Examination of conscience: On humility and compassion: Second day of spiritual exercise (2)

There are times when a problem stops you in your tracks. Mine has been determining how much reality to let in.

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To live well, we must be grounded in a lived reality. By “a lived reality,” I mean a net of ownmost desires and values that are connected to an external world. Take one example: love. I desire the other and, inasmuch as I desire her, I also accord her a high value in my overall hierarchy of values. Hence, being grounded in a lived reality entails seeing myself in relation to her, seeing my flourishing as connected to hers, seeing my weal and woe as dependent on hers, so that should she perish I will feel it, I will grieve for her. This is hard.

Or take another example: namely, ambition. My ambition consists of a desire to see my aim realized. The aim is intrinsically or extrinsically valuable to me insofar as it furthers what matters to me. When my aim is realized, my power increases; when it is blocked, my power decreases. It is often enough blocked, and this feels like dissipation. This too is hard.

A lived reality matters to us–but matters how much to us? How much weight do we, should we, ascribe to this or that item, this or that object, aim, or person? I wrote about this in connection with the Pollyanna problem months ago. In that post, I cited Robert Nozick who was in the middle of puzzling through the case of a Holocaust survivor:

A proponent of maximizing our own happiness might recommend we ignore these negative portions of reality and focus our attention selectively only upon the positive. Sometimes that might be appropriate; a person in a Nazi extermination camp might focus eventually upon memories of Mozart’s music in order to escape the horrors around him. But if this were his preoccupation from the beginning, smiling constantly in fond memory of the music, that reaction would be bizarre. Then he would be disconnected from important features of his world, not giving them emotional attention commensurate with they evil they inflict.

It would feel strange–worse, inhuman–not to feel disappointment for an aim unactualized, not to feel grief for a beloved who has perished, not to focus at all or enough on our peccadilloes and defects, not to acknowledge our dreary moods–but then how much disappointment should we feel, how long should we grieve, how much focus give to our defects, for how long acknowledge our dreariness, to what length give voice to our weariness? We can be crippled by our interpretations of lived reality, and we can become quite a bore as a result.

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Nietzsche said that “living well is the best revenge.” By which he meant that forgetting, a lightness but also a strength of forgetting, was vital for restoring our vital powers. If too much memory is crippling, then just the right amount of forgetting may be liberating.

Yet if we forget too much or at the wrong time or in the wrong way? I know too many people who think too well of themselves without good reason. Their absent-mindedness and their “dishonesty” appal me. Their lives go on unexamined and, in consequence, half-lived. I am sad for them. Why don’t they feel ashamed?

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And so, there are two lofty, unshirkable demands, and I have no idea what to make of them. There is the demand to face reality as well as the demand to live forgetfully. The first leads us to see life in tragic terms and this we surely ought; the second to regard life in epic terms and this we surely ought. But what proper “weight” should we assign each in order to live flourishingly?

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I have no idea, truly. I am awash in humility. All I know is that I am intact and that I can say yes to life. I don’t know whether my feeling of self-love–a soft mood, a quiet melody–is the result of blessedness or of strength. I also know that few of the people I meet can say the same. They are falling apart. For them, I feel compassion but also a certain sadness.

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