Sunday, February 16, 2014

Besetting Scruples

Some of my Christian friends say that we each have personal 'besetting sins', destructive behaviors to which we are particularly susceptible, which we tend to be slow in recognizing and quick in indulging.  I think that many of us also have particular sins which repel us very strongly even in their mildest forms. I call these things besetting scruples. 
I can see plenty of good and no harm in applying our besetting scruples to our own lives.  I am trying to figure out when and how to voice mine in relation with other people, and how to deal with other people's voicing of besetting scruples in areas to which I'm not particularly sensitive.
My own besetting scruples have to do with what I call 'them-ing'; with attempts to demonize, or to separate ourselves from, people we define as Not Like Us, whether that's done on the basis of religion or nationality or political preference or… I can make a reasonable case for why them-ing is untruthful and destructive; I can quote the Bible and Jung and cite historical examples.  But all of these are really afterthoughts or justifications.  My immediate response is one of strong and visceral distress: don't do that, that hurts everyone, that distorts everything, that is dangerous, that destroys...
I grew up knowing, loving and respecting people on opposite sides of sharp ideological divides, and being troubled by the ways in which some of them sometimes spoke of the Others.  I grew up safe and loved, but there were some people who distressed me and whom I did not want to resemble.  Unfortunately, I couldn't help knowing that I did resemble them, both in some surface details and in the basic temptations that seemed to underlie their actions that troubled me: the will to lie, the assumption that other people are bit-players in a story starring me rather than living souls who are stars in their own stories and bit-players like me in God's story.  So I couldn't condemn those people without condemning myself.
As a pre-teen I once dreamed that I was a man on trial for war crimes; was guilty; was convinced that what I had done was right because the victims of those crimes were not human.  In the course of the dream the character I was had a series of devastating dreams, memories in which the faces of the ones I'd defined as not-people were replaces by the faces of people from my family and my church. Waking, I realized that those people had been human.  Also that the people who watched my trial believed I was not human, and maybe I had made that nearly true by what I'd chosen. Also that they extended that belief to my countrymen in general.  I understood at the end that I had known all along that the other people were human and had chosen not to know because I did not want to be like them, I wanted all the badness I saw in the world to be theirs and all the goodness to be mine and my people's.  I thought the people who were ready to hate my countrymen en bloc were making the same wrong choice, but my attempts to tell them so fell on deaf ears, and I couldn't blame them.  This dream comes back to me vividly in waking life as I read the news, listen to my friends, become aware of the harsh and sweeping judgments in my own heart.
Most people will agree, in general, that demonizing other people is not a good idea.  But I seem to take the concern farther than most people do.  Over and over I find myself in groups of people who are talking about the ill deeds of Group X with indignation, or comfortable superiority, or amusement, and I feel compelled to say "That's a very one-sided account of those people"  or "But have you thought about how they might have reached that position?' or "I know some of those people and they're not all like that", or "Yes, but then we do this that's really rather similar…" This often does not go over well.  I am still trying to figure out how to discern when I should do it anyway.
Sometimes I'm told, "You're being oversensitive.  It was just a joke.  Laughter is good for people." Yes, I know laughter is, and I know I tend to be painfully earnest. I see the danger in humorlessness.  I also think that sometimes humor is used as an excuse for bitterness or dismissiveness that would be easier to confront if it was stated directly.  
I realize that such humor, like overt statements of disparagement, can be a cover for great hurt. Often it seems to me that the hurt is deep and real and the generalizations it engenders are misleading and harmful.  I've started by questioning someone's disparaging remarks about gay and lesbian people, or about Christians, and I've ended up hearing personal stories of terribly wounding experiences with indivuiduals from the group in question. I know it's important to listen, to acknowledge the wounds, to honor the difficult process of healing which the storyteller has undergone.  I think it's also important to try to make a disctinction between the hurtful behavior being described and the group point out that most gay people are not sexually abusive and most sexually abusive people are not gay, that most Christians are not violent toward people of other faiths and many perpetrators of interfaith violence are not Christian, etc.  I am still trying to figure out how to do both of those things together.
 I am also trying to learn how to deal with the varied besetting scruples of my friends and relatives.  One friend who is particularly committed to truth and integrity is sorely troubled by what I could easily dismiss as white lies and minor inconsistencies.  Another is more sensitive than I am to obscene/offensive language and will not read books in which any of the characters speak profanely.  Another objects strongly to what look to me like trivial wastes of time or material.  Others are extremely aware of words and actions which they see as reflecting unquestioned privilege, whether racial or religious or gender-based; sometimes after they speak up I can see what they see, and sometimes I can't.  
Sometimes I am annoyed by the scruples of these friends.  This may happen because I genuinely don't see any problem with the thing to which they're objecting.  It may also happen becaue I can see what looks to me like a little problem, but I feel badgered, unable to relax, held to an unreasonably high standard.  
Sometimes I am grateful for the scruples of these friends.  They make it much harder for me to be either obliviously or wilfully blind.  They remind me of and keep pointing me toward qualities which I value: honesty, clarity, respect, decency, good stewardship, humility, justice.  
I don't always understand why I respond well to some expressions of besetting scruples and poorly to others.  It helps if I understand what experiences in the other person's life have made that particular issue so painfully important to them.  It also helps if they don't assume that any right-minded person would immediately understand and agree with all their concerns. I try to remember this when I express my own besetting scruples.  I also know that, however they express their concerns, I hear them better when I let go of my own defensiveness and wish to be liked and come back to my wish to see clearly and act justly and lovingly.  I try to keep doing that, and I hope other people will do the same as they listen to me.
What are your besetting scruples? What have you learned about how to express those scruples, and how to deal with the different scruples of other people?