The Nature of Our Minds

FULTON J. SHEEN

Every human being at his birth has everything to learn.

Mystery

Fulton J. Sheen

Every human being at his birth has everything to learn. His mind is a kind of blank slate on which truths can be written. How much he will learn will depend on two things: how clean he keeps his slate and the wisdom of the teachers who write on it.

The cleanliness of the slate is dependent upon the way he lives, i.e., his moral life. It is too often assumed that ignorance is due solely to a want of learning. This is not true. Not every D.D. is a saint. An evil life prevents the accumulation of wisdom.

The human mind has two faculties: one speculative, which is directed to knowledge; the other the will, which carries that knowledge in action, and which chooses and decides. An evil life does not spoil the speculative intellect. An atomic scientist who is immoral does not directly impair his atomic knowledge. But when it comes to judgment, to directing and guiding, then the evil life exercises its influence. Any person who consults a psychiatrist should first make an analysis of the kind of life he lives, because though his scientific equipment may be good, when it comes to giving counsel, the doctor may be incapable. Our Blessed Lord warned that behavior affects attitudes toward Him. “You will not come to Me because your lives are evil.”

The second condition of learning depends upon the nobility and wisdom of the teachers. Teachers exist on three levels. Man may learn from nature alone, which makes him a scientist; or from men, which make him a humanist or an intellectual; or he may learn from God, Who alone can give him wisdom.

Almost all men are willing to learn, either from the book of nature, or from the lips of men. But some are unwilling to accept mysteries or the revelation of God, or wisdom which transcends both the power of nature and the learning of men.

Mystery, however, does not mean an idea which is opposed to reason, but one which transcends it. Mystery is like a telescope of the eye. The instrument does not destroy vision, but opens new worlds hitherto unrevealed. A proud man might ask why he should believe that there is anything else in the world to see or know, except that which the natural powers can compass. Pride then precludes the knowledge of other worlds.

G. K. Chesterton once said that God has put a tremendous mystery in nature itself and that is the sun. In the light of that one thing, which we cannot see because of its brightness, everything else is made clear. Likewise, though we cannot comprehend the nature of God completely in this life, nevertheless, in the light of the truths which He revealed, everything else is made clear, such as the mystery of pain, suffering, death, life and birth.

There are, therefore, two kinds of wisdom: wisdom of the flesh and the wisdom which God gives. One is very often opposed to the other. The first would say this is the only life there is; therefore, we should get all we can out of it. The other sees that this life is a kind of scaffolding up through which we climb to eternal happiness; it will, therefore, be so used as a ladder to the Mansions of the Heavenly Father. But this Divine Wisdom comes only to those who have qualifications for receiving it, and, as was pointed out above, one of the first conditions is good behavior. As Our Blessed Lord said, “If any man will do My Will, he will know My doctrine.”

Crisis produces a hardened spiritual feeling which hinders understanding. Men do not like what they do not understand, or that which would demand a change in their lives. All the training of a university will not make certain persons mathematicians. If a man does not love truth and honesty, he cannot be made truthful and honest by expounding the definitions of these virtues. One must begin by creating within him conduct along the lines of these virtues; then he can be taught.

Legion

One wonders if modern psychology has ever found a word which so adequately describes an unhappy and disturbed personality as the word legion. The word is found in the description of the mad man of the Gerasenes, who when asked by Our Lord to describe himself answered, “My name is Legion: for we are many.” Notice the contradiction between my and we. He did not know what he really was, except that he was tossed about hither and thither by a crowd of wild and disordered impulses.

A disordered soul is characterized by the same sort of thing that has happened to an atom, namely, fission. Everywhere there is a breaking up, an alienation, a fragmentation and a dissolution. Such a man no longer is a unit. He is divided first within himself; he is divided from his fellow man; he is alienated from God.

Modern art, which is so expressive of the times, rarely paints a man such as one sees on the street. In one of the classic paintings of modern man, he has only one eye; the rest of him is made up of squares, cubes, cross lines and meaningless figures all combining to indicate complexity, diversity, tension, multiplicity and chaos. Every now and then a good thought may cross such a mind, but it has no roots. It is like magazines which editorially plead for a more disciplined youth and then on the other pages do everything, through pictures of excesses and merry carousing, to destroy it.

There are certain conflicts and tensions which are natural to man, namely, the conflict between the flesh and the spirit. In the young it is not always clear which is dominant or will he the master during life. It takes a lot of struggle to give dominance to the higher part of our being. For that reason, an artist refused to paint the portrait of a young man. The artist said that he saw two impulses in the youth neither of which yet showed dominion. He would delay the portrait until his character was formed.

But over and above that basic tension, there is the divided personality which comes from bad behavior. Such souls feel like Emile, who twice wrote in his journal, “My name is Legion,” adding, “Reflection comes to no useful end, because it is forever returning upon itself, disputing and debating: I am wanting in both the general who commands, and the judge who decides.” Modern literature has many descriptions of this “foreign legion” — disrupted, agonized souls who are alien to themselves. Albert Camus calls man a stranger because he has no permanent relatedness to anything, either fellow man or God.

There are many who do not realize this complexity in their lives. The moment they do, they begin to come close to God, Who alone can restore order and unity. When Our Lord restored the personality of the young man, He uttered a command which assumed that there was an intruder in his spirit. He ordered the evil spirit to depart. There are three spirits which may govern the human heart: the spirit of the world, the spirit of evil and the Spirit of God. There is no disharmony caused by the first two that cannot be turned into a melody of joy by the Spirit of God, which is beyond the human and the psychological. When it is recognized that nothing so splits a man as sin, then immediately it becomes clear that nothing so much harmonizes a man as the Saviour.

Enthusiasm

Hearts would save themselves many sorrows if they knew better the psychology of human feelings. While there is much wisdom in the counsel of Emerson, “Hitch your wagon to a star,” and to the need of wedding idealism to every ordinary task, there must also be a realization that enthusiasms cool. Those who have been to the North Pole say that the ecstasy at reaching it was very much dampened by the long, weary Arctic winter, during which the hidden weaknesses of men begin to appear. As fires died down, quarrelsomeness stole in.

Three laws may be given to help judge the difference between true and false enthusiasm:

  1. Decisions and resolutions taken during an enthusiastic moment meant little unless tested by time and by waiting. At the beginning of the public life of Our Lord, when many wished to follow Him, He refused to accept them: “He knew what was in man.” The immediate request for places on the right and left side of the kingdom by James and John He ordered tested by the ability to bear sacrifice and to drink the cup of His Passion and His Crucifixion. When, after multiplying the bread, the multitude wished to make Him a bread king. Our Lord fled into the mountains alone. Economic kingships last only while the bread is plentiful and the circuses are in the playgrounds. It is always a good policy never to choose the most enthusiastic person in a gathering as a leader. Wait to see how much wood there is for the flame.

  2. Almost all moments of high sensible exaltation are followed by a period of depression. This is particularly true in any experience which has to do with the flesh. Drunkenness is followed by the hangover, excesses by disgust, the dream stage of opium by disenchanting depression. The body cannot sustain continued pleasure. Even tickling can turn into pain.

  3. In all human love it must be realized that every man promises a woman, and every woman promises a man, that which only God alone can give, namely, perfect happiness. One of the reasons why so many marriages are shipwrecked is because as the young couple leave the altar, they fail to realize that human feelings tire and that the enthusiasm of the honeymoon is not the same as the more solid happiness of enduring human love. One of the great trials of marriage is the absence of solitude. In the first moments of human love, one does not see the little hidden deformities which later on appear. It is not the great faults which cause enthusiasm to cool, but rather the steady diet of mediocrities, the repeated insincerities, the getting used to one another’s company, the everyday dust of human existence. There comes a moment when the wife seems less beautiful just because of the habit of seeing her. What is often seen is no longer thought to be beautiful. Much of what is beautiful is determined by two things: by surprise and by love. When enthusiasm cools, then one hears, “You are not the one whom I married.”

It is not to be thought that life is a snare or an illusion because the bubbles cease in a champagne glass. No true unhappiness comes to man unless he places his heart in a false infinite. He who sees that all human love is nothing but Divine Love on pilgrimage will use it as a kind of Jacob’s ladder to climb back again through virtue to the Source of all Love Which is God Himself. Such spiritual fires never cool, because they are not fed by glands, but glow with the coals lighted at the furnace of Heaven, such as touched the lips of the prophet. Many of the false enthusiasms in the world today come from unhappy minds in unhappy bodies. They find a spurious happiness in setting destructive fires, burning down the temple of worship and the home of morality. The truest enthusiasms and fires are never loud. Our Lord’s voice was never heard shouting in the streets, yet He came “to cast fire upon the earth.” To be enthusiastic in that case is to live out the meaning of the word, for enthusiasm comes from two Greek words meaning to be in God.

Depression

One of the better known psychiatrists of the world reports the following case of depression in a victim of tuberculosis. The psychiatrist sent the patient to the mountains, confined treatment to medication and the routine psychotherapy which all such doctors use in depression. The patient did not improve, so the psychiatrist questioned the medical superintendent as to whether or not there was any correlation between the tuberculosis and the low spirits of the patient.

The doctor in charge of the sanitorium answered, “I am convinced that if one went systematically into the psychic antecedents of our inmates, one would find that in at least half of them a depressive phase preceded the development of their tuberculosis.” The psychiatrist then proceeded on the basis of working up a synthesis of the physical and the mental states and found that because of a mutual lack of understanding, the patient’s marriage was about to go on the rocks. Being weak-willed, he filled the void by “playing around” with others.

The wife, discovering it, withdrew more into herself while the husband got farther from the wife by liaisons with others. In turn, the wife was further alienated from her husband because of the injury received.

Further analysis revealed that the patient had fallen first a victim to psychic depression and then, a year later, to tuberculosis. The idleness in the mountain lodgings only increased the depression of the patient. A cure was finally effected by a double technique, that is, giving work to the patient which was commensurate with his strength, and also through religion, to establish a moral reformation in his life and the breaking of evil attachments. The psychiatrist reports the double cure of depression and tuberculosis.

Doctors today note an increasing correlation between moral health and physical health, between our flight from responsibility and the despair which comes with irresponsibility. But this area remains within the practice of medicine and psychiatry. Our point here is to indicate rather the spiritual, moral and psychological reasons for depression. A frequent cause is rebellion against forces over which we have no control, such as sickness, loss of fortune and bereavement. Some sufferings cannot be alleviated. St. Paul, for example, had what he called a “thorn in the flesh.” No one knows precisely what this thorn was, whether it was an affliction of the eye or of the body, or of enemies, or of false friends. In any case, three times he asked to have it removed and received the answer, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

Acceptance, here recommended to Paul, was quite different from resignation. Resignation is passive, namely, a gritting of one’s teeth and a bearing with it. Acceptance, however, is active, such as the prayer of Our Lord in the Garden: “Not My Will, but Thine be done.” Accepting suffering and disease and bereavement does not mean taking pleasure in them or steeling oneself against them, or hoping that time will soften them. It means offering them to God so that they can bring forth fruit.

One psychiatrist tells of visiting a patient and saying to him in the midst of his suffering, “You know that the most important thing in this world is not to understand, but to accept.” With a happy smile he answered, “Yes, it is true, I do accept — everything.” During the night he fell asleep but suddenly awoke, the psychiatrist reports, and said aloud, “I am going to Heaven,” and then passed away.

It is not, however, easy to acquiesce in the slow march of Divine purposes. Life is short, and everyone would like to reap the harvest and not leave it to another generation before death seals his eyes. Reformers and idealists are constitutionally impatient and are indignant with man for his sluggishness, and with God for His majestic slowness and unrevealed purposes. But there is deep truth in the paradox that if we hope for what we do not see, then with patience we wait for it. It is uncertainty which makes earthly hope short of breath and impatient of delay.

True acceptance, on the contrary, is based upon this hope, that the trials and sufferings of this life not only can be used for making up for our sins, but also can be applied to bring them to God. Recently there died in New York City a well-known man in the athletic world. Being told that he was dying of cancer he wrote to two of his friends who had abandoned their faith and told them that he was offering his sufferings for their intentions that they would return and make peace with God. Every man with faith knows that he receives fewer blows than he deserves. One man in affliction, when asked how he bore it, answered, “It lightens the stroke to draw near to Him Who handles the rod.” When there is much rust upon our lives, then there is needed a rough file. In any case, one never complains. Christ is the best Physician; He never takes down the wrong bottle.

Self-Pity

It has been my lot to spend much time with men who have suffered in prisons, death marches, Siberia, concentration camps and other forms of Communist tortures. But I have never known any one of them who ever said a harsh word against his persecutors. Like some trees which bathe with perfume the ax which cuts them, they had nothing but pardon for those who did them violence. They hated Communism, but they loved the Communists.

On the other hand, I have known people in very pleasant circumstances in an affluent civilization who could not stand being crossed. They were sensitive to the least verbal criticism or barbed dart of ill-feeling, hating not only the person but the cause for which the person stood. Because they did not like the looks of the captain of the ship, they were ready to jump overboard.

Why is there so much joy in the first group and so much sadness in the latter? It is because the first group has pity on others, while the second has self-pity. When Our Lord was being led out to Calvary, the pious women came to console Him, but He addressed them saying, “Weep not for Me, but weep for yourselves and your children.” In other words, “Your pity is misplaced. It is not for Me that you should mourn) but rather weep for those who send Me to death. Shed no tears for the Crucified, but for the crucifiers. I go to a momentary sorrow, but there is a glorious Resurrection issuing from it. In every flame there is a point of quietness and repose where a match may be inserted without igniting; so too within My heart, already so crowned with the thorns of sorrow, there is an oasis of joy which no man can take from Me.”

The self-indulgent, on the other hand, always find fault with others. The blame has to be placed somewhere: the boss, the nagging wife, the teachers, the politicians or the nasty man at the next desk. The sense of justice is so rooted in the human heart that responsibility must be laid on some shoulders; if not on self, where it belongs, then on another, where it does not. The self-pity awakens a sorrow which leads to despair and remorse.

Take the other case of those who suffer unjustly but with faith and love of God in their hearts. They may have a sadness in their hearts from pain and torture, but never remorse. They end in penitence or a making up for guilt by bearing patiently the trials of others. This is illustrated in the case of Judas and Peter. There is much similarity between the two, up to a point. Our Lord warned both of them that they would fall; He even told them that each would be a devil.

Both did deny the Master and both repented or were sorry. But the Greek word used in the Scripture is not the same in both instances. Judas repented unto himself — he had self-pity. Peter repented unto the Lord—he had penitence, sorrow and a desire for amendment. Peter cleaned the weeds out of the garden, but Judas killed the nocturnal brood of remorseful serpents in his breast by hanging himself.

Suppose one took a paper and wrote down the number of times he succumbed to the vice of self-pity in a day. What a catalog of egotism it would be and what a revelation of character. On another page, one could write down those who were blamed for what was really our own fault. It could make one penitent, which means recognizing that the root of all our trouble lies within ourselves. How much do my neighbors have to put up with because of me, and how often does my egotism stand in the way of brotherly affection on their part? But a more serious question is: how often does this self-pity stand in the way of God’s doing anything for me? I have so blocked up the cave of my mind that no light can enter. When the Master says to our Lazarus’ soul, wrapped in the trappings of egotism, “Come out,” we say, “No, I want to stay here in the grave of my inner discontent.”

Nothing so blocks happiness and peace in the soul as a pampered ego. So much of what men call atheism is not so much the negation of God as the deification of the ego. Every atheist believes in God, but the god is himself. Being surrounded with so many limitations, frustrations and weaknesses, he develops more and more a hatred for the God Who is the Shepherd seeking lost sheep among the brambles. No wonder there are so many atheists today. It is hard to believe that each of them is a god. To accuse ourselves before the God Who took upon Himself the sins of the world is to move from self-pity and despair to the area of pardon and mercy. There is one thing worse than sin—denying that we are sinners. But there is hope in that, for unless we sinned, we could never call Jesus “Saviour.”

Dreams

Our flights from reality may be either conscious or unconscious. They are conscious when one wills to become an alcoholic to forget. But flights may also be unconscious, as in dreams.

Everyone knows the theory of Freud which holds that every movement or false step or wrong word is a betrayal of some secret or unconscious opposition to what is conscious. The subconscious in these cases is trying to sabotage and wreck what is conscious. Psychiatrists give the example of a young man whose father and mother were never interested in him; the father was interested in business, and the mother in bridge. The young man then attached himself to another young man who was a homosexual. The young man, whom we will call John, then became a kind of defenseless victim of his friend. They would go motorcycle riding together with foxes’ tails flying from their hats or from their handlebars, but all the time John was anxious to break this liaison which made him so unhappy and despairing. One day while John was driving the motorcycle with his friend on the rear seat, he ran into a tree. The psychiatrists say that John was betrayed by his subconscious into a violent solution of the problem.

No one has disputed Freud’s basic idea that dreams are a meaningful psychic phenomenon, but his particular interpretation has been very much disputed, namely, that many dreams are repressed desires and particularly those of the libido, or sex. By 1914 several of his closest workers, including Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Stekel, Otto Rank and others, broke with him because of the narrowness of his interpretation. Jung held that the dream was a kind of thermostat in the human system, or something that maintained equilibrium or balance. It was a compensating factor for many aspects of a problem which were either overlooked, undervalued or suppressed. Just as sweating is a compensation for being too hot, and panting is a compensation for excessive beating of the heart, so too the unconscious has to compensate for the excesses in its consciousness. With Jung there is less desire to explain dreams by infantile aspirations than with Freud, and more relatedness to adult life.

An example of the compensatory nature of dreams is the rather common dream that egotists, boasters and braggarts often have about falling. In their own conscious life they are always running the danger of having their thoughts discovered, and the dream strikes the balance of humility against the lie of pride. The dream is a compensation for a deficiency in the person and is, according to Jung, a revelation of his spiritual state.

Jung gives another interesting example of compensation in dreams. It is concerned with a woman who was proud of her intelligent, deep understanding of psychology, and who had recurring dreams about another woman. Whenever she met this other woman, she disliked her and thought her to be an intriguer, dishonest and vain, but in the dream the woman appeared always as a sister, friendly and likable. The intelligent woman could not understand why she should dream so favorably about a person she disliked. Jung said that the dreams were attempting to convey to her the idea that she herself was “shadowed” by an unconscious character that resembled the other woman. The dream was actually telling her about her own pride and power complexes, which completely misjudged other people. It was this sophistication of hers which made her so very unpopular in everyday life with her friends. She was blaming her friends in waking life, and the dream revealed that the friends themselves were blameless and nice; it was she who was ugly and nasty.

Not all dreams would fit into this theory of Jung’s, but there is no doubt that it would be useful to examine our dreams to find out what we are hiding, what we fear and what we really are. Dreams may occasionally hold a “moment of truth.”

Religion Has Moved To The Subconscious

We live in what might be called the Age of Bad Conscience. We cover it up by denying responsibility; we find scapegoats; we attack religion and all who have to do with conscience as if their extinction might give us immunity from that distinction between right and wrong. If any science is unpopular today it is certainly theology, particularly when couched in the language of reason and concepts which are alien to our moods and frustrations. But this does not mean there is no religion in modern man. There is; but it has moved from the area of conscience to the subconscious.

We say “religion” because nothing that is in man escapes the Providence and Mercy of God. It is just as easy for God to work in a cellar as a first floor, as well in the realm of emotions as in the realm of reason. The very uneasiness of the subconscious mind with its fears and dreads and anxieties is a kind of chaos for what might be called an anti-peace. But this chaos might be likened to the chaos in the second verse of Genesis, when the first creative word was rejected and left nothing behind but disorder. And over that chaos the Spirit hovered like a dove bringing order out of the disorder of creation, as the Holy Spirit, later on, breathing over Mary, brought order out of the chaos of humanity.

God speaks more frequently through our subconscious mind, probably, than through our conscious mind, simply because our self-consciousness puts up obstacles to Him. God can guide us quite naturally in a particular direction without our being aware of it. What was it, for example, that induced Paul Claudel, an agnostic and unbeliever, to enter Notre Dame Cathedral at midnight on Christmas, and ultimately to receive the gift of faith? Here was a reasonable man who was guided unreasonably. Very often stupid people come to God through very reasonable arguments, and reasonable people come to God through no argument at all.

There is an outward force operating on the subconscious mind which changes its direction. If a ball is thrown across a room, it will go in an unhindered path unless a foot or a hand is put out to divert it. The subconscious mind may be governed once by vice, and then suddenly turn in the direction of love. This change of attitude and transformation requires that an outside Power or Spirit that acts like a catalyst bring together discordant elements into a new unity.

If a person corresponds with this impulse from without, it is like turning on radio waves of speech, music, humor and learning which fill the air. But these blessings do not affect the person until he is at the proper wavelength and tunes himself in.

Sometimes our dreams reveal the religious and moral state of the subconscious mind. Carl Jung holds that every dream is a manifestation of our spiritual state; the interpretation, however, is not always easy. E. N. Ducker tells the story of a woman who came to him with a dream that an old china closet was given to her which she did not want. She took it to a dealer, convinced that it was worthless, and he paid her ten thousand dollars. He took a piece of sandpaper and rubbed off the gaudy paint, and there underneath it was gold. After she got the money, she tried to find the person who gave it to her, but he was gone. Ducker explained the dream as follows: the china closet was herself, whom she regarded as worthless, in monetary value worth only a few cents. The dealer was identified as Our Lord Who saw her real worth, that is, in terms of gold, a genuine treasure. The gaudy paint which covered the gold was her conscious approach to life. She was doing things to catch the eye, to appear significant, to impress the world and to endow herself with value. The ten thousand dollars was her true value, which the Lord put upon her. She tried to find Him again, but He was gone, with the result that she had to accept the value which the Lord had put upon her.

Jung says very often that dreams are compensations also for wrong opinions we have of ourselves. He tells of one of his patients who had an exalted opinion of himself and was unaware that everyone who knew him was irritated by his air of superiority. He came to Dr. Jung with a dream in which he had seen a drunken tramp rolling into a ditch — a sight which provoked him to say, “It is terrible to see how low a man can fall.” The psychiatrist says that it was evidently a dream in part compensating for his own inflated opinion of himself, but there was something more to it than that. It turned out that he had a brother who was a degenerate alcoholic. What the dream also revealed was that his superior attitude was compensating the brother. The world is not as irreligious as it seems at first glance. Religion has moved out of churches, to a large extent, to cope with our frustrations, despairs, shames and neuroses. The only mistake the churches can make in the new order is to assume that everybody must come to them instead of their going to everybody.

The Closed Door

The famous painting by Holman Hunt entitled “Opportunity” pictures Christ at an ivy-clad door, knocking. Hunt has been criticized for not putting a latch on the outside of the door. The answer of the artist was, “The door is opened from the inside.”

His words were a confirmation of the story of opportunity. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear My Voice and open the door, I will come into him and will sup with him and he with Me.” These gracious words declare the long suffering of Our Lord as He waits for the conversion of sinners; but the love which seeks to bring that conversion about is a knock. The knock is an inspiration, a thought, an intuition — anything which seems to spring up from our subconscious mind, either telling us that we are on the wrong path or showing us the right path. It is unfortunate that we have come to think of the subconscious mind as being a kind of cesspool or garbage can, in which all the refuse of the conscious mind is thrown. Actually, the subconscious mind is the cellar door or rear entrance into the conscious mind by which Divinity gains admittance, almost surreptitiously.

It would seem that it should be man who is knocking for blessing and for pardon, but actually the situation is reversed: Divinity condescends to stand at our door and knock. The knocking is likened to those half-conscious calls which may be heard in a moment of quiet or even in times of sickness and trouble, and by which the Divine Lover makes His Presence known. But the voice is that which interprets the knock and informs us of the Personality of Him Who seeks entrance. No entry is forced; it is still within the power of man to disregard the knock, to ignore the Voice and to keep the door sbut. The taking of food is an outward sign of brotherly love and reconciliation, for here the Tremendous Lover Who is not driven away comes in to sup with us. This represents the final stage of peace, contentment and happiness.

There is an estrangement of the human heart from God, as conscience bears witness. However much room there be for other guests in the soul, the Bethlehem story is still true: “There is no room in the inn.” It is more often in the souls that recognize their own misery and sinfulness that He is given room, as it was the stable rather than the inn which welcomed Him. What we call fate is actually opening the door, for He Who knocks never comes empty-handed. The unrest and discontent which dog the steps of a man who is a sinner and denies sin is but the application of the Divine Visitor’s hand to the obstinately closed door. The stings of conscience, the movements of the spirit . . . what are these but appeals working through the subconscious mind?

The door of the soul is closed to the entrance of Truth by error, ignorance and prejudice; the door of the heart is closed by pride and unbelief and willful evil; and the door of conscience is barred by the continual habit of evil. But the knocking is repeated, and He Who stands at the door is that Love “we fall just short of in all love.”

Dialogue

The greatest untapped reservoir of energy in the universe is the depths of our own souls. Though we live with self for a lifetime, we seem to know other persons better; at any rate, we judge them more often than we do ourselves, and we analyze them better than ourselves.

An imaginary self and a real self make up the person. We strive to preserve the first and to neglect the second. We wear a mask whenever we go out in company. As a traitor to his country once said to his wife as they left the house for the evening, “Now, let’s put on our party face.” Life to a great extent becomes like a masquerade ball, in which we know that everyone is wearing a mask, and yet there is a tacit agreement that no one will tear off another’s mask.

It was only natural that there should come along a philosopher to justify the mask, and that was Sartre, who completely denied the real self or an inner life. Man to him is just as he appears on the outside. A street cleaner is a street cleaner. As he put it, “I cannot know myself except through the intermediary of another person.” This means that we lack all powers of introspection; other persons are to us only mirrors reflecting back the image of self. We are stimulated and we react.

Normal persons would do well to analyze themselves and not come to know themselves only through analysis of someone else. They forget that there is such a thing as looking inward, the turning back upon oneself; this is called reflection. Often at night we see ourselves as we really are, and we shudder at the image of the true self and quickly reach, even in the dark, for our mask. Sleeping tablets numb both the burning repartee of the real self and the terrible burden of the make-believe.

It is interesting too that most of our relationships with other people are contacts, as one billiard ball contacts another billiard ball. We become like oranges in a box; we mingle with others externally, but do not commune with others in a common task. “News of the hour, on the hour” keeps us buried in the trivialities of external stimuli, lulling us into the belief that we are in contact with reality. The inner life is never given a moment to see ourselves as we really are. How the modern world needs a Socrates, who used to walk into the market place of Athens asking people questions in order to make them discover themselves! True, he was put to death for unmasking others, but he left the world the heritage of “know thyself.”

To have the courage to look into ourselves is the beginning of a dialogue that takes place between the mask and the face, the shadow self and the real self. Once this dialogue has been achieved honestly, then there opens another dialogue — that of the soul with God. We cannot have communications with heaven until we have communications with ourselves. The prayerless people are the masked people.

When we wear the mask, we talk about the weather at cocktail parties in order that we will not have to be embarrassed by revealing the true self, but in the dialogue with self, the subject is: “How do I stand, not in the face of fellow man, but in the face of the One Who will judge me?” This kind of conversation is not intellectual; it is rather anecdotal, as the Bible is anecdotal, as the Iliad and Odyssey are anecdotal. For here we have not a tale, but the experience of a personal truth. The soul is then no longer like the husband who keeps from his wife things that she should know as he asks, “Should I tell my wife?” Once the soul truly discovers itself, then there is nothing to be hidden either from the self or the wife or from God. It is a mark of sanity to “talk to yourself” provided the subject is the real self.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Sheen Fulton J. “The Nature of Our Minds.” Chapter 5 in Guide to Contentment (San Francisco: Simon & Shuster, 1967).

THE AUTHOR

Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979), U.S. Roman Catholic bishop, born in El Paso, Ill.; professor of philosophy Catholic University for America 1927-50; bishop of Rochester, N.Y., 1966-69; noted radio and television preacher; won 1952 Emmy as most outstanding male personality on television. Among his many books are: Peace of Soul; Life Up Your Heart; Three to Get Married; Life is Worth Living; The Life of Christ.


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