Willful Blindness

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND

 

Catholic News Agency

February 2, 2015

One of the episodes in the Gospel that has always moved me particularly is the story of the blind man of Jericho: upon hearing that Christ had just arrived in town, he cried loudly: “Lord have pity on me.” He was told to keep quiet, but he cried all the louder. Christ came to him, and asked him what he wanted. The answer was clear: "that I may see." He was healed. 

 

A blind man knows that he is blind; he is aware that he has a serious deficiency. Those who dedicate their lives to helping the blind will tell you how soon they become aware that they are victims of a severe shortcoming. At first, the blind finds his way by hearing and touching: it is amazing how guided by these two senses, they manage to gain some independence. These two senses will become particularly sharp and acute. But inevitably one day they will realize that blindness not only is an obstacle to safe motion, but that moreover there is a whole world of beauty not available to them. If someone exclaims, “Look at this magnificent sunset,” neither hearing nor touching can give them any information. The world of colors is closed to them. 

 

Because the blind person is aware that the incredible gift of sight has been denied to him, the poignant cry of the man of Jericho, “Lord, that I may see,” is justified. No blind man wishes to remain blind and no blind man will accuse those who praise the beauty of a sunset of “hallucinating.”

 

Radically different are people who suffer from "blindness" while totally unaware of it, or those who choose blindness and then “honestly” deny that there is something to be seen. Let us briefly examine the following cases. 

 

We all know wives whose husbands are unfaithful: it is common knowledge, but the one person who “does not know” is the betrayed wife. I am thinking of a particular case of a marriage that started as a great love-marriage: marital faithfulness was a "given," but alas, in the course of time, it was sullied by unfaithfulness. The husband, for whatever reason (flattered by the attention of a very young girl or wishing to “rejuvenate” himself), broke the solemn promise that he made on his wedding day. Women are perceptive, and the person I am referring to suspected danger. But fearing the terrible pain that her husband’s betrayal would cause her, she decided to close her eyes and found ways and means of interpreting “symptoms” in a positive light: "better to not know than face a reality that would break my heart."

 

How many loving parents refuse to acknowledge that their son is a pervert, and has fallen into the nasty snares threatening teenagers? They refuse to believe because they dread to know the sad truth. By contrast we have the admirable example of Saint Monica who had the loving courage to “see,” and therefore prayed ardently for "the son causing her so many tears," her beloved Saint Augustine. Her prayers were heard. 

 

Similar is the case of a loving mother whose beloved child is afflicted by some serious defect. Gabriel Marcel—endowed with an amazing sensitivity for others’ sufferings—refers to the story of such a mother whose child is not normal, and who spent her whole life convincing herself that she is in fact perfectly healthy; it is only wicked and ignorant doctors—nasty people—who dare challenge it: they are all liars. We all sympathize with her willful blindness. 

 

While Hitler was gaining more and more power in Germany, many citizens could have suspected that he was an evil man whose philosophy was totalitarian and atheistic—and therefore a threat to the welfare of the country. But while struggling to recover from the economic disaster following their defeat in 1918, they chose to close their eyes. To “protect” themselves, they declared that those accusing him of being an evil man were Cassandras, bad patriots: had not Hitler promised to restore the greatness of the German Reich? “Deutschland ueber alles” (Germany over everything).

 

But one day they had to face the terrible fact that he was in full control of the country, and as could have been predicted, he immediately introduced a reign of terror. Now the alternative was to prudently keep a low profile or to fight. But to fight meant to face torture and death, not only for oneself, but also for one’s loved ones. The virtue called “prudence”—the one virtue canonized by cowards—taught them to keep quiet and wait patiently until the tempest had run its course. 

 

Dietrich von Hildebrand, animated by his love of truth and his hatred of evil, chose to fight, fully aware that he risked persecution, poverty, and possibly death. He dared to see, when "seeing" necessarily implied a moral obligation to risk everything in order to fight evil. Emulated by Gregory VII, who like him was born in Tuscany, sharing with him the name “Hildebrand,” he chose to fight. This great pope died in exile with the words, "I have loved justice and hated iniquity: therefore I die in exile." So did Dietrich von Hildebrand. 

 

The willingness to “see” and with it the fearful moral obligation to act, is so dangerous that many are those—including members of the clergy—who chose to close their eyes and their ears, and thereby justify their cowardice. This is the history of the world: it was true in the past; it was true in Germany in the twenties; and it is true of the United States of America today: evil breeds evil. Roe versus Wade should have sounded the alarm; it should have rallied all men of good will to go on the bastions and proclaim loudly: “No”. Once the sluice protecting us from a devastating flood was opened, it was inevitable that it would be followed in close succession with a justification of homosexuality (already strongly condemned by Plato in the fourth century BC), and then by the “moral destruction” of marriage as being the union of one man and one woman and the legalization of a diabolical invention called “homosexual marriages.” 

 

How many are those in positions of authority who identify “holy prudence” with “worldly safety." The blind leading the blind is, and yet ever, a young story. Names might change, but today as before, we must choose between the swastika and the cross. Which one of us can be sure that, of course, he would embrace the latter? We are all potential heroes when there is no danger. 

 

The words “principiis obsta” (resist the beginnings) are crucial: to diagnose an illness from the start gives one a fair chance of healing it. Once in an advanced stage, it is too late. This is why when one goes to a wise doctor he will ask, “How long ago did you notice this change?” One of the great dangers which menaces us is the refusal to see.

 

This fear is pervasive throughout our human life, and this applies very particularly to the domain of self-knowledge where blindness is endemic. Our vision is directed outward, and this is one of the reasons why we are so sharp sighted toward the physical and moral flaws of others and so “blind” toward our own—but it is not the main one. To have a clear perception of our imperfections is almost impossible without humility—a virtue definitely not needed to perceive the sins of others. Pride in fact makes us particularly sharp sighted toward others faults, but it is so “unpleasant” to see one’s own that we much prefer not to look closely. As a matter of fact, in many cases, it is almost impossible to see one’s sins and grave flaws unless one has begged God for the grace of humility—and how much we are in need of redemption. This is why self-knowledge is so difficult to attain. Only saints have it, and this explains why they are so humble. Purgatory is the place where we shall be given a chance to see who we truly are. Once this purifying knowledge is given us, we will be ripe for heaven. When we perceive how tarnished our soul is, we shall inevitably hear the call: "You ought to change, we must be reborn." This was the message of Christ to Nicodemus, which the latter took literally. But the awareness that one is seriously stained and to perceive that we must change is neither easy nor pleasant. All the more remarkable are the words that Plato ascribes to Socrates who said to his interlocutor: “If you can prove me to be wrong, I will call you the greatest of my benefactors” (Plato, Gorgias). How many of our “scholars” would gladly accept to be refuted? Vanity often oozes out of the pores of many "big shots." Some fifty years ago, a famous physicist gave a talk that a friend of mine was attending. She told me that when he stepped on the podium he said to the audience: “Ladies and Gentlemen: from now, until the end of my talk you need not do any thinking. I shall do all the thinking for you.” Had someone told him that his hearers were not impressed by his humility, he most probably would have been shocked and surprised. 

 

One learns much from one’s students. I recall one who challenged every argument I brought in defense of “sensitive” truths such as the existence of God, and the “objectivity of moral values.” At one point he said arrogantly: "You have not succeeded in convincing me." With Latin speed, I replied: “You misunderstood me: I never tried to convince you. I just tried to give you convincing arguments. You must judge for yourself if it is wise to reject them because you do not like the conclusion.” I recall another one clearly upset by my defense of the immortality of the soul. At one point, he exclaimed: “The worst thing that could happen to me would be if you could convince me that I have an immortal soul. Then one day I will be held responsible for my life style.” It was tragically honest. When one dreads a truth, inevitably one will fight tooth and nail against it. How many of us pray: "Lord, grant me the grace to overcome my fear to see”? 

 

We desperately need divine help. How tempting it is to choose not to see, rather than face the spiritual work that lays ahead of us which cannot be achieved without grace. How meaningful that seven times a day, Benedictine monks pray: “Come to my help, O Lord; hasten to succor me.” Like the man in Jericho who knew that he was blind, we should realize that all of us are blind in various degrees and cry: “Lord, that I may see.” 

 

It is a fact that our enemies (if unfortunately we have some) are remarkably sharp sighted toward our faults, mistakes, and sins. When they feel driven to tell us to our faces what they think about us, they will probably hit the bull’s eye, but unfortunately these critiques being poisoned by "hatred" will be discarded for this very reason—and far from being a help, will strike us as gravely staining the soul of the sharp shooter. Any criticism should be an expression of real, loving concern for the person being criticized; whenever the good of the person challenged is not even considered, this very censure will stain the soul of the person satisfying the urge to spit venom in his enemy’s face. They do so with malice and animated by a clear drive by to wound. Their unloving motivation is all that we shall register: the rightness of their criticism will escape us for this very reason. 

 

Those who truly love us are those who—while keeping fully alive the beauty that God has put in every single one of His creatures at the moment of their creation—also see that, alas, this beauty has been sullied and tarnished by our innumerable "sins, offenses, and negligences." Those who lovingly warn us are our friends indeed. 

 

May God put such friends on our path, and may we daily beg for the grace of sight: "Lord, that I may see."  

©2019 by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.