Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth for sincere brotherly love, love one another intensely from a pure heart.
1 Peter 1:22
Jesus summoned them and said to them “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Mark 10: 42-44
The psychoanalyst and pediatrician D. W. Winnicott famously coined the phrase “good enough parenting.” It is a wonderfully challenging but also comforting expression, as it takes into account the imperfection of each of us in the task of parenting and of relating to other persons in general. Specifically what Winnicott meant by this phrase was the ability of a parent to hold her or his own rage and hatred of their child in such a way that they did not need to inflict its expression on the child. It meant the emotional and spiritual capacity to neither repress the hatred nor to act it out on the child. This is necessary for us as parents because we all experience a great ambivalence in relationship to others, even to those closest to us.
In today’s reading from 1 Peter, we are called, not unfamiliarly in the scriptures, “to love one another intensely from the heart.” Yet the passage also describes the condition for such a love: “Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth . . . .” To love sincerely, it tells us, requires of us that we become purified “by obedience to the truth.” In terms of our cultural, and often even religious, formation we have a very difficult time believing that the truth of who we are and how we feel in relationship to each other is really the way to love intensely. We realize that those for whom we are responsible as well as those who we most desire to love sincerely evoke very ambivalent feelings in us. We both love them and hate them. We desire them, but we also resent them.
Winnicott says that “good enough parenting” requires the ability to hold in the truth all of these feelings and emotions, but to hold them in such a way that they do not determine our actions toward others. The initial life formation of most of us, however, taught us to fear our own resentment, hatred, and aggression. We then heard the “ideals” of our religious teachings in this light. We came to believe that the only way to really love was to dissociate from those truthful and actual feelings in us that seemed to us contrary to love. In today’s gospel, James and John express their own sense of entitlement by asking Jesus for special places in his kingdom. In response the other disciples become “indignant,” that is angry and resentful at them. Jesus responds by teaching all of them that greatness lies in the degree to which a person becomes a servant of others. This, as all of the great spiritual teachings, is a call to awareness and attention. It calls on us to be aware that, at the level of our unconscious, we want to be served. To become more and more distinctively human, however, we must learn, by honestly facing that sense of entitlement, to move against it by becoming not the served but the servant.
An infant knows only its own needs and when those needs are not immediately met it rages. This infant continues to live in all of us. I know full well the experience of at times feeling anger and resentment bordering on rage at close friends or family members who are disturbing me. As Winnicott says that a parent must learn to hold all of this rage if they are to parent well enough, so too must we learn to do the same if we are to “love one another intensely from a pure heart.”
As a younger person, I often thought that the meaning of “a pure heart” was to develop a heart that felt nothing but love, peace and care. The result for me was to become increasingly dissociated from the aggression, needs, and demands that were an integral, but not integrated, part of my life. At times I would be as surprised as others when I would lose control of myself in a violent verbal or physical expression of rage. I remember as a young teacher that occasionally a student, in a candid and truthful moment, would tell me that I sometimes frightened him. At such moments I was not a “good enough” teacher; I was not able to hold my own rage in such a way that others did not suffer from it.
It is not always, however, as explosive expression that such repression of our own hatred manifests. For some it is a cold and manipulative control of situations and persons. It is by relegating others to mere objects in service to their projects or by consistently and subtly abusing others that their rage is manifest. Others deal with the ambivalence of their own lives by severely limiting them in a rigid and closed perfectionism. This mode was often fostered by a misunderstood and dehumanized religious formation, by a rigid conformity to rules and regulations that became an avoidance of one’s own inner ambiguities. To be a servant in the mode to which Jesus calls us requires an open heart and an attuned body. It requires a humility that comes, not primarily from shame and humiliation, but rather from a wholehearted attempt to hold in awareness, gentleness and firmness our own psychic and spiritual ambivalence.
To seriously undertake a reflective, meditative, and prayerful life is to live aware of ourselves as we are. It is to realize that we love and hate the same people. It is to know the vicissitudes of our own emotions, of the needs and demands of the infant that we always carry with us. It is to learn to “hold” all of this in such a way that we can then truly hear the words of Jesus and all the great spiritual teachers through the ages. We can hear the call to serve rather than to be served and, at least at moments, freely choose to do so. It is to realize that I do love the ones closest to me, even at those times when I feel angry or resentful toward them.
Occasionally we meet persons who seem to inflict hurt everywhere they go. Every situation into which they enter seems to be the worse for it. What seems to distinguish such persons is their lack of awareness. Paradoxically enough, they are so unaware of others because they are almost totally unaware of themselves. Such a person is a walking “id.” They act out their anger, aggression, and rage because they are absolutely unaware of it. In contrast, we read in the journals of Dorothy Day her acknowledgment of how angry she, especially as she aged, would feel at times at the presence of the volunteers at the Catholic Worker House who were far too noisy and disruptive for her. It is obvious that she did not find her anger to be somehow inconsistent with her faith and commitment. She knew her own experience and she suffered it. What she did not do was mindlessly to inflict it on the volunteers. Rather, she even suffered the sadness it could give rise to as she imagined alternatives for her life.
Many people seek psychotherapy or spiritual guidance in order to eliminate what they see as problems with their emotional and dispositional lives. Most often, however, what they begin to learn is to perceive and relate to themselves differently. With the help of another, a help which is also afforded us in prayer and meditation, we experience ourselves, as we are, as being held. In this way we learn, in turn, to hold ourselves differently, humbly but also appreciatively, as we are. Violence begets violence. It is only in “obedience to the truth” that we begin to find peace and harmony in ourselves, our relationships, our families, and our communities, not despite but because of the ambivalence of our human nature.
To surrender the pursuit of certainty, of course, is never an abstract, “intellectual” affair. Our insistence on unambivalent certainty in relationships is not purely intellectual, but a concrete demand of our whole being, and its surrender must therefore be a fully personal surrender. In reality, then, conceptual knowledge of the self-defeating nature of our pursuit of certainty is inadequate. To effect a surrender of this pursuit’s demand for the unambivalent requires a deeply and fully personal insight. This insight realizes—in a way that is at once both cognitive and affective—not only that the pursuit is intrinsically self-destructive but that its surrender can only be achieved in fully personal forgiveness. Rooted in a grasp of the light as well as the dark side of the ambivalence in our relationships, this forgiveness liberates us for the pursuit not of certainty and security but of understanding and truth. Such a conversion is difficult to maintain, for, against our preference for the familiar, the pursuit of understanding would push us into the new and unknown. But given its head, such a cognitive conversion can effect a deeply personal transformation, forcing us to confront the need for certainty and security in every area of our lives.
Walter Conn, Christian Conversion, p. 124