Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Egotism and its Discontents


Two quotes I heard over the weekend have been rattling around in my brain. One is from Father Robert Barron's Catholicism series, from the first episode, I think. I can't quote it exactly, but I found something much like it from his other writings: "Truly to love is to move outside of the black hole of one's egotism".  The other is from St. Therese, speaking of her daily life: "I have never heard Him speak, yet I know He is within me. He is there, always guiding and inspiring me; and just when I need them, lights, hitherto unseen, break in. This is not as a rule during my prayers, but in the midst of my daily duties."

Over the past months, I've been slogging through a sullen, arid desert landscape of my own making, confronted at every turn with trials no bigger than grains of sand. Woe, I'm tired -- because I don't get enough sleep because I stay up too late because the kids go to bed late because I feed them late. Poor me, my house is a mess -- because people used to keep servants to clean a house this size, and I can't be organized enough to make the kids help, and we have too much stuff anyway. The kids are undisciplined and destructive -- and whose job, exactly, is it to ensure that they lead a structured and creative life? I'm gaining weight, which is generally what happens when I can't be bothered to exercise and yet can't be bothered to police my eating. I have one of the easiest, happiest, most carefree existences, not just by the standards of my acquaintance, but on an historical scale. The sandstorm of minor frustrations and tiny inconveniences has been scouring away a lot of my easy illusions about who I am, and revealing a core of spiritual and personal ugliness that ought to be galvanizing, if I wasn't too apathetic to do more than contemplate it in disgust. The hole of egotism isn't black, but mirrored, and every mirror reflects every flaw. 

And yet this description is too dramatic. I don't wallow in despair all day; I just kinda do my work. "Kinda" is the operative term, as doing one thing and doing it well seems an unachievable luxury, or just too much work anyway. So schoolwork slides, the house grows dingy, the laundry builds, and as I run just to stay in one place, I'm constantly reminded I'm not actually running as hard as I could be because I don't really want to. I get the impression that St. Therese might have applied herself more diligently to her daily duties than I do to mine.

That's not to say that there isn't a certain peace in sweeping the floor. It can have a nice meditative quality, especially when the big kids are all outside and the baby is napping and I have a cup of tea, still hot, on the counter. But it's hard to feel it when one sweeps up the cheerios that are crushed on the floor because one didn't sweep them up immediately the moment the box was overturned, and why do we even buy cheerios anyway when people are just going to dump them out, and the same thing will happen tomorrow morning because cheerios are an easy breakfast and I didn't get up early enough to make everyone eggs or biscuits (for which there's no butter because I didn't go to the store). Some people glow with Christian joy in the midst of trials, but I feel like the soldier in the trench, grubby and disheveled, waiting with gritted teeth for the shelling to end not so that I can patch the trench and fortify my position, but just so I can smoke in peace.

Of course Christian joy comes from abandonment of self, but that's just what I don't want to do. I want to live on my own time: taking twenty minutes more than I should to read the newspaper; rolling over and pulling up the blanket when the alarm goes off; taking an hour of school time to write a post; everything leisurely and unhassled. Oddly enough, life doesn't cooperate with my agenda. Turns out I can't roll through the day with no schedule and expect my children to just pick up some discipline. I can't slide through my spiritual life doing little more than murmuring petitions and little ejaculations, and then expect to be supported by the core I haven't developed. I can't hoard time and energy for myself without becoming cold and unresponsive to the needs of those who need me. And I know this. I know lots of things that I don't put into practice. I know the solutions to my discontents. I just haven't chosen to implement them.

Yesterday I encountered another quote, from Mother Teresa: "Don't give in to discouragement. If you are discouraged it is a sign of pride because it shows you trust in your own powers." Yes, I do trust in my own powers -- if not powers of will to effect change, then powers of perception about my failings. And it grates on me that I can't just bootstrap my way to being a better person -- although how do I know when I won't try? Couldn't I do it if I really wanted to? What does it say about me that I don't want to try? And see what I did here -- everything is, as always, about me. Once again I'm stuck in the  mirrored pit of egotism. It would be a joy if I could abandon myself and relinquish, just for a time, the weight of responsibility for fixing all of my problems.

16 comments:

Brandon said...

Very definitely been there. Well, without the children, so I suppose it was a different 'there'; but I know what you mean.

BettyDuffy said...

At various times in my life, I could have written this very post. The good thing I've noticed, at least for me, is that it comes and goes. When the muck gets too deep, I clean it, and keep it up for a few days, and start feeling really good again, until I slack off because things have been going so well...

I just went to confession today, so I'm feeling all on top of it. But I was thinking about the dumb things I confess over and over again--and what's the point if I'm just going to do it again, and all that--but I had this little vision of what I'd be like if I never confessed it--and it was sort of like opening the barn doors, and all the animals come out in the field, at least I'm getting them back in the barn at night, otherwise they'd wonder off, far, far away.

BettyDuffy said...

Of course it would probably be better if I never opened the doors...

cliff said...

About the cheerios - get a dog. :)

bearing said...

"Mirrored pit.". I like that.

MrsDarwin said...

All loves are cyclical, they say, and so are most anti-loves. Fortunately this is a state of mind that, as Betty says, comes and goes, and I feel better for having written about it. This is a mood that has weighed upon me more rather than less in past months, and I've hesitated to write about it because a) I didn't really want to expose myself to a lot of computer-chair analysis telling me that I'm depressed [I'm not; I've lived in the past with people suffering from depression and that's a completely different situation]; and b) I didn't want a lot of practical advice. I know I need to eat my vegetables, exercise, take "me" time, go on retreat, meditate on the Four Last Things, etc. More head knowledge is not I need. I know the tools; I need the will-power -- no, the grace -- to even want to pick them up.

Brandon, it's all the same "there", though the little darlings are particularly helpful in showing to me all the ways in which I could be living a better life. By the way, do you like my photo at the top of the post? It's the top left panel of my library door. Yesterday Jack took it into his head to throw a hairbrush, which hit and cracked rather extensively the glass that had remained unscathed for ninety years. I couldn't prevent the immediate incident, which happened too quickly for anyone to stop, but it couldn't have happened if I had picked up the hairbrush -- no, the broken hairbrush handle, actually, which should have been thrown away as soon as I saw it on the floor. We just can't have nice things.

Brandon said...

That is a definite crack. I don't think I ever cracked a window so nicely. At least in the meantime you know that Jack can always have a career in postmodern art.

Skywalker said...

I could have written this post. I keep thinking that if I had more community around me that I'd do better, because I'm just not good at being motivated in solitude. But where does that leave me? I too need the grace to do what I ought to do.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Ah, I've been there too.

bearing said...

Your post touched me a lot yesterday, and I left the short comment only because I couldn't really express at length all the ways it affected me, but I hated to see it go un-commented upon.

When I go sinking down into that sort of narcissism it has different effects on me. I don't tend to go all slothy and fail tp pick up things and let chaos take over. (Unless I'm sick, and then I give myself slack). I tend to get pinched and mean, and take it out on people with little power, like my children, or customer service representatives of businesses I'm on the phone with.

It still makes me hang up the phone and wish I could escape myself. Sometimes I feel like dragging myself around with me is a huge burden, and can't stand to listen to my own voice anymore. This is why the mirrored pit resonates. You know Sartre, "Hell is other people?" I know better than that.

Jennifer Fitz said...

Mrs. D., I thought I was coming here to slack off on the internet, not to see myself described in excruciating detail. Eek.

Anonymous said...

on those mean reds

JMB said...

I have gone through stages like this. Lately, I've struggled with the summer months with my family. I find I'm constantly working - cleaning bathrooms, picking up wet towels, driving kids to and fro, watching kids swim, making lunches, cleaning up afterwards. It never stops. Sometimes I even resist going on vacation because I just move my life to another home for a week or so. At least a pack mule gets to sleep standing up! My only consolation is the thought that people are made for work. Even though my work is manual, it still brings me some joy when I hit the sack in complete exhaustion at the end of the day.

Anonymous said...

This is a pretty good description of my own situation. My question to you is, as I value your perspective, is it the right time to take it to confession or should one wait until one is better disposed to change? In other words, would it be abusing the sacraments to go when one mentally isn't quite ready to change?

MrsDarwin said...

Anon,

That sounds like the perfect time to go to confession, actually. Only the sick need a doctor, as Jesus said. Contrition is not an emotion or even a mental state (though those can factor in) but an act of the will. Even taking the step of going to confession requires you to conform yourself to God's will, and that's never a bad thing. Then, speaking these things aloud can itself incite the desire to change.

But most importantly, receiving the graces from the sacrament will give you the strength to even want to change. How can we do this on our own? If it's any encouragement to you, I'm going to Confession this afternoon to lay all this out. Come with me.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm the same anon who posted the previous comment.

Thank you for encouraging me. I went to confession yesterday, even though I didn't think I had "hit bottom" as they say and would have liked to wallow a bit more.

I didn't feel anything right away, but I'm feeling better as I type this tonight. I hope you are too and see the fruits of confession.

Thanks again.

HG