Fr. Glenn: The Problem With Self-Esteem

By Rev. Glenn Jones
Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church
Los Alamos

I was watching a news video the other day of an interview of a person with some counter-cultural views, and as one might notice in many such things and in today’s public discussion, the interviewer constantly interrupted the person with sweeping negative generalizations, and for the whole interview would not allow the guest to lay out any argument toward making his points. Why, I wondered, did the interviewer have to be so rude and defensive?

Why, indeed? What is that root cause of such refusal to listen to another’s point of view? If we’re going to derail a train of thought right out of the station, why go through the trouble of purchasing a ticket? Why invite a guest to an interview if you’re not going to listen to him?

One cannot help but wonder if the root of such lay in inordinate protection of that self-esteem, which is such a prevalent subject in our day—overzealous avoidance of civil debate that manifests as fear of actually being wrong. Watching that interview, one could not help but notice the flashing of anger from the interviewer whenever the guest squeezed in a good-point zinger, which she could not readily refute. 

Most of us have likely felt similar flashes of anger/pride/embarrassment when deeply-held beliefs are challenged, especially if we cannot readily respond with a substantive retort. And what often happens? As with our aforementioned interviewer, and which we see so often in the news and public forum in our day— a change of subject, and childish personal attack and insult, screeching unfounded generalizations or accusations, or the like … simply to avoid having to logically defend one’s own apple cart from being upended, and thus risk suffering at least the self-perceived shame of (gasp!) being wrong. 

This is why today’s constant protest of “I’m offended!” is, well … so offensive; it tends to be wielded as a weapon to avoid having one’s own perceptions and ideas challenged. The result?  Our society has become more divided and polarized possibly than ever, because in the demand not to be offended we refuse to listen to any ideas other than our preconceptions and those who affirm them. In reaction, many—without foundation—attribute the most villainous motives to those with positions other than their own … and to whom they refuse to listen.

The more deeply held the belief, the more resistance to logical discussion which may challenge it. This is why it’s considered bad form to pursue discussion of religion and politics at parties; these are among the most deeply-held beliefs and loyalties and, therefore, are tied most closely to our own self-esteem and pride. 

Thus Jesus’ (and all whole of scriptures’) admonition to humility is so vital—an admonition essential for both religious and secular realms in the search for truth. Imagine a student who enters a class believing that he can be taught nothing; he already knows it all! Such a one will refuse to learn anything regardless of his own ignorance, preferring his ignorance to the self-perceived (and false) “shame” of having to admit he is wrong. Likewise, if we refuse to hear another point of view, how can we be certain that the point of view is invalid? The “heliocentric vs. geocentric” incident with Galileo (cited and repeated ad nauseam against Catholicism. Sigh.) is, regrettably but admittedly, a good example of such refusal to listen and consider.

Of course, such defensiveness appears in arguments about religion and morality most of all. Pro-life, or pro-choice? Traditional sexual morality or no? Jesus or Muhammad? Faith or pure scientism? And on and on.

But humility is not so much not having feelings of pride well up, but rather controlling them for a greater goal: determination of truth. And finding truth necessitates true tolerance of others’ opinions and ideas, not a false tolerance requiring that every opinion posited is currently acceptable or else it will not be considered, or even heard. After all, so many of the great figures of world thought have been persecuted, and even executed/assassinated, in their own times—Socrates, MLK, Jr., Gandhi. Jesus. All killed for thoughts and ideas of which many are now universally acknowledged as good and truth. Perhaps if their executioners had only taken the time to really listen and consider…

One of today’s problems is our short attention span and “busy-ness”; we don’t want to take the time, or may not HAVE the time, to listen to the totality of an argument. Thus it can be easier/more convenient just to dismiss an opposing view out of hand and make our own assumptions about the motives and “stupidity” of it and the person holding it—the “If only they were as brilliant and infallible as I!” syndrome.

The realm of religion tends to be most difficult, because by definition it involves faith, defined in the letter to the Hebrews as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). But faith is not unlike the elusive dark matter of the cosmos: we cannot directly observe it, but science sees its effects and thus “has faith” that it exists. Likewise, Christians cannot physically touch, measure, see, God … but we can be cognizant and knowledgeable of His effects past and present, making the “leap of faith” of belief not only possible, but quite reasonable and valid. 

Let self-esteem find fulfillment in openness to truth rather than in merely assuming that truth be already possessed. Dispassionate/unprejudiced investigation/inquiry is the sine qua non of productive human inquiry: to find out what truly IS … to find actual truth. 

A thousand years into the future, we will—as all generations do—inevitably look back upon some widely-held beliefs of our day and wonder: “How could they have possibly missed THIS?  How could they ever have thought THAT?” Well … if only we had been open. And listened.

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