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

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Catharsis Isn't Coming

Let me start with one of those everyday dramas that every parent can understand. You are confronted with your offspring who has just torn pages out of a book, or hit his sister, or gone off downtown without telling you first. The child stands sullenly, chin jutted out, seemingly impervious to your words of righteous anger. Some deep instinct within you says: get a reaction. Keep pushing. Scold more loudly, or lay on more guilt, or impose some more severe punishment. Break through this child's sullen armor and show that you can get a change.

Deep down within us, there is an expectation that if only we can bring things to a crisis point, the point where the status quo breaks, then the change we are desperately seeking will occur, and we will feel satisfied. This is such a deep human belief that it is built into our rules for creating fiction. Fiction is, after all, a means by which we make sense of our world by creating a smaller one which operates according to our understanding of how the world should work in order to be truly satisfying. According to this pattern, the main character starts out wanting something, there are obstacles to that desire, the obstacles escalate and complicate. At last there is a peak of conflict. Suffering is endured. Losses are suffered. We feel pity and fear. But at last order prevails: the kingdom is saved, the couple comes together, the murderer is caught. All is made right, the conflict is resolved, and we feel satisfied.

And yet, real life almost never serves up these climactic moments ending in satisfaction.

This was striking me recently in reference to the scandals in the Catholic Church. A rising tide of indignation from the laity in the US has been demanding action from the Vatican: institute an apostolic visitation to the US to investigate clerical abuse; release documents relating to how long the Vatican has known about former-Cardinal McCarrick's sexual abuse of children, of seminarians, and of priests; take serious actions against clerics who are chronically violating their vows of celibacy.

At last it seemed as if there was a chink in the dam of seeming Vatican indifference. Cardinal DiNardo, the head of the USCCB, was after more than a month of waiting at last invited to meet with Pope Francis to discuss the situation. When the meeting happened, and the press photo of it released showed the pope and bishops laughing and seemingly having a good time, many were furious. It seemed yet another sign that the Church's leadership were not taking the crises of clerical immorality seriously.

That may all be so, or it may be the result of a PR photographer's idiotic judgement, but it got me thinking about what would seem like a satisfying reaction by the Vatican. If I stick within the realm of things that are remotely likely to happen, I have to be honest with myself: there are no satisfying solutions to this situation. At some level, as we seek resolution, we're seeking something that will right the injustices we've seen and felt. And yet, the injustices of this world are never fully righted this side of eternity.

I've pointed to fiction as offering the satisfaction of seeing wrongs righted that we always crave yet do not get often in real life. Yet perhaps that judgement is too simplistic. I'm reminded of a favorite movie of mine in high school: The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. I'm sure I watched it at least a dozen times, and it has a very satisfying ending. Dr. Kimble (Ford) successfully tracks down his wife's real killer and manages to cause the villain to confess in a way that allows the US marshal searching for him (Jones) to hear it. In the end, Dr. Kimble is clearly going to be exonerated. The guilty are punished. We, the audience, feel satisfaction.

And yet, would the main character Dr. Kimble feel that all is righted? His wife is still dead. His life in ruins. He's no longer believed to be his wife's killer, but in every other respect things are as bad as they were before. Perhaps at some level the reason we feel satisfaction at the end of the story is because the story has not happened to us. We see Sauron defeated, and we feel the world is made right, but we do not feel as Frodo does, broken to the point that he has to take shelter in the utter East. We feel resolution, but Arwen does not as she walks through empty Lorien, her husband dead and her kindred over the seas, leaving her to die alone.

Yet in life, we have no choice but to be a character rather than a reader or watcher. We are not satisfied by the visual righting of wrongs, the moving of points from one column into another, we still feel the pangs of injustice, the wounds we acquired along the way. And so we don't feel the resolution that a reader or watcher might. We are left feeling unfulfilled.

When we try to push the drama to a higher pitch, hoping that somehow by creating more tension, more conflict, we will achieve the satisfaction and release of dramatic resolution, we don't get satisfaction, we get more pain, more wounds, more sense of incompleteness.

What then are we to do? Keep muddling on. Do the right thing at each moment, rather than fighting for some climactic battle during which good will triumph for all time. Try to replace the bitterness in our hearts with love. The work of Christianity is never over in this life. Our only victory is beyond death, when we hope to at last see all wrongs righted, be healed of all wounds, and be united forever with the one perfect Good.


Brandon said...

In the modern world we have a tendency to think that if we only find the right method of approach, every problem become solvable. I think it's often difficult for us to accept that some problems can only be solved when things entirely out of our control line up just right. But, as you say, in a sense the overarching problem for the human race is precisely such a problem -- our task is just to wait and be ready -- so our primary tasks as Christians are always in some sense the same, regardless of whether a solution is in our hands or in some unknown future.

Agnes said...

Oh dear. Don't I know the example you started with, the sullen teenager who will just NOT give the reaction to show that my words touched him, even if they did...
Your example of Tolkien showing us the other side of the final victory (which actually shows that it isn't, after all, the final one as it remains within this world) is very much to the point, although at least there were those moments of triumph when the people of the Kingdom could rejoice.

I think the gist of what you are saying is to leave judgment to God and accept that true judgment will never be shown to us in this world... but this is very hard to accept, especially with these issues where sin is so obvious. Then again, there is the parable of the wheat and weeds - yes, it was told us what to expect.

Banshee said...

Yeah, but there's a reason why the medieval pageantry also included a lot of public penitential rituals and processions.

Nothing is going to make the abuse survivors "feel better," per se. But it would be really good to see the bishops walking down the street barefoot, leading a procession of folks making reparations and saying prayers.

It would show a certain level of seriousness, that bureaucratic paperwork does not.