Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Is There More Love and Kindness in Today’s World?

I don’t think there is any single methodology or set-of-tools that would enable us to “measure” love and kindness in a way that could answer the question of the title of this essay. In any case, it’s not a question that I know how to answer.

There are, however, some ways of taking up this question that might appear to lead us to an answer, but which ultimately prove to be reductive and inadequate. For example, sometimes our silly, overindulgent, comfort-saturated uber-affluent society fancies that “we” (and here we presume to speak for the whole human race) are all growing closer to one another—that we are learning to understand and celebrate everyone’s self-expression, and moving toward a more harmonious and unified life in our global village, and even a more authentic and inclusive “spirituality.” Overall, we’d like to feel good about ourselves in this respect.

Never mind for the moment that there’s a gruesome war going on which appears to be growing beyond anyone’s control, and that in many other antagonistic parts of the world, nations are arming themselves to the teeth. The world, in fact, is becoming an ever more scary place, even if there are many sincere efforts to humanize the explosion of technology that is “bringing us closer together” whether we like it or not. We live in dramatic and dangerous times, in which many of us suffer from interior afflictions—often without realizing it—as we face unprecedentedly intense pressure and potential psychological collisions in our daily affairs.

There’s not much tranquility in our real lives. We live in conditions of overextended activity, distraction, and rootless hyper-mobility; and we regard one another with incomprehension and mutual suspicion, and with a strained vigilance for the often harsh conflicts that arise in our increasingly fragile relationships with one another. These circumstances tend to complicate the mood of feathery optimism that we sometimes cultivate in our social milieu. Our subconscious defensiveness, cloaked under the pretense of “progress,” includes the promulgation of a few “new commandments” (which, when rightly understood, are valid in themselves): “Don’t judge people! Don’t condemn others! Be kind! Be tolerant!

Here we even invoke the teaching of Jesus: “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1).

The problem comes when these legitimate maxims—originally rooted in confidence in God’s providence and a respect for human dignity, and inspired by evangelical love—degenerate into pretexts for defining our human interactions evasively, in ways that precisely fall short of love. This happens when we say “don't judge" but what we really mean is “remain neutral, uncommitted, unconcerned about the real truth and happiness of another person." We wish in our minds to subtly dehumanize the other person, and pretend that their freedom is inconsequential and their choices therefore cannot weigh upon themselves or hurt us. 

We are, in fact, afraid to loveWe are afraid to take the risk of grappling with the provocation of a real human relationship with a person who is different from us, or who challenges us by their vulnerability—a person who needs help from us, but who also is a need for the Infinite Mystery, a fullness we cannot give them or ourselves. 

And when we talk about "tolerance" and “inclusiveness” what we often really mean is that we want to define in distinctive (and distancing) categories people who are different from us in ways that make us feel uncomfortable, or whose actions and flaws we don’t understand, or whose suffering is beyond our capacity to resolve or empathize with. “Tolerance” can be a wall between people that they agree to build so that they can be protected from one another. Here again there is no room for love to grow, and there is the danger that ultimately we won’t care about anybody beyond ourselves and/or our own group.

This is the disease that festers beneath our pretenses of comfortable optimism. Under the disguise of superficial sentimental expressions of mutual affirmation, we are growing more alone, more isolated from one another.

But Jesus says that instead of judging and condemning one another we must love one another, give of ourselves to one another, forgive one another. This has never been easy, and in today's world it is in some ways harder than ever. Our drift toward isolation and anxiety is not entirely our fault. But we must not kid ourselves that our human relationships are healthy and secure, much less that our society had found the “key” to living together in peace, harmony, and enduring happiness for everyone.

We are still at the threshold of an emerging "new epoch" dominated by power, and we must endure all the tumultuous intensity of its unprecedented experiments in "stretching" the capacities of human persons and environments. Finding ourselves in this bewildering and conflicted ambient, many of us are confused about our own identity, afflicted by trauma, and desperate to protect ourselves.

God alone judges us, and perhaps we can better appreciate this as a blessing. Even as the Lord sees us entirely and scrutinizes our hidden faults, he also knows all the complex circumstances that constrain us and that can diminish somewhat (and even to a significant degree) our culpability.

This brave new world, with its unprecedented and ongoing multiplication of so many kinds of power, smashes and breaks people in the places where they are vulnerable. It's a world of constant mental strain, and those who cannot keep up with the pace of its relentless, absorbing expansion of forces—or at least manage the stress—must shift through the wreckage it leaves behind in themselves.

These are traumatic times. Not surprisingly, many of us are traumatized. Naturally, we are trying to protect ourselves, and we seek out various forms of isolation, motivated by a combination of fear and the instinct for survival.

A few of us can try to hold on strictly by ourselves; we are the intellectuals who analyze everything and commit to nothing. More often, we are isolated "together" behind the fortress walls of our tribes—our illusory substitutes for commitment and community—bound together by violence and fear and the desire to make war on others.

But the light of the Gospel shines even in times like these. The Gospel addresses our whole humanity, and its power not only brings eternal life but also offers the best hope of subordinating the vast scope of our power to the wisdom of an integral humanism and a deeper awareness of the dignity of human persons called (and enabled by the Holy Spirit) to live together as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

Jesus says "stop judging" and "stop condemning," but at the same time he says, "Give..." which is akin to the exhortation to love, to suffer for the sake of justice, to lose ourselves for his sake so that we might truly find ourselves.

But he does not only exhort us. He draws us on the path that he himself has made through the cross to the resurrection.