We live too frustrated by our own mediocrity. The problem lies not in our unwillingness to convert, but in our inability to convert. We keep trying, by the way of good resolutions, to wage war against the bad habits of our hearts and minds. But we fail, grow discouraged, and generally live with a non-expressed despair, which lets us believe that for us, things cannot really change.
What’s at issue? The congenital moral ineptness that St. Paul speaks about in Romans? Perhaps. However, I suspect that more of the problem lies in our unwillingness to move toward the radicalism and upheaval that genuine conversion implies. Perhaps the best analogy available to us for understanding the real meaning of the word conversion is that of revolution. Conversion is an interior revolution. Anything less radical simply misses most of the meaning of that word.
When we look at the phenomenon of a political-social revolution, we see that a successful revolution brings about a new consciousness and a new system, a “new guard.” This replaces an “old guard,” a previously established consciousness and way of doing things. Such a revolution is characterized by, among other things, two salient features:
1. It is dramatic, not gradual: Revolution is not evolution. It is not a smooth transition or a peaceful, gradual, non-painful, non-upsetting thing. It is an upheaval, a radical overturning. It arises precisely when people have despaired of gradual change. When simple evolution and ordinary everyday changes provide the necessary growth, then revolution is not necessary. Revolution becomes necessary only when the old order is hopelessly stagnant, when there is no longer any hope that peaceful, non-violent, gradual change can bring about improvements of any significance.
2. All revolutions culminate in a purge: Once the new consciousness and order have been established, they must – and very quickly, too – purge themselves of all elements which are not single-mindedly and unequivocally supportive of the new ideals and the new system. That is why virtually every political-social revolution in history has been followed by a blood bath. All that is dissident is systematically eliminated. Why?
Because the new guard knows that, unless this is done, it will forever live under the danger that the old guard will rise up and recapture the new. For a new consciousness to survive, dissident and residual elements of the old guard must be killed off. As Scripture puts it: “You cannot put new wine into old wineskins!”
In real life, these dynamics are brutal, bloody and often times morally deplorable. When applied to an interior revolution, to radical conversion within our hearts and minds, they still remain brutal and violent, but they can be moral and they can help lead us to the truth that sets us free.
Conversion, to be effective, must be radical. It must be revolution!
If we were the type of persons that we should be, there would be no need of dramatic conversions within our lives. Evolution would be sufficient. We could grow through gradual, easeful, non-radical and non-violent means. Unfortunately, most often, that is not the case. There is no real evolution. We sense within our lives an immaturity, bad habits, a mediocrity and a moral ineptness, which barring an extraordinary intervention of grace, will keep us forever falling into the same pit.
Aristotle said: “Habits become one’s second nature.” He is correct. Bad habits do become our second natures. We make all kinds of resolutions to break out of these but find ourselves basically helpless. Year after year, we make the same good resolutions, and year after year we break them. What must we learn from this? That, after a time, we can no longer rid ourselves of bad habits by means which are easeful, gradual, don’t hurt too much and do not disrupt our lives too much. Too many things have been happening for too many years.
Evolution is no longer possible for us. Revolution and a certain violence are necessary. We must radically shake up our lives. But most of us do not like the subversive. We try instead, year after year, to change ourselves through good resolutions, through means that will not be too dramatic, painful or disruptive. That is why we fail and stay ever the same: mediocre, frustrated, and unable to break out of bad habits that have dominated our lives. It is our fear of dramatic upheaval, painful uprooting and new patterns of life that are hostile to established habits that, precisely, allow our bad habits and mediocrity to keep the upper hand.
Genuine conversion and real change will come when we have the nerve to risk dramatic upheaval.