Here at Mundelein seminary we have the priviledge of having Father Robert Barron teach classes on occasion. If you don’t know who he is, take some time (soon) to go to his website ‘Word on Fire‘ and read his reflections or watch some of his videos.
Recently, in one of Fr. Barron’s courses, we got to talking about a common line of thinking that has seeped into public understanding. The phrase that best exemplifies this goes along these lines: “it doesn’t matter what you do, its who you are on the inside that matters”. Politicians, actors, actresses, athletes – public people in general – often talk about how their previous actions/words/votes/issues aren’t examples of who they really are.
We take this to heart in our day-to-day deals as well. The boss who is domineering, insensitive or just plain a jerk – ‘well, if you got to know him you would realize what a great guy he is’. The neighbor who is aggressive, the co-worker who is sexist and so on. ‘They’re really good people on the inside’. So what’s wrong with this sentiment? On the surface of it, it seems very charitable.
If people really knew me…..
The issue with this is that dismissing any value in actions with an appeal to some inner character ultimately leads to concluding that actions have no value. It goes against common sense – if someone does something rude, mean or inconsiderate to another person then that person is being a jerk. If that same person is always rude, mean or inconsiderate, well, then that person is a jerk. This isn’t to say a person can’t change or that the same person has no dignity, but it does mean that they’re a jerk. If a person is mean to people all the time, it seems pretty obvious to say that that person is a bad person.
Take this to the extreme. If I come up to you and start beating you with a baseball bat, would you consider me a good person because ‘I’m really a nice guy when you get to know me’? Probably not – and someone who did would be both mistaken and beaten up.
‘Its not who you are but what you do that defines you’
The simple fact of human relationships is that we know people through their actions. Not being divine, the primary way we get to know others is through our experiences of them. In the words of parents around the world: ‘I can’t read your mind’. Its a frustrating limitation on our part, but its true.
Look at this from a eschatalogical point of view. Why do we go to heaven or go to hell? The groundwork of our final destination is our actions. But there is more here than just what we’ve done. The basic premise of the final judgment is that what we’ve done with our lives forms us into something. Now if we are good people, we are not being good – we are becoming good. Think about that for a moment.
Take friends. More and more over the years, I have noticed that I pick up ideas and mannerisms of people I am around. I call my youngest brother ‘buddy’ – something I picked up from a older kid I looked up to when I was a Boy Scout. I try harder to open doors for women – something I picked up from being around some seminarians who I admire. Likewise, I found it hard to avoid cursing as a teenager because I had been around so many friends who did the same. I never lost the essence of who I was, but I nonetheless became a little bit like those around me. There was a unity between us; in small ways, I became more like them through what I did & said.
Likewise we can look at (happily) married couples and see how as they live together, the two become more & more similar. Through the various acts of life together in marriage, they come to resemble the other.
The obvious theological leap is that we as followers of the Lord strive to become more and more like God; that is what heaven is all about. God is love. How are the (willed) actions I make throughout my forming me to become love?
In creating us, God modeled us after Himself. By virtue of our free will, we can try to model ourselves after anything we want. If I decide that money, lust, pride or whatever is the most important thing in my life, what am I becoming – what am I changing myself into by the actions that accompany my priorities?
The catch is that we can never change the essence of what we are. No matter what you or I do, we will always be human.
Imagine a cat that thinks it a dog, for whatever reason – usually being brought up with dogs. Its kind of funny because, in the end, the cat is in fact….. still a cat, and it always will be. It can try to be a dog for its entire life, but its never going to make it. If it were to try too hard, it might end up getting hurt, albeit in a minor way.
Multiply that times a lot for us. We are meant to be images of the Divine – to be joined with God for all eternity. We can pretend that we are not (free will!), but its going to fail – we can’t change our essence. What we will succeed in doing is becoming more or less human – a better or worse person. A good or bad human being. Ultimately we can not be good without God, but we can cooperate (an action!) with God – or not. But no matter what we do, we will be changed. If little things matter (and they do – ask any woman looking for a husband), then big things matter all the more. If anything matters, then it all matters.
So what if each one of us took the time to examine our actions – even just for three seconds before doing something – to see what they meant for who we are. What if each of us asked ourselves “How will this change me?” to each word, decision, action of the next day, week or the whole year. Measuring against the standard of God’s perfect love for us in our creation, redemption and final end, we would certainly find that while we may actually be flawed or even bad people, we have too have power to change for the good… starting with the very next act we do.
What kind of person do you want to be… and how are you going to become that person?
God bless you and Happy New Year
- Deacon Jacob Maurer