All of us struggle to project a certain image of ourselves. No matter the effort, no matter the hidden cost, when we walk into our place of work or into our circle of friends we want to project an image of calm, poise, and easy accomplishment; especially we never want to show signs of weakness, of being needy or lonely, of being ruffled and not perfectly in control.
Our society has a word for that, cool, and many of us consciously try to project exactly that. From the clothes we wear, to our choice of sunglasses, to a carefully a practiced public countenance, we walk out into public trying to say: “Look at me. I’m successful, I’m healthy, I’m attractive, I’m at ease, I’m not lonely, I don’t have great anxieties in my life, I’m happy, my life isn’t a big struggle, all of my problems are manageable, my life isn’t teetering on any brink, and it doesn’t take an extraordinary effort for me to do all this. I manage this with ease!”
And that is not without its virtue. Its opposites are emotional exhibitionism and hysteria. We are meant to be in control of our own lives, to not to impose our neediness unfairly on others, to carry ourselves in a way so as to radiate health.
However, much as we admire this kind of strength and much as we would like to project it in our own lives, habitual calm and poise can also be a sign of immaturity, of lacking sensitivity and depth. One of the marks of maturity and compassion is an inability to protect oneself from certain kinds of pain, the inability precisely to always be cool and composed.
Why? Because, by definition, sensitivity and empathy leave us vulnerable to pain, to loneliness, and to a certain helplessness and weakness. The more sensitive that we are, the less cool we will be. It is not a mark of either maturity or depth to walk blithely inside of brokenness and feel it so little that our lives are never really bothered by it. Insensitive people, it would seem, sleep more easily at night because they have no great anxieties, particularly about how their actions may have affected anyone else.
The American, Jesuit scholar, Michael Buckley, puts this well in a now-famous essay: He compares Jesus to Socrates in terms of simple human excellence and, surprising to the naïve observer, Jesus doesn’t seem to measure up to Socrates in many ways.
Here’s how Buckley puts it: Socrates went to his death with calmness and poise. He accepted the judgment of the court, discoursed on the alternatives suggested by death and on the dialectical indications of immortality, found no cause for fear, drank the poison, and died. Jesus – how much to the contrary. Jesus was almost hysterical with terror and fear; “with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death.” He looked repeatedly to his friends for comfort and prayed for escape from death and found neither.
I once thought that this was because Socrates and Jesus suffered different deaths, the one so much more terrible than the other, the pain and agony of the cross so overshadowing the release of the hemlock. But now I think that this explanation, though correct as far as it runs, is superficial and secondary. Now I believe that Jesus was a more profoundly weak man than Socrates, more liable to physical pain and weariness, more sensitive to human rejection and contempt, more affected by love and hate. Socrates never wept over Athens. Socrates never expressed sorrow or pain over the betrayal of friends. He was possessed and integral, never overextended, convinced that the just person could never suffer genuine hurt. And for this reason, Socrates – one of the greatest and most heroic people who ever existed, a paradigm of what humanity can achieve within the individual – was a philosopher. And for the same reason, Jesus of Nazareth was a priest – ambiguous, suffering, mysterious, and salvific.
John of the Cross, in his classic manual, The Ascent to Mount Carmel, lays out a series of steps for entering more deeply into Christian discipleship. The first step is to get to know Christ more deeply by reflecting on his life. The second step is to begin to more actively imitate Christ by striving more deliberately to imitate his motivation. And once this is done, he says, we judge whether our efforts are leading us more deeply into discipleship or more deeply into self-delusion by, among other things, this criterion: Is more pain beginning to flow into our lives or are we better skilled than ever in protecting ourselves against it? Like Jesus, are we now more prone to weep over Jerusalem as opposed to showing Jerusalem just how far above its pains we really are? Are we now more vulnerable or more cool?
Iris Murdoch once wrote: A common soldier dies without fear, but Jesus died afraid.” There’s a lesson in that.