Friday, April 22, 2005

A Compass In The Heart

Peggy Noonan describes in real life something I described in theory in my three-part essay on Narcissism and Society. She writes about why she thinks people streamed out of building and ran to St. Peter's Square when they heard the bells ring announcing the selection of a new Pope:

Why did they run? Why did this ancient news--"We have a pope"--representing such irrelevant-seeming truths and such an archaic institution--send them running?

Why did they gather? Why did they have to hear?

The faith is dead in Europe, everyone knows that. So why did they come?
You say, "They just wanted to be there. It's history. People are experience junkies. They wanted to take pictures with their cell phones."

That would be true of some. But why did so many weep as the new pope came out? Why did they chant "Benedict, Benedict" as he stood at the balcony? Why were they jubilant?

Why were so many non-Catholics similarly moved? And why in America, where the church is torn in divisions, did people run to the TV and the radio when word spread?

People are complicated. You can hit distracted people with all the propaganda in the world, you can give it to them every day in all your media, and sometimes they'll even tell pollsters they agree with you. But something is always going on in their chests. Some truth is known there; some yearning lives there. It's like they have a compass in their hearts and turn as they will, this way and that, it continues to point to true north.

We want a spiritual father. We want someone who stands for what is difficult and right, what is impossible but true. Being human we don't always or necessarily want to live by the truth or be governed by it. But we are grateful when someone stands for it. We want him to be standing up there on the balcony. We want to aspire to it, reach to it, point to it and know that it is there.

Because we can actually tell what's true.

We can just somehow tell.

In Narcissism and Society: Part I, I wrote:

A healthy Self has two fundamental and equally important parts:

1) Self-Esteem – or a sense that one has a right to Life and success; ambition; a healthy exhibitionism and comfort with one’s body. This part of the Self supplies the instinctual fuel for ambition and purpose; and for enjoyment of Life’s activities.

2) Ideals – a belief in something outside the “Self” that guides and gives meaning to one’s Life. Having ideals make developing one’s goals in Life possible. It is this part of the Self that also makes healthy interpersonal relationships possible.

The development of BOTH parts is essential to psychological health. When one part develops at the expense of the other—it has grave consequences for the individual and society.

Too many people in our cynical society imagine they can get through life with only the former and ridicule and reject the latter. Schools glorify self-esteem as if it is the only essential ingredient in producing a "healthy" child (see here for an opposing view). Self-esteem is indeed essential, but humans require meaning in their life--they yearn for it desperately; and if no meaning is forthcoming, then self-esteem is hard-pressed to get you through, as important as it is.

I should make a disclaimer at this point. I am NOT a religious person. I was raised as a Catholic and was very religious as a teen, when I tried to bargain with God about my parent's marriage. He didn't come through; and I'm afraid to say my faith foundered. And yet....When I go sometimes to church with my husband and the Boo, I find I cannot get through mass without choking up; the tears flow continuously--even at the joyful parts. I recognize this as an breach in my defenses that demonstrate my hidden, but intense desire to believe in God. As Noonan suggests, it is as if a compass in my heart tells me that this way is true--and I know I should go in the direction it points.

The reasons I have never given into the desire are complicated and deeply personal and I won't share them with you as I'm not entirely sure I understand myself.

But getting back to my point--healthy Narcissism necessary suggests to us that we require meaning outside of the "Self" for optimal fulfillment in our lives. Many things can make-up this void: God, Religion, Ideology, Charismatic people; drugs--almost anything can take on the role of the Ideal. But traditionally, religion came into being primarily to serve this purpose for humanity. We want a spiritual father.... Someone who will take the place of that "perfect other" most of us experienced as infants. Someone who completely understands us and each and every one of our needs; someone who accepts and loves us unconditionally.

Unfortunately, sometimes when we follow that compass in the heart we are led to the dark side of the human soul. To a place where our "god" justifies the most unbelievable evil and dehumanizes us in the name of our faith. Death becomes stronger and more important than life in this place.

But sometimes....sometimes...the compass points us to a place like no other. Where the incredible greatness of the human spirit is free and anything is possible.

That is why the tears come to my eyes when I contemplate God. That is why I become choked up when I see something heroic and good. That is also why all those people ran to St. Peter's when they heard the bells and felt such joy. Because for just a brief moment--on that balcony--they knew they would catch a glimpse of the wonderful place so deeply hidden in their soul.

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