Monday, November 3, 2008

On the Need for Implacable and Unconditional Love

In one of his many hit songs, Tony Bennett poignantly warbled about his need to be loved. So, he emotionally asserted “If I have love I know I can make it.” Tony, notwithstanding his secular values, does have something to say about human nature. Even in the world of pop music, musical comedy and Rap, one can stumble on truths to live by. Popularization does not necessarily mean superficiality. Yet if anything is universal and clear, it is that all of us have a profound longing to be loved with no conditions. In the human heart there is an unbounded desire to be uncritically esteemed and valued. The bravado one meets in life—such as: “I don’t need anybody!” (in the case of the uneducated the statement becomes “I don’t need nobody”), or “Who cares?” or “Who needs it?” or “I take care of #1 — me!” is really a mask or pose to disguise, even from himself, the terrifying suspicion that he is basically unlovable. One can expend enormous energy, perhaps even a lifetime, avoiding a real self confrontation lest his suspicion might be true. As Bennett implies, anyone who truly feels love will be open to the real basic joys possible to the human heart. Contrary wise, the feeling that no one really loves me, inevitably leads to anger and bitterness and sarcasm. Without love, life is misery. The blessed Apostle Paul put it brilliantly in his 1Cor.13 when he wrote “If I have all Faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.”

When I began the study and practice of clinical psychology 36 years ago, I was often perplexed with the inconsistencies of human behavior. The strange self destructive dynamic which I saw so often was very difficult to understand. My philosophic background strongly suggested 1 plus 1 invariably produce 2. I had naively assumed that human beings want the best for themselves. But, to my dismay, I found, in the psychological world, the result of 1 plus 1 is often unrecognizable and even repugnant. The cartoonist, Walt Kelly, had his guru, Pogo, make this all wise observation: “We have found the enemy and they are us”. Apart from the questionable grammar, Pogo articulates, in his own way, the age old truism that “I am my own worst enemy.” [1] No one savages me more fiercely than do I. But why is this so? Catholic theology teaches that there is an original “sin” in all of us with powerful tendencies toward evil. But nowhere is it written (except in rigid religious groups who teach that evil is the very core of the human experience) that because one has tendencies, he necessarily is “bad.” Rather, we teach that the human being is “wounded”, not corrupt nor intrinsically bad. We believe that the human being is, with the help of God’s powerful grace, capable of beautiful and generous unselfishness.

Yet, if one feels unlovable, it is an easy, if unconscious, progression to “I must be bad since no one really loves me.” It goes further to the strange conclusion that bad people must be punished in some way for being bad—even if the concept of “bad” is unclear. So should the external world not punish me, I must punish me. This gives some understanding to the weird self destructive dynamic wherein the person says: “I know this is crazy up here (in the head) but I must do it anyway. My heart doesn’t really believe that anyone really loves me! I need to be punished.” I have seen persons with SSA (same sex attraction) while knowing that homosexual behavior goes nowhere but down, destroying the person, nevertheless, will engage in promiscuous sex in tea rooms, bathhouses, cruising and the like. This behavior will be followed by huge self loathing and disgust but nevertheless will be repeated cyclically and periodically. He will have a great need to punish himself in the worst possible way proportionate to his perception of “how bad he is.” He believes, again unconsciously, that his defect is so serious that he must be punished in the most painful way. Hence, his choice of behaviors which meet his perceived evil and which call forth his debasement as appropriate punishment.

It is an easy progression to see that when one truly believes he is unlovable, he concludes that he must be bad. Even intrinsically corrupt. The self loathing that comes from a feeling of being unloved and being basically unlovable—unconsciously—will produce the enigma of 1+1 equaling the appalling and the unrecognizable. One might spend not only years but much funding in assessing the “why” of this unhappy situation. Why do people dislike me? Why do I dislike me? Why do I feel my family dislikes me? Why am I so lonely? Why have I such few friends?” (Relative to human relationships, it might be noted that true and lasting friendships usually require a reasonable self regard within the psyches of the friends.)

While for some people, such research might be fascinating with its concentration on the self,( talking about oneself is usually pleasurable) it is sometimes counterproductive and often minimal in its results. In the immediate present, there are scores of unhappy suffering people who are tortured by this pervasive feeling of being unloved. In Pogo’s thinking they harm themselves with their distortions. What, then, can such afflicted ones do? The answer to this question, basically, has been the work of the whole field of therapy for decades. Secular people of good will, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, even pastoral counselors, have striven mightily with all kinds of techniques to ease the pain and to reconstruct the psyche with more healthy self concepts. And to some extent, they have been helpful. However, self deprecation and even self loathing abound. And perhaps there will always be such negatives to some extent. If there is no “cure” there certainly is possible improvement. Freud thought that the human personality was basically unchangeable but he always taught the possibility of making a bad situation turn into a better one with more peace of soul and meaning in life.

I, as a licensed psychologist with 30+ years of experience will always argue for the positive values of psychotherapy but as a Catholic priest, ordained 60 years, I am keenly aware of “Something” else. That Something else involves the loving Creator of us all. It involves the truly amazing power of the grace of the Lord. For one thing, the loving Creator has made each of us His children. Each of us is unique. The Catholic Church teaches that one’s value is not in orientation or race or gender but simply in being a Child of God Himself. Of course, it is wonderful to have money, to travel where and when one wants, to acquire all kinds of gadgets and playthings, drive fast cars and party enthusiastically and extensively. Of course it is great to have talent and youth and health and wit and education and athletic ability. Such factors are valued and desired. But experience teaches that one needs more than that! Without a deep awareness of one’s self worth, one will ultimately ask “Is this all there is?” Or perhaps engage in the futile chase for some elusive (and non existent human) “Perfection.” Movie buffs can remember the powerful scene in Tennessee Williams “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” wherein the dysfunctional son, played by Paul Newman, castigates Big Daddy (Burl Ives) for giving him things in abundance but not the love he so desperately needed for his sense of self! Family therapists can attest to the mistakes of many well meaning parents or parent surrogates who miss a vital point by making self worth (and love) depend on the material.

What Freud and hundreds of other well meaning professionals did not know or accept was the saving power of God. They worked under the disadvantage of secularism which has limited tools. If there were one magic wand I could wield or as Tony Bennett fantasizes “If I ruled the world”, I would move all the world to relax in God’s love and feel His affection and care flowing over one’s soul. On the beach, in a silent Church before the Eucharist, in bed, at Holy Mass, at work, on a walk through the City, anywhere. So, is there a need for unconditional love and implacable love? I, in consort with most of the human race, think there is such a need. And I have a profound confidence for its attainment -----clothed in the implacable love of the good and gracious God. And I think I know how to find it. Re-read the previous paragraph. You don’t need to be an intellectual or bookworm. Just be open to His love. If you let Him love you, you, too, will say that His grace is powerful and amazing.

[1] Probably we all recall Shakespeare’s Caesar with his reminder “The fault, my dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves.”