Tuesday, February 14, 2012

THE UNEXAMINED LIFE

Temptation to resist...or a little gift from a benevolent God?







The unexamined life may not be worth living, as Socrates suggested, but it sure is easier than second guessing your every motivation. Maybe it's not exactly what Socrates had in mind, but for the dutiful Catholic a regular examination of conscience is part of the defining regimen. It's something we do before we go to confession. This means a thorough scrutiny of the things we have done that we shouldn't have and the things we didn't do that we should have, as well as the reasons we did or didn't do them. As you can imagine there is enormous potential for inner conflict in this process.
The first problem is deciding what's right and what's wrong. We don't actually get to decide this, of course, although many of us are hard pressed to refrain. We may start by going through the 10 commandments, which seem pretty straightforward, but we soon realize that there are degrees of everything and the more we think about it the harder it is to lay down a distinct line between what we need to confess and what's not so bad after all. To make matters more difficult we have to go confess the bad stuff to a priest, often a priest who knows our mother.
This is a hard place to be. This is the garden where the Serpent resides and tries to persuade us that we are the best judges of our own behavior. He goads us to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He seduces us with the notion that we are as good as God when it comes to deciding what's sinful and what's not. It's an easy job for the Serpent, not least because it's sometimes hard to decipher exactly what God means.
What exactly is coveting for example? Say you admire your neighbor's wife because she looks like Kate Beckinsale and cooks like Paula Dean. One, who could resist such a creature, and two, when does that stop being mere admiration and start being sinful? To complicate matters, suppose your neighbor is a derivatives trader for Goldman Sachs, an insufferable blowhard, and a philandering dog? When does thinking his Aston Martin ought to be in your driveway instead of a 9 year old PT Cruiser cross the border from longing for social justice into rank covetousness?
And how about the eighth commandment? 'Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.' We are told this means you're not allowed to tell lies. What does bearing false witness have to do with the untruths we tell to grease the skids of social discourse? If your husband wants to know if his snoring is an irritant, how charitable is it to say the truth that if it were any worse you would murder him in his sleep? When your six-year-old wants to know why Santa brought him underpants instead of the Freddie Kruger action figure he asked for, do you lie and tell him he should have been a better kid or tell him the truth that Santa doesn't really exist and the crappy gifts are actually from his mother?
I think you get the idea. A good examination of conscience is a tricky endeavor, fraught with moral peril. You have to know what God thinks, even though a lot of what He's said sounds like a 17th century English poet who's been drinking wine all day. Plus, if the nuns and your catechism are to be believed, He actually left a lot of stuff out of the commandments. So for instance, where it says 'Though shalt not kill,' it seems pretty direct and easy to understand, but we are taught that this also means you can't punch your brother for sticking his tongue out at you in the backseat of your dad's car, or you can't slap your kid for punching his brother, or you can't get angry with your wife for maxing out the Mastercard on the wedding reception for your daughter, who is marrying a vampire wannabee.
We all understand 'Thou shalt not commit adultery', but there are hundreds of ways to be unfaithful to your spouse and the institution of marriage without actually knocking boots in secret trysts. So how do you decide when taking your car to a sorority bikini car wash is less about keeping you car clean and more about chatting up some coeds to see if you've still got some mojo left? Where exactly does wishful thinking become an affront to your vows?
Once you've got a good grasp on your sins, you have to then cultivate a 'firm purpose of amendment'. This means sincere determination not to commit the same sins again. This too is much easier said than done, especially when you consider that most of your so-called sins happened by accident. You resolve to do better. You go to great lengths to avoid situations where you are likely to be tempted. You pray for strength. Then one day you are at the farmers' market looking at the honey crisp apples when a gust of wind lifts the silk skirt of the woman standing next to you to reveal lacy yellow boy-short panties and legs that extend beyond your wildest imaginings. It's difficult at this point to know whether to complain to God that He has led you into temptation in spite of your prayers to the contrary, or to thank Him for the fortuitous view of some of the pinnacles of His creation.
Bean, the contemplative
My dog, Bean, conducts regular self-examinations as well, even though, technically, he is not a Catholic. Admittedly, his focus seems to be more proctological than spiritual, and he does not seem to differentiate much between enthusiastic self-examination and probing the southern-most regions of any other dog that comes within range. Bean has not eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Neither did any of his ancestors. He remains blissful in his ignorance of any arbitrary borders between the proper and the proscribed.
For all his wonderful qualities, Bean is incapable of looking gleefully forward to an opportunity to do something that he knows he shouldn't while praying at the same time, and fervently, for the strength to resist the temptation. We humans can, and, because we can, we do. It's this kind of conflictedness that makes the smelter in which our humanity is fired, repeatedly, until we are sufficiently purified to stand before our Creator and admit to being worse creatures than our dogs.

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