“. . . . once we have arrived at a solution—and in the process of getting there, have paid a fairly high price in terms of anxiety and expectation—our investment in this solution becomes so great that we may prefer to distort reality to fit our solution rather than sacrifice the solution.” Paul Watzlawick, How Real is Real?
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk, a writer, and a peace activist who struggled continually with his place in the world. He was torn between committing himself to efforts to end the war in Vietnam and to following his vocation as a monk devoted to the solitary, contemplative life. On the one hand, almost anything he wrote (that made it through the censorship of his superiors) was eagerly published; on the other hand, his growing notoriety encroached upon his time and humility. “The creation of another image of myself—fixation on the idea that I am a ‘writer who has arrived’—which I am,” he writes in his journal. “But what does it mean? Arrived where?”
His dilemma was not uncommon, but his circumstances were. Here is a man who seems the very embodiment of conflicting opposites. He is gregarious, but seeks silence in order to communicate with his brothers through hand signals. He has spent most of his life running against the grain, yet strives to submit to superiors whom he feels only want his submission for their ego’s sake. He loves writing, but comes to loathe the process of being published—the interviews, the book tours, the attention that flatters him and fills him with horror.
His struggle is that of the private man called to a public role, the extension of oneself far out over the abyss in ways that most people are almost unaware of. He receives a note, in the autumn of 1961, from Ethel Kennedy, wife of the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, and sister-in-law to the President. He had written to her explicitly objecting to the resumption of nuclear testing. “There is something very unsatisfactory, something not quite true about this whole moral question,” he observes. “This idea that it is important to take a ‘stand’ as an individual. As if by mere gestures and statements one could satisfy conscience. And as if the satisfaction of one’s conscience (emphasis on satisfaction) were the great thing. It can become a mere substitute for responsibility and for love.” Merton is acutely aware of how vain humankind is, how we pride ourselves on having a tender conscience, only to find that our moral consciousness vanishes like mist when put to the test.
A month later he notes, “I am perhaps at a turning point in my spiritual life: perhaps slowly coming to a point of maturation and the resolution of doubts—and the forgetting of fears.” As his resolve grows to work for the abolition of war and for nuclear disarmament he is aware of how much it will cost him. “Walking into a known and definite battle. . . . It appears that I am one of the few Catholic priests in the country who has come out unequivocally for a completely intransigent fight for the abolition of war, for the use of non-violent means to settle international conflicts.”
It is not just the inevitability of conflict over public issues that he is facing, it is the battle within himself, the jihad (in the truest sense of the word) against pride and self-satisfaction that he is steeling himself for. How to be selfless when the very abnegation of self can become a thing of pride? How to resist the image of oneself as a public icon? How to live transparently, to disappear, as Merton says, in spite of one’s accomplishments?
Most of us will not have to face such temptations. As someone once said, some people are born to smallness, others have smallness thrust upon them. Yet so many are caught up in the effort to promote themselves that they seem like frantic little dogs chasing their tails, spinning endlessly, a retinue of publicists and media experts on hand to goose them from behind should they tire. You don’t have to look far to find the pundits, paid by the word perhaps, who offer their paeans of praise to obvious and self-evident “truths.” The best thing in these situations is to turn off the sound and watch the body language.
But I digress, if every so slightly. There are several issues of moral conflict here. Merton points to one, the temptation to self-righteousness and pride in the midst of doing something that is righteous. Another is how to resist evil without becoming a tool of evil in the process. “By beholding we become changed,” runs the text, and William Irwin Thompson, a social philosopher, adds, “We become the thing we hate.” The epigram at the beginning of this piece points up another problem. Having arrived at last at a place where we feel confident and assured we’ll do anything to remain there—even to flying in the face of changing circumstances and facts. Add all this up and it’s enough to paralyze a person.
I remember a protest march held in Washington, DC soon after we invaded Iraq for the second time. An exuberant group of students from Georgetown and George Washington Universities had gathered near the FBI Building to join the march. It was meant to draw thousands to the Mall in order to register our complaint with the war and to speak our minds. I went down to it, arriving as the students were forming up the lines and trying out their cheers. It felt like I was at a football game with the drums, the marching bands, the banners and the self-conscious tribalism. I stood on the sidewalk, a bit lost and at loose ends. It wasn’t that I supported the war; it seemed to me another horrific mistake with endless consequences. But on that bright, cool, and comfortable morning in Our Nation’s Capitol the march suddenly seemed like a lark, something the whole family could enjoy, a revival service that left one feeling momentarily satisfied but came later to be a bitterness in the memory. It didn’t feel like a sacrifice, a denial of anything precious, the giving up of which might have had some transformative power.
So I left, walking slowly back against the crowd to Union Station and a Metro ride back home. I will tell you what I was thinking: I was recalling a line in Merton’s journal, “Non-violent action, not mere passivity.” That was years ago now, but the line is still with me. I think of it not in the imperative, “Do this! Don’t do that,” but in the indicative mood, “Look here. . . Consider this.”
It’s the journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step.