From Contempt to Content: Leaving Lies Behind

I love the Desert Fathers. In the solitude of the wilderness, they were anything but alone and isolated. They learned to abide in communion with Jesus and with his Body the Church. Through their spiritual combat, they systematically eliminated from their lives all forms of hiding and escape, and discovered the joy of living in the present moment with God.

In the 500s, in the desert of Gaza, there lived a truly wise monk named Dorotheus. His writings reveal a deep understanding of the human heart. Among other things, he describes our tendency to hold others in contempt, and offers a path to becoming content. It is the path of humility and truth, a path that leads us away from our pride and our lies.

Last time I shared about our human skill of storytelling, both in its greatness and in its pitfalls.

Dorotheus describes how the devil hijacks our gift of storytelling. The devil is the father of lies. He works by division, fragmentation, and isolation. In our storytelling capacity (great as it is) he finds fertile ground for sowing lies about God, self, and others. He leads us on a path that winds its way from unease to judgment to outright contempt.

Dorotheus describes a threefold progression of the lies the devil sows in us: from our thoughts to our words to our deeds.

First, the devil sows lies in our thoughts. He lures us out of the present moment and into fantasy thinking. Then comes the “if only…” train of thought. We begin telling ourselves the story that we would be so much less miserable and so much more content if only we had this or that pleasure; if only we didn’t have to be doing this present unpleasant task; if only we weren’t locked into this present relationship; etc.

Regarding God, we can easily begin hearing the whispered story that he is a cruel taskmaster who constantly makes demands of us, a fun-sucking God who steals all our joy away, an unfaithful God whose promises won’t be enough for us.

Regarding our neighbor, we begin conjecturing, filling in the gaps to tell a story about what we do not really know. Dorotheus shares anecdotes of many monks whose insecurity or jealousy or judgment led them into this pitfall – such as the monk who noticed that a brother was absent from prayer on Good Friday and began fabricating the story that the missing monk had been in the garden eating figs instead of fasting and praying. It turned out the brother couldn’t possibly have been in the garden because he was abroad on an errand!

The evil one loves to shade the stories in our mind until, little by little, we grow into contempt of our neighbor, contempt of ourselves, contempt of God.

Then comes phase two: lies in our speech. We do not know the full facts about our neighbor, but that doesn’t stop us from telling the story anyway, filling in the gaps without even realizing we are doing it. How easy it is to spread gossip and start rumors! Did you ever notice how we tend to go down to a whisper when we tell stories about others? Does that make it any less damaging?

Dorotheus also describes the lies we tell about ourselves in our speech. We manipulate the facts or conceal the truth to avoid blame. We selectively highlight partial truths to present ourselves as better than we really are.

I think it is rare indeed that someone tells the humble and candid truth, without any shading or skewing or selective narrating. I look back on past emails or writing, in which I thought (at the time) I was being totally objective, just reporting the facts. I begin noticing moments in which I started editorializing or injecting my own interpretation. It’s a very human thing to do!

As an administrator, I have definitely learned how important it is to gather more facts or to listen carefully to all parties involved. Isn’t it interesting how there is always more to the story?

Thirdly, Dorotheus describes how the devil tempts us to lie in our deeds. The two-tongued father of lies wants us to lead a double life. He who masquerades as an angel of light wants us to pretend to be someone we are not, keeping parts of ourselves in the shadows. Think of the damage this has caused in the Church – leaders pretending to be holy and all the while secretly sinning and covering up the evil.

As I mentioned last time, the full truth of our human story is complex. Jesus was sinless; each of us stands in need of redemption. When we allow parts of ourselves to remain in shadows, we begin hiding those parts of ourselves from others and from self and from God. We then become slaves of shame, and become easy prey for the endgame of the devil: discouragement and despair.

When parts of ourselves remain unknown, they remain unloved and unredeemed. The devil can then weave his webs at will, tempting us to tell dark stories about ourselves, stories in which there is no longer any hope.

But there is always hope, especially where there is humility and a willingness to be vulnerable with God and others. If we are open to it, God will help us seek and find a safe community of friends, to whom we can bare our souls and be known in the whole of our complex story. This was definitely a step that I needed in my own life, and began taking a few years ago. It has helped me, slowly but surely, to shed my shame – and others have noticed a difference. I continue on the long journey from contempt to contentment, but God is with me as I pray to resist the devil’s wiles.

Dorotheus shares some profound wisdom. The devil is real, and the combat is real. Thanks be to God, who delivers us through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The Stories We Tell

We humans are storytellers by our very nature. Our brains are tirelessly at work (even while we sleep!), putting the pieces of our life into a story that will help us make sense out of it. Storytelling is so much a part of being human that most of us don’t even notice when we are doing it. We easily jump to a conclusion from one or two bits of information: a colleague yawning during our presentation, a friend not returning a text message, a request from our boss for an urgent meeting, or a member of the opposite sex greeting us with a smile. Our mind begins spinning stories, true or not. It takes a disciplined detective to remain open to the evidence and not get misled by the red herrings. Indeed, one of the hardest human things to do is to abide in that in-between place in which we do not yet know the whole story, and be content to watch and wait.

Perhaps that is why I was so aggravated by the ending of the hit TV show Lost – do you remember it? For so many of us, it captivated our hearts, only to leave us unsatisfied, irritated, or downright frustrated.

While I was in Rome working on my doctorate, a group of us watched a couple of episodes each week. We laughed; we shed tears; we waited with bated breath for the next week’s episodes. When the finale came out, I prepared a steak dinner on the roof of our residence and we had a lovely evening – lovely, that is, until we watched the final episode. One of my friends was actually cursing and swearing as he hurled his ottoman across the room – mostly for dramatic effect. But his theatrics told the story of what our hearts were feeling at the time. We were deeply dissatisfied with the lack of resolution. We felt used, manipulated, and cast aside. How could someone spin a story, leave so many enticing hints and fragments, and then leave so many parts unresolved?

It was the best of TV shows; it was the worst of TV shows. It was so amazing because it was storytelling within storytelling. I believe it was the flashbacks that made the show especially great. Each character had a deeply believable, profoundly complex, and totally human story. Little by little, fragments of their life emerged. It was easy to empathize with them, to feel their heartache and heartbreak, to cheer them on in their courageous moments of growth, or to cringe with disappointment when they took steps into the shadows. As the episodes progressed, the pieces of the past of each character, the sum total of the things done to them and the things they freely did, all served as warp and weft, forming the fabric of one gripping life story. It was beautiful.

I suppose that Lost suffered the fate of so many American TV shows – the curse of popularity. So long as a TV show can somehow be profitable, new episodes will continue to be generated, regardless of the quality. Lost found some new life by introducing new characters and by going even more in depth in the stories of some of the old standbys. But the plot twists of the show itself, while thrilling and enticing, eventually became its demise. In its final seasons, Lost left cliffhanger after cliffhanger – and just kept moving on to the next cliffhanger, without ever circling back for resolution. In the end, we felt like the woman who keeps going back to her abusive lover. Surely this time it will be different! In the end, like an abusive lover, the show did not deliver on its empty promises. And still, we loved it.

I’ve done some fascinating reading lately: Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, and The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson. While I don’t endorse 100% of what they say, all three books inspired much meditation and reflection. All three describe this deeply human quality of storytelling. We are storytellers by our very nature. Without stories, we cannot make sense out of life.

But there is a shadowy side to our storytelling. Not all of our stories are true stories. In our unwillingness to watch and wait in hope, we can begin telling lies about ourselves, about others, and about God.

I know for myself that I have often fluctuated back and forth between one of two extremes: self-exaltation and self-shaming.  In my moments of self-exaltation, I deny or minimize my unseemly behaviors or my personal problems. Puffed up with pride, I begin relying on myself and growing in a false confidence. In those moments, I easily excuse behaviors in myself that I totally dislike in others. I put on a mask and project a version of myself that I would like others to accept. I suspect I am not alone in these tendencies.

In the present age of social media, there is an ever greater temptation to tell a well-crafted and glamorous story about ourselves – whether or not it is true – and to compare our story to the story of others. All of these self-exalting stories are cardboard cutouts, like the filming stage of an old a spaghetti western. Then come those moments in which the truth knocks over our façade, and we are terrified of being discovered for the fraud that we (think we) are.

The other side I often experience is telling a story of self-shaming. Then my survival instincts kick in: fight or flight or freeze. At my worst, I begin blaming others or become demanding or demeaning. More commonly, I withdraw into isolation and coping, or I avoid anything that feels challenging, for fear of failure. I know I am not the only one who does these things.

The problem with both versions of storytelling (self-exaltation and self-shaming) is that they are highly selective. We are taking only parts of our story, and distorting the whole. Our lives our complex. Like the characters on Lost, we make many mistakes AND we make heroic choices amidst difficult circumstances. Evil things are done to us AND we freely choose to cooperate in evil.  We are victims of tragedy AND we are given opportunities for freedom and redemption. We behave in ugly or hurtful ways AND we show great sensitivity and compassion.

The bigger story for each of us is the story of a redeemed sinner who is in the process of being sanctified by Jesus. Every part of our story matters. Every part needs to be touched by his healing grace. When our entire story, in every detail, gets united with the saving story of Jesus, we begin to discover who we really are – and it is far more beautiful and more worth living than any pretend story we’ve ever told about ourselves. We can be known and loved in our story. Then, on the Day of Judgment, when our merciful Savior opens the Book of Life and proclaims our entire story for all to hear, all will praise God for the amazing story Jesus has told in and through us.