“Of course I know who I am,” we say. “Of course I know what I think and believe.” But do we really know ourselves, especially why we do what we do and feel as we feel? Can we fully articulate our core beliefs? And how effectively are we able to live our beliefs and the values that flow from them?
Several years ago, I was a leader for a spiritual-life discussion group at the Quaker meeting in which I had spent most of my life. We were a group of ten or so who enjoyed wrestling with spiritual questions, such as, “Does prayer work?” and “What does it mean to serve others?” One Sunday morning, I asked, “What do you believe about God? And who was Jesus: what is the core of his message to us?”
Everyone had surprising difficulty in articulating his or her beliefs. I had a similar challenge in a discussion with the deacon who is leading the process through which I am converting to Catholicism, specifically to Franciscan Catholicism. The deacon asked me to describe Jesus according to my understanding. My picture of Jesus (and God) is still incomplete in my mind’s eye and understanding.
Some parts of the picture are filled in in detail: I believe that what Jesus asks of us, what makes us good people, is our love, kindness, and caring for all of God’s creatures and creation, and above all for our neighbors nearby and around the globe:
And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him. . . . thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:28-31, King James Version)
However thoroughly I am ever able to clarify my beliefs, Jesus’s commandments to love God and to love my neighbor give me plenty to work on for the rest of my life. For instance, how can I simplify my life in ways that will help to protect God’s creation? And as Jesus taught, loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength includes loving every neighbor, everyone everywhere. Each is a creation of God, is loved by God, and has the light of God within, no matter how obscured or shining.
How can I speak up on behalf of neighbors from around the world who are suffering from injustice and the thoughtless and cruel acts of the powerful and greedy? And how can I respond in ways that will not merely inflame my near neighbors who think differently from me, inflame without changing minds and actions? Above all, how can I better share my beliefs through the way I live my life and not only through the words I speak and write?
A Test on Practicing What I Preach
Last weekend, a friend with whom I disagree politically forwarded an e-mail expressing her political position while disparaging mine. I was included in her distribution list of ten people. I felt I couldn’t ignore the message, which opened with a request “asking everyone to forward this e-mail to a minimum of 20 people, and to ask each of those to do likewise.” The message was supporting a national figure who is not loving to many of our neighbors near and far around the globe. I’d also felt the message was not loving to near neighbors like me: it closed, in part (and in all caps), “No wonder they’re [“they,” meaning folks like me] fighting everything he tries!”
For anyone forwarding on the message, my name might be coming along for the ride, perhaps suggesting that I was in sympathy with the views expressed. I stated my disagreement—clearly but, I hoped, not angrily—in a “reply all.” My friend responded in a phone message, and later repeated, that she had not noticed the political tone of the forwarded message’s opening and closing and was only passing along some ideas that looked interesting. A visit, a hug, and a bit of further misunderstanding followed. As part of the follow-up, I stayed awake virtually all one night worrying about what I’d done and whether or not I’d been rash, unfair, hurtful: in my response, had I been loving to my neighbor close at hand?
Goody Two-Shoes: Not So Good After All
Regardless of whether or not my e-mail response was fair, respectfully worded, and appropriate, I see another problem behind the uproar: Most of the time, people think I’m an elderly child, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Goody Two-Shoes—and I have been good-naturedly called the latter by the friend with whom I had the differences I’ve just described. After months or years of my oh-so-cheery-and-sweet persona, I meet a line in the sand, and I make a stand, shocking everyone. If I were clear, direct, and mutually respectful in all of my interactions all of the time, I would be less likely to be viewed, when I do take a stand, as Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde. I am unintentionally engaging in false advertising, a sort of unpremeditated bait and switch.
If I weren’t Ms. Goody Two-Shoes most of the time, if I always spoke up kindly but firmly, if I never brooked nonsense—whether expressed unthinkingly or designed to poke me—I might never have been sent the e-mail that offended me, and if I had, I could have responded with a simple, “I disagree.” (The good news is that all involved in the political e-mail kerfuffle and its aftermath were together a few days later, and the friendships remain intact.)
Alfred Adler: A Treasure Trove of Insight
My responsibility to know myself includes understanding why I do what I do, behave as I do. I have just finished reading The Courage to Be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, which presents the fundamental tenets of Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology as a conversation between a philosopher and a young man. Alfred Adler was a contemporary of Freud but broke with him. In his approach, Freud looked for the reasons, the history, that explained subsequent behavior, attitudes, and emotions. In contrast, when Adler looked at behavior, attitudes, and emotions, he found the reasons for them in the individual’s current goals rather than in that person’s past. Adler’s Individual Psychology also stresses that it is not what happens to us that determines our wellbeing but our views about what happens to us, the meaning that we have attached to the facts of our lives.
My parents, Mason and Doris Hayek, had a deep interest and did extensive study in Adlerian psychology, and I, too, have found merit in Adler’s principles and those of his followers. I find The Courage to Be Disliked to be not only a helpful quick refresher for Adler’s notable views but also, and above all, a magnifying glass helping me to understand myself and the problems I have encountered periodically over the years—including last weekend—in feeling pushed over the line at the limit of my acceptance. The Courage to Be Disliked reminds me to ask, “What is my goal in being a people-pleasing perfectionist?” The book also helps me to understand, “When I feel personally attacked, what are the dynamics involved, and how can I best diffuse the situation?”
Individual Psychology (and Scripture) Applied to Me
Following Freud’s approach, knowing that I was bullied in school can suggest why I’ve adopted people-pleasing and perfectionism as life strategies, but it is, as Adler posits, recognizing the current goals I have for these behaviors that will let me change both my goals and my life. I can’t change the past, but I can change what I think and do now. Changing takes courage, as The Courage to Be Disliked stresses, but the results can be worth the risk. In my Goody Two-Shoes persona, I am trying to avoid criticism; I genuinely want to be nice to others, but I also want to be judged as nice, as a good girl, as smart and talented, as above reproach.
Here are more serviceable goals for me:
- Rather than seeing myself as the perpetual child in a world of grownups, practice mutual respect: loving my neighbor as myself.
- Speak up consistently—using the principles of love, kindness, and mutual respect—on behalf of justice, peace, the Earth’s wellbeing, and the wellbeing and value of all human beings.
- Avoid what Adler calls “power struggles,” even when I feel I’ve been intentionally provoked.
- Have the courage to be true to my values and convictions regardless of whether I am applauded or rejected for my words and actions.
- Have the courage to be seen as flawed.
- Focus on others and my love for them, rather than on their opinions of me.
- Understand that others’ opinions of me are their business and not under my control.
- Recognize that my value doesn’t depend on others’ opinions of me.
- See myself as, and actually be, courageous, strong, loving, and kind.
I think that a person who has these goals will be someone who not only has greater peace of mind than I have now but also is a more useful, effective citizen of the world than I have been so far in my life. At the same time, living these goals will help me do a better job than I’ve done in living Jesus’s teachings. I’ll no doubt continue to make many mistakes, and I certainly have lots to learn, but I am mustering the courage required to change for what I think is the better for all concerned. My friends may not notice many obvious alterations, but I’ll know the difference, and others won’t have to wonder when the next surprise Winnie-cyclone of ire and indignation will be blowing onto shore.
Goody Two-Shoes signing out.
 A much more in-depth, scholarly (but readable) presentation of Adler’s Individual Psychology is the Primer of Adlerian Psychology, by Harold Mosak and Michael Maniacci. The book is expensive to buy, even used, so if you are interested in it, you may want to try getting it through a library.