By Fr. Glenn Jones:
In our media today—mainstream, social and other—we are ever deluged with criticism. Political party against party, candidate against candidate, stance against stance, screamers against screamers. Those on the receiving end of ceaseless criticism can easily fall into a depressing funk of futility … feeling that no matter what they do, say or think, it will be criticized and even condemned. Fix one thing, and critics will just point out a perceived weakness somewhere else. Spouse verbal abuse often falls into this category: a spouse’s unrealistic or ever-changing expectations never being able to be met … one’s efforts never good enough, engendering exasperation and depression.
But it happens in organizations, too. For example, a police department is under federal scrutiny, every action potentially under the microscope by media and, consequently, politicians. Of course accountability is essential, but the human aspect, and human fallibility, cannot be entirely discounted; perfection is an unattainable goal, especially in professions involving life-and-death snap decisions.
As an aside, a good book on analyzing the stresses of such decisions in such arenas as law enforcement and the military is “On Combat” by David Grossman and Loren Christenson, in which the authors research psychological and physiological effects of such situations. They’ve found that, regardless of training level and even experience, each person and situation is different. Due to the attendant and often unrelated stresses and adrenaline-fueled emotional responses to mortal danger, actions and perceptions can be unpredictable even if the officer/soldier is highly experienced. After all, a moment’s decision or hesitation may determine whether he/she goes home that evening … or ever. A public demanding absolute perfection, and condemning harshly anything less, will inevitably be disappointed, and those “under the gun”, so to speak, will simply abandon the effort, and the profession.
I was reminded of these things when I saw a humorous bumper sticker the other day on a large, older, heavy-duty, fuel-swigging work pickup: “I Identify as a Prius”. Unrealistic expectations cannot but lead to unattained and frustrating results; reality and inherent capability must be kept in focus. Our truck, for instance, is not capable of superior fuel efficiency, but neither is the human capable of perfection. Nonetheless, like good training for a police officer or soldier, or adjustments to our truck’s mechanism and its maintenance, each becomes better. But it takes time. And effort.
Such becomes especially important in a religious and/or ethical sphere: one might want to believe he is “living the life”, but an objective self-examination is essential to improvement—an “examination of conscience” as Catholic devotionals call it. The Christian, for instance, need review how his behavior comports with instruction in the Bible’s New, or “Christian”, Testament. “Do I actually follow what Jesus and His apostles taught, or do I simply try to justify my deviating behavior? Do I simply make excuses? Do I, as St. Paul condemned (Romans 2:21-23), criticize others for what I myself do?”
We recall Jesus’ own correction to His hearers when He said: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me…hears my words…” (Luke 6:46-47) And relatedly, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
And yet the hand of mercy is always stretched forth to those who ask for it, as Jesus’ hand stretched out to Peter sinking into the sea due to his weak faith (Matthew 14). For we are fallible even in our best determinations to remain on a good path. The great spiritual writers of the past remind us of human weakness—not to be lightly excused, but neither to be condemned with excessive severity; such scrupulosity can be in itself pride (“Why do I fail when I should be stronger than the rest of weak humanity!”). Such excessive self-criticism can even lead to abandonment of attempts because of unrealistic expectations. The overly-scrupulous Christian need find solace the Apostle’s instruction: “I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)
So, not only is an unrealistic positive evaluation of self an enemy of striving for improvement, but also constant and excessive criticism due to the demoralization it engenders. A beneficial medium exists between the two—between both the harsh criticism, and cavalier dismissal, of failure … an Aristotelian “golden mean” in which one recognizes one’s own faults while also acknowledging the inherent weakness of the human will. We, too, may hear the voice of Christ when we sorrow for failure but determine to try, try again: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (John 8:11)
The will is like a muscle: the more it’s exercised, the stronger it gets, and the greater “muscle memory” develops. Attempts at good become individual successes at doing good, and continued effort results in the habit of doing good. St. Thomas Aquinas writes, and we know from experience, that a habit takes time and practice to develop—especially habits which conflict with our innate and more intense passions. And while passions are good in themselves (eating, reproduction, etc.), uncontrolled passions lead to vice and even to evil. And thus scripture exhorts us: “…make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness …” (2 Peter 1:5-6), realizing that though we can never attain perfection, sincerely striving for it is meritorious in itself.
Editor’s note: Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.