Posts Tagged ‘humility’

Why is it that some people, especially in the blogs and comment boxes, become so hostile on the internet? Is it the anonymity? The lack of self-censorship that arises when communication is instantaneous? The inability to un-post a spontaneous comment? The tiredness that comes with writing late into the night? Or is it simply that online communication is, in one sense, unmediated: you meet the real person sitting at their computer; you are plugged into their mind – and this is what our minds are like.

Alan Jacobs has a different answer. He thinks it is because we have an over-developed sense of justice, that is not balanced or tempered by the virtues of humility and charity. It’s too simplistic to say that people are just angry or rude or self-righteous. Maybe they are. But this doesn’t explain what drives their anger or rudeness or self-righteousness.

What energises them is a sense of justice: “I’ve seen something that you haven’t, something that matters, something that could be lost.” But this zeal for justice can drown out every other human virtue, especially the virtues that make it possible to communicate that sense of justice to others, or to question whether one’s judgements about this possible injustice are correct.

now-famous cartoon on the xkcd “webcomics” site shows a stick figure typing away at his computer keyboard as a voice from outside the frame says, “Are you coming to bed?” The figure replies: “I can’t. This is important. . . . Someone is wrong on the Internet.” I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice…

As we have come to focus our attention ever more on politics and the arts of public justice, we have increasingly defined our private, familial, and communal lives in similar terms. The pursuit of justice has come to define acts and experiences that once were governed largely by other virtues. It is this particular transformation that Wendell Berry was lamenting when he wrote, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” That is, it has become a matter of justice rather than of love, an assertion of rights rather than a self-giving.

This same logic governs our responses to one another on the Internet. We clothe ourselves in the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot help being righteous (“Someone is wrong on the Internet”). In our online debates, we not only fail to cultivate charity and humility, we come to think of them as vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy. And so we go forth to war with one another.

This comes close to what Thomas Hobbes, writing four centuries ago, famously called the “war of every man against every man.” As he pointed out, such a war may begin in the name of justice, but justice cannot long survive its depredations. In such an environment, “this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. . . . Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

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You have probably seen the Sky ‘no compromise’ TV advertising campaign in which Eric Cantona, Forrest Gump-like, walks through some of the great moments of sporting history.

I saw one of the associated posters driving down the A40 recently, which has Cantona looking broody beside the following caption:


It’s meant as a rhetorical question, but surely there are plenty of answers. Even before I had hit the next set of traffic lights my mind darted from the exquisite carvings around the vault of a gothic cathedral, too distant for the unaided human eye to see, to the spiritual heroism of an enclosed nun like St Thérèse of Lisieux, to the hundreds of thousands of relatives caring for their sick and disabled loved ones without acknowledgement or reward.

But perhaps Eric and his Sky-paymasters would counter, like the medieval theologians, that all this hidden greatness is indeed meant to be seen: in the present moment by God, and at the end of time at the Last Judgment by the whole of creation. Quite an audience. And perhaps they’d give an even less theological answer, which is that I can only point to examples of such hidden greatness and humility because they have in fact come to light. I can take my binoculars to Chartres Cathedral, read a book about Thérèse, or see a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the lives of carers in modern Britain. Technology and the media have made it possible for me to discover this hidden greatness for myself and then to speak about it to others. Lots of paradoxes here.

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I was at a funeral last Thursday of a friend and fellow priest who died tragically in a car crash, Fr Edward Houghton. May he rest in peace; and may his family and all those who mourn him receive comfort and consolation.

So many thoughts remain, most of them too personal for a blog, but one stands out in reflecting on death and how we view it today. In the sermon, Fr Peter Houghton (Fr Ed’s brother) used a simple but powerful phrase: If we are afraid of death then we will be afraid of life. If we cling to life and its joys too powerfully, if we see death only as a threat, then life – paradoxically – will be harder to live. We will be crippled by anxiety and overprotective of all the good things that come to us. But if we are able to acknowledge the horizon of death, and to accept it as a possibility at each moment of our lives, then this will give us a kind of freedom and serenity: to live for the moment – not recklessly, but with gratitude and humility; to take risks – when there are good reasons; to realise that we are not ultimately in control of everything – and that we can learn to trust in something or someone greater; to hope in the possibility of life beyond the grave – not as an escape or a refuge but as a fulfilment of all that we are living through now.

Perhaps the opposite is also true: If we avoid thinking about death then it will be hard to find any peace in this life. If we immerse ourselves so completely in the reality of this present life, it could just be a way of masking an underlying anxiety about where it is heading, and an unresolved fear of losing it, a kind of hidden dread.

It is not easy to face death, but it is much harder (both psychologically and spiritually) spending a lifetime trying to avoid it. How we find the courage to face death, and then to accept it with some kind of serenity, and even to hope that there will be a way beyond death into another kind of life – that is another question…

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I gave a talk about friendship recently to a group of young adults in London. At the beginning I forced them to sit in silence for five minutes and think about their closest friends: how they met, why they stayed in touch, what they like about each other, why the friendship works, what they receive from the friendship, etc. It’s good to reflect like this now and then, it makes you more appreciative and grateful – but don’t do it too often! Even if you are really together in yourself and secure in your relationships, you will start to get paranoid, obsessing about whether you have any true friends, and why the person sitting next to you has twice as many as you do.

Aristotle is still the best place to start. If you have a few minutes, read through the wonderful Book Eight of the Nicomachean Ethics. [The translation by W.D. Ross is here; scroll to page 127.] And here is his Facebook page, just to prove that he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk:

Would you poke Aristotle? by Arbitrary.Marks.

Aristotle says that we have some friends because they are ‘useful’, and others because they are ‘pleasant’. This sounds a bit cold and calculating. But there is a simple truth here, behind the slightly stark language, which I think we all take for granted: That we enter into a friendship because we hope to receive something from it; we want to be with our friends for a reason; namely that there is some mutual benefit (we are ‘useful’ to each other’), or just the sheer joy of being with the other person (we ‘please’ each other). And in fact it would be a bit strange if I told you that I wasn’t better off for seeing you or had no desire to be with you.

‘Perfect friendship’, however, is between good people who seek what is truly good for each other. Yes, there will be much mutual gain, and much joy; but there is this extra element of selflessness, humility, and generosity – wanting what will truly help the other person to be who they are meant to be.

Aristotle draws the logical conclusions from this: It’s hard to be a good friend if you are not a good person yourself. To care for another person, to seek what is best for them, you have to have the inner resources to go beyond your own needs and desires and fears; you have to put them at the centre; you have to see them as someone worthy of love and kindness and not just as someone defined by what they bring to you. You have to see them, in other words, as a person in their own right and not just as a partner in a relationship. This isn’t possible if you are trapped in your own own selfishness. Or to put it more constructively, if you want to have good friends, and to be a good friend to others, then you should try to grow in goodness yourself. I’m not saying I am there yet; but I think Aristotle has the right idea.

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