destroy a city in a matter of seconds.
How are we to explain that small children can find satisfaction in killing defenseless animals? Why do they find satisfaction in destroying a beautiful nest holding lovely little chicks? Alas, I know cases of children catching a dog, the faithful friend of his master, torturing him, and then killing him. Is it a feeling of power? Excitement? It makes one tremble with horror. It is incomprehensible except for the fact that original sin has deeply wounded our nature, and we should never lose sight of the fact that as long as we live, we shall have to fight against it, conscious that we need God’s help to keep our fallen nature on the leash of humility.
The Danger of "Curiosity"
Boredom is also linked to another serious danger: curiosity. This word, like many, is equivocal, for there is a noble curiosity: to know more about the history of the world we live in, more about science, more about great art, music and literature, more about the magnificent planets. But, a child’s interest can easily be twisted and crave to know about things which not only are not worth knowing, but belong to a domain where the devil is king: about things which are evil, perverse, or the knowledge of which should be reserved to people whose mission is to be "doctors," either spiritual or physical. They should not be objects of human knowledge because they touch upon topics that are morally poisonous and once known, can become a constant source of temptation. Just as there are innumerable diseases, there are innumerable filthy things. Why burden our imagination with their knowledge?
Closely linked to curiosity is another threatening danger: sensationalism. Why is it that when a devastating fire breaks out, thousands of people rush to watch the conflagration, often impeding rescue workers? It is "exciting." This is why in religious orders the superior alone is informed about the political situation. This is why, up to recently, religious orders did not have televisions. I was grieved years ago when I heard that the Jesuits had put one in their main parlor, also offering cocktails—a very unfortunate "improvement" that sheds light on the decadence which has afflicted this great order. Only numbskulls identify "change" with real progress. What does it benefit a monk or a friar to know the horrors which happen daily, either in private lives or in countries torn by revolution and wars? What benefit is there in knowing that a young girl has been raped, or that a famous man has been assassinated? Prayers alone will help.
To end this sad topic: never should we lose sight of the fact that, as long as we live, we must meditate on the words of St. Peter in his Second Epistle: The devil is "a lion seeking to devour us," and it is a sheer illusion (although a tempting one), to assume that we can, while still on this earth, "murder" original sin. But we should also never forget the words "In Deo meo transgrediar murum" ("With God’s help, I shall scale walls"). He never refuses help to those who turn to Him.