Tuesday, August 18, 2020

How Can We Be Inspired By "Good Example" in Strange Times?

Ideas, by themselves, are not enough to change our humanity.

We really learn how to be different and more profound human beings when we encounter other human persons who are already living this difference, right before our eyes.

What I'm referring to here, generally speaking, is the importance of "good example" in the development of human life. I want to suggest, from an interpersonal and relational perspective, some aspects of how we grow through the good example of others.

Of course, we should note that "bad example" subverts our humanity by hijacking the dynamic of interpersonal relationships under false pretenses, distracting and manipulating it in distorted ways that violate and enslave the human person. As is usually the case with evils, the decadence and corruption of persons through "bad example" and toxic pseudo-relationships require a more complex treatment, even if we're only trying to outline their dynamics in broad terms. I will address these problems in another post. In this post, however, I want to focus on the good example of persons and the ways it can "reach" us.

We need examples of people who live rightly and well, but also (and this is important) such people will have an impact on us to the degree that their actions move us and engage our lives in a concrete way.

The full measure of human engagement, of course, calls for humans to be present to one another in time and proximity, in the immediate physicality of literal "elbow-to-elbow" companionship that characterizes the sharing of deep friendship, healthy family life, and the local "togetherness" of community. Even here, there are different degrees and different ways of this kind of concrete sharing of life.

Moreover, external proximity to a beautiful and inspiring person is not enough; in order to learn from them and grow from their example, we need to see them with our hearts. We need to be awakened and drawn by their remarkable actions, and by the "resonance" of their goodness with the fundamental needs and questions of our own humanity, so as to enter into the more profound and convincing perception of reality they possess, from which they draw motivation.

Ordinary circumstances provide the paradigm for the environment in which these constructive encounters can (and should) take place. The immediate, physical conditions of human life are foundational and irreplaceable for full, healthy human relationships. But we can still encounter human persons, be engaged by them, and be moved and changed by the goodness and beauty of their lives even when they are not "with us" directly, or even if we have never "met them" in a proximate physical way. Humans engage one another through communication, and real communication is one of the ways that the impact of a human life can be "extended" beyond their immediate place and even down through the generations who come after them.

People who lived hundreds, thousands of years ago can still touch us profoundly through communication: that is, through their words or other modes of expressing themselves, and by the fruits of their actions that continue to shape history. We also "meet" them through stories of their lives that are rooted in what has been handed down about who they were and how they lived.

In these current days, our ordinary circumstances have been shaken up in so many unexpected and unpredictable ways, and we have been thrust into awkward and peculiar situations and strained experiences of both proximity and distance from one another. Old and new forms of communications media (from reading classic books to ZOOM) have been both a source of sustenance and a context for frustration as we try to find provisional ways to stay connected, navigate "spaces," and find a healthy solitude that is not swallowed by loneliness or anxiety.

Whatever restrictions we face, and whatever means are available to us, we can grow by encountering the good example of others. Communications media can help us "meet" one another, in normal circumstances and in times of crisis, if we stay faithful to our own humanity as our hearts reveal it to us, and if we remember the real person who is at the origin of every kind of expression in every form of media.

Giving good example, and following good example, are always necessary, but we can and will find ways to help one another even in the midst of the greatest trials.