Sunday, August 17, 2008

Could It Be The Water That Makes Californian Craziness? Or What?

Some years ago Truman Capote simultaneously delighted and upset his fans by asserting that “for every year you live in California, you lose one point off your I.Q.” Some excoriated him while others applauded for articulating what was in their own minds. It does seem that in spite of its beautiful weather and its relaxed rampant lifestyles, the Golden State produces more zany types of flower children, bizarre religious fanatics and off-beat dropouts than any other area.One can recall the somewhat extremist behaviors of the Big Sur era with its encounter groups and Tim O’Leary’s enthusiastic fantasies on LSD as the answer to all of life’s problems. I remember the bizarre teachings of Matthew Fox and the New Age theology of a popular Californian nun (like some Modern religious) who saw Jesus as just like us—purely human. Nothing more. Yet, whether or not Truman speaks tongue in cheek or seriously, it is fairly clear that any position, opinion or stance for anyone is strongly influenced by one’s own personal experience.

Some recent personal experiences of my own almost replicate Truman’s assertion. In the last three months I have been consulted by several human transplants from California, specifically, from the “Progressive” Berkley(?)/San Francisco area. Three are women who, not knowing each other, have been referred to me by some local clergy (who generally are uncomfortable and untrained in dealing with a-typical personalities). They are largely unhappy with what they call the “Conservative” Catholic church in this area and are predictably vocal in their support of woman priests, gay marriage, more lay control, more “flexible” rules of spirituality—especially for sexual behavior-- and of course tepid support for the Pope whom they consider a Teutonic near Neanderthal.

With hyperbolic predictability any experienced clinician could see “shambles” written big and clear in their stories. All three were personally out of sync in their marriages. One was particularly “interesting.” Her father wouldn’t speak to her. Nor would her mother or brother. She so irritated her husband that he came after her with a Knife leading her to get a court order of “protection” from her own husband. This was one of those “…the fault, my dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves…” She found it exceedingly difficult to own any responsibility for her unhappiness or to admit that all relationships are a two-way street. In desperation, such personalities resort to “magical” solutions which will (in their minds) hopefully give them instant Paradise.

They all say they come for “spiritual” resolution of their life difficulties (in this case read Magical) and would be incensed at any suggestion of personal or marital therapy[1]. In fact, they consulted their Californian priests not for solution of problems but to vent [2]and apparently with the hope of unending catharsis (without fee, of course). They used the unsuspecting priests as “sounding boards” not as guides to a life with God. It was the old story. The presenting problem seems spiritual but the latent and real problem is psychological. Unconsciously the innocent clerics are “enablers” who think that they are pastoral and “with it.”

All three were loaded with repressed anger which was displaced to some target other than themselves---preferably one which does not retaliate but accepts anything—like a non-judgmental Church which is committed to compassion and long suffering patience. It might be group or area thinking but it is more probably caused by negative human [3]interaction. In effect, it is not the water or weather or California or a “Conservative” Church which is the “bad guy”. Beyond the elusive and difficult to demonstrate gene theory, it is most probably how we think and feel about ourselves (and life itself) that determines much of human happiness. It is really a toxic human environment, both interior and exterior which is the enemy. One’s interiority is certainly a factor in human happiness but so is one’s exteriority; the places, the people, the things--- as so carefully described in 12 step recovery programs.

For the priceless peace of soul (which these three women are really seeking) it is necessary to clarify and answer honestly (to themselves) the great questions of human self discovery. What do I really want out of life? (A surprising number of people do not know). How much am I prepared to pay and sacrifice for its attainment? What are my fantasies? What do I think about? Whom do I hang out with? The recently deceased Fr. Paul Keenan of the New York Archdiocese used to preach “you get like what you pay attention to…”[4] Narcissistic fantasies, unhealthy reading, depressing comrades, sarcastic conversation, immodest behavior, porno all affect the human being who, trance-like might engage in the old rationalization process that it is only a little peek or look at the salacious or anything experienced spiritual directors call the near occasions of sin. There are extensive data about the misunderstanding of “the slippery slope.” One little step and you are gone—right down the mountain!

Catholics believe that God’s grace operates on human nature. We believe that one confronts and manages human obstacles first. The persistent idea that religion can have a thunder bolt solution—as if there were some kind of Merlinian[5] formula---is probably infantile thinking. The truth is that growth and maturity are slow and incremental requiring the free cooperation of the human being. It is interesting to note that the Catholic Church has condemned not only Pelagianism which believes that man can handle his problems alone with human solutions but also Quietism which believes that God will do it all with little or no human input.[6]

Bill Cosby, the noted philosopher/comic/social observer recently opined that it does matter with whom we associate. This was occasioned by the allegation of a prominent politician that he was not influenced by the offensive public remarks made by his Pastor. For 20 years he listened to the degrading presentations of his spiritual leader insisting that even though he remains a close friend with this man whom he deeply admires, the repulsive value system will have no effect whatever on his own way of thinking. Cosby ridicules this allegation as unreal. I must agree. You get like what you pay attention to!!

A famous baseball player with great family problems has some kind of need to “womanize.” One of his teammates refused to associate with him in social situations because the “Romeo” most probably would exhibit his embarrassing sexual tendency. The second man knows that one is easily affected by his comrades. He values his own integrity and understands how we affect each other. It does matter with whom we associate.

Coming from a slightly Puritanical home where I never heard my father utter one “street” word was not enough to offset my twenty one years as a Police chaplain. I was appalled to find myself effortlessly using the language of the streets. I had picked up that verbal behavior from the people (good --even if rough-- guys) I “hung around with.” I recall my sincere intentions to fight the iniquitous social policy of apartheid on my arrival in South Africa and my intense fright on discovering that I hardly thought or mentioned my Christian responsibility after some time there. The white South Africans took such evil as part of “practical” living. With out realizing it, I, the Missionary with Christ’s message was accepting the unChristian values and views of those I “hung around with.” This is the power---plus or minus--- which is attached to human association. Even the great Apostle Paul endorses this point in his First letter to the Corinthians, 5,9. “I wrote to you …..not to associate with immoral people…not to associate with the immoral, greedy, drunkard or robber… not even to eat with such a person….”

In my own pastoral work today, I am quick to point out this obvious (but apparently misunderstood reality) to those under my spiritual care. If a person with Same Sex Attraction really wishes to gain reasonable chastity, he must avoid those people who are either active in or tolerant of same sex behavior.
The Gay Bar might lure him with promises of “just enjoying the music.” But the psychic climate is dangerous for him. He, as a human being, is susceptible to the confidently spoken homosexual mores so rampant in Gay society. You get like what you pay attention to. You are influenced by those you “hang out with”. Going to gay bath houses for the alleged purpose of “health reasons” is not only lying to oneself but, at the very least, exceedingly toxic to one’s spiritual health. Looking at porno of any kind can be destructive and addictive which only re-enforces the SSA disorder.

In Catholic circles, this is all summed up in what is called the “Near occasions of sin.” It still is people, places and things. One finds human unhappiness or nuttiness not only in California and North Carolina but in Ireland, Hong Kong and Sicily---wherever there are people. Granting the possibility of organic damage, it is mostly attributable, I believe, to poor psychic environment. It comes down regardless of environmental negatives, under God, to refining the point of what I want in life! What do I want? If my goal is clear, I will, with God’s help, do what is necessary for that attainment and vigorously avoid what endangers what I want.

The mantra is: “You get like what you pay attention to.”

[1] Apparently, seeking out a therapist is somehow degrading but looking up a priest (who happens to be a licensed shrink) is considered acceptable since the resolution in their minds is “spiritual.” Is psychotherapy some kind of symbol of failure in life?
[2] Venting for its own sake is useless and unhealthy. As a part of the therapeutic process it has credence.
[3] The biological influence of hormones and genes obviously has some significance but dominantly it is the psychic human factor which is interesting to my hypothesis.
[4] I am familiar with the grammar purists who go ballistic when a writer ends a sentence with a preposition. But I am more impressed with Winston Churchill’s derisive dismissal of their rigid insistence on grammatical clumsiness when he said: “This is something up with I will not put.”
[5] Merlin was the fabled magician of King Arthur’s Round table gang.
[6] The spiritual axiom is: work as if everything depended on you but pray because every thing depends on God.

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