When we are truly ourselves, we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.” ― Thomas Merton
Many years ago, I went to Confession and revealed a particular habitual sin I had grown weary of confessing over time. We all have them, and sometimes they can lead us into dark places of despair or apathy. But this time, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I gained a deep insight into a root cause of this well-worn habit. I guess it was an experience of grace and nature in sync.
The root I saw was certainly run of the mill, as they go, but the link of the root to the weed of this particular sin was new for me. What I saw was a deep-seated tendency to measure my worth by reflexively comparing myself with others, and what I saw I saw with jarring clarity. As I expressed it in my journal, “I have a very dark fear that who I am is simply never enough.”
Now, I think it’s important to say here that I am not referring to healthy self-knowledge that we humans always have room for growth; or that we need to know our sins, weaknesses or shortcomings so as to remain grounded in reality and aspire to what is better. Nor am I referring here to the importance of seeking out heroes and heroines whose greatness challenges and inspires in us the pursuit of excellence.
No, what I saw in that Confessional was a manner of comparing that only led down into a pit of self-loathing, judgment, resentment, and an envy that grieved over others’ good things. The fruit of this dark self-knowledge was the collapse of hope.
How magnificent is the Sacrament of Mercy! In the shadow of this Sacrament my dark knowledge was filled with light. As I wrote it down in my journal later that day:
John 8:32 became in me today a recapitulation of Genesis 1:1, i.e. the truth has set me free to become a new creation. A seed was planted in me today that I must now tend to if it is to grow and bear fruit. This seed demands that Old Man Adam die within me, and that New Adam rise…
These years since have been immensely fruitful, if challenging, in that regard.
Skip ahead to this last Friday night. My wife and I went to see the new Mr. Rogers movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. There was a scene in the movie where a reporter asked Mr. Rogers if he thought he was a hero. When Mr. Rogers responded that he simply saw himself as an “everyman,” the reporter then asked, “Well, then do you see your character as a hero?” Mr. Rogers responded with alarming sincerity, “I don’t understand your question.”
That response tore me open.
The person Fred Rogers “presents” to the public is the same man who is the everyman, the man he is at home, on set, deep within coram Deo, “before God.” He was a man at peace with himself. That for me is his beauty, a man so reconciled to the reality of who he is, that he’s capable of entering fully and freely with others into a non-competitive arena of redemptive relationships.
Seeing all his inner darkness and light coram Deo, Fred Rogers lived loved by God’s redemptive mercy. Thus reconciled, he could then pass on to others not the dark shadows of a comparing and critical spirit, but the gentle light of self-acceptance that opens him to the peaceful pursuit of true greatness…
Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious
or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.
I also saw anew 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I wrote, “To know God in my weakness is to know this: I am as loved by God in the moment of my greatest failure as I am in the moment of my greatest virtue. The only change is my capacity to perceive and receive this love. This alone frees me to be a man at peace, a man of peace.”