James Hillman, who is perhaps America’s most fertile thinker, suggests that it is our inferiorities that build up our souls. His view is that it is not our strengths that give us depth and character but our weaknesses.
Passing strange, yet strangely true, but more of us are rendered superficial by our successes than by our failures, more of us are torn apart by our strengths than by our weaknesses. Why is it like that?
Reflecting on this, I recall a time some years back when I was a young student studying psychology and having, one evening, the privileged experience of being at a seminar with the renowned Polish psychologist, Casmir Dabrowski. He had just given us a lecture on a concept which he called “positive disintegration”. His theory was that we grow by, first, falling apart. At one point, I raised this objection: “Can’t we also grow by being built up by our successes, by taking in positive affirmation and letting it purify us of our selfishness?”
His answer supports Hillman: “Theoretically, yes, we can grow through our successes, just as easily as we can through our failures. But I can say this, through more than 40 years of psychiatric practice I have rarely seen it. Almost always deep growth takes place through the opposite – our deaths, our losses, our dark nights of the soul.” He, like Hillman, believed that it is, in the end, our inferiorities that build up our souls. Hence, an important exercise in the spiritual life is that of learning to listen to our inferiorities.
Thus, for example, it is generally the least gifted member of the family, the one the family is most publicly ashamed of, more so than the most gifted member of the family, who most enriches a family. Ask any family that has a handicapped member. Moreover, ask any family who has a handicapped member what they think has given them depth, compassion, and understanding? They will, as does Christopher de Vinck in his little masterpiece, The Power of the Powerless, A Brother’s Legacy of Love, tell you that soul comes from inferiority. It is weakness, limit, shame, and powerlessness that bring depth.
What has made us deep persons? What has taught us compassion? Our successes? The things we have been praised for? Those qualities of body or mind which make us superior to others? That perfect body that everyone envies us for? That athletic achievement that is one-in-a-million? That Summa Cum Laude that is the envy of our classmates? That perfect home that is the envy of our neighbours? Have these given us soul? Are these what make us interesting?
To the contrary, our souls, precisely in so far as they have depth, strength, compassion, and hold interest for others, have been shaped by something quite different: the fear that I will gain weight and end up looking like my mother, the shame that I feel because my teeth aren’t straight, the birthmark that I can’t hide, the blemishes that set me apart, the fat around my waists and hips that humbles me, the fear that I am not smart enough, not interesting enough, that my background isn’t good enough, my phobias, my timidities, my plain and simple inadequacies, these, coupled with the diapers I’ve had to change, the humiliations I endure in my work, in my marriage, and in my family that I am powerless to do anything about, the insults and taunts I received on the playground as a child, my drunken stepfather, these are what give me depth of soul.
It is not that these are, in and of themselves, good; it is just that when we listen to them we grow deep. They build up our souls. These inferiorities, these humiliations, are not things to be cured from, things to be solved, things to be ignored, things to be buried as private and past shames. They are to be listened to. They are entries into the depth of our souls.
Daniel Berrigan was once asked to give a talk on God. How do we listen to God? He surprised his audience. He gave no theological treatise, he simply described how he goes regularly and sits at the bedside of a young boy who is deaf, mute, paralysed, and unable to react in any way to anything that is around him. He just lies in bed, helpless, powerless, unable to say or do anything. Berrigan goes and sits by his bedside. Nothing is said and nothing, seemingly, is exchanged. But, says Berrigan, “I sit by his helplessness and I know that in this powerlessness God is speaking – and speaking in the only way that God can speak in this world!” Inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation – forgers of depth, of soul, the voice of God!