Last week, I posed a question to my students as our class began. “If a nuclear missile struck us in the next few seconds, and we all died, would you go to Heaven? Raise your hand, if you think you would definitely go straight to Heaven.” I was surprised that only one girl put up her hand, but I was pleased that the rest did not, because we cannot hope for what we are certain of. Hope is a virtue that we need until the day we meet our Maker. We should pray daily in the hope that God will have mercy on us, but none of us can be certain of our eternal destiny until we meet God face to face.
Then it occurred to me, that their restraint might not be about hope at all. So, I asked them: “How many believe that you would go to Hell if died this minute?” About five of them raised their hands. Since these were girls of very fine character, I asked one of them: “Why do you think you’re going to Hell?” She answered, “Because I’m not nice. I don’t take any BS”. I asked another, and she said much the same thing.
I almost fell over. “Where did you get the idea that holiness is about being nice? And why do you think that being assertive is contrary to holiness?”
We live in a culture dominated by the tyranny of niceness, where it is more important to be nice than to be truly good. Niceness has become more important than Truth. That’s why I find it so hard to get teenagers to raise objections in class. If they hear anything they disagree with, or they wish to dispute a point, they remain silent. They’ve learnt that arguing, asking difficult questions, or challenging the teacher is disrespectful.
We don’t live in a culture of debate anymore. When I was young, I watched a show called The Great Debate. They’d debate controversial issues, then the audience would vote at the end. We no longer see programs like that, and very few schools have debating clubs. To use a phrase coined by Pope Benedict XVI, we live under the dictatorship of relativism. Relativism is the tyrant behind the tyranny of niceness. Relativism denies that there is absolute Truth. It denies that there are absolute moral precepts, or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong (such as abortion, active euthanasia, adultery, contraception, pornography and fornication). So, it naturally follows that if there is no Truth, there’s nothing to debate; because debate is about uncovering Truth. In a relativistic culture, everyone has their own truth, and everything must be tolerated, except the belief that some actions are wrong and there is absolute Truth. That’s a nice culture, a very agreeable one, where debate must be shut down because it results in hurt feelings.
Therefore, students who challenge a point in class are castigated for not being nice. Argument has been openly discouraged. Just accept what you’re being taught. And what is being taught is not at all controversial. Why not? Because it’s not nice to talk about controversial things like abortion, fornication and homosexuality, for example, because these are ‘divisive’, and someone could be offended. In other words, Truth takes a backseat to sensitivity. So, the most fundamental modern moral directive – the one commandment that replaces the Ten Commandments of old – is: “Thou Shalt be Sensitive”. Love has now come to mean sensitivity.
We’ve all heard the expression “The truth hurts”. Speaking the truth can cause people to feel uncomfortable. It is not ‘nice’ to make people feel discomfort, but speaking the truth is sometimes the most loving thing you can do. Having your stomach sliced open with a scalpel isn’t a nice experience, but my doctor did a very loving thing years ago when he cut me open to remove a cancer. Not nice, but loving.
A local psychologist wrote about the adverse psychological effects of the tyranny of niceness. It tends to bring about a split in one’s entire personality, a dis-integration of the character, because instead of speaking honestly, one has to remain silent, or say nice things, regardless of whether or not they are true. I have had colleagues who say the nicest things, the most positive things, when they know they are not being sincere. “How was that field trip?” “It was great!”, they glibly answer, but when you question them further, they eventually admit that it was a disaster – a complete waste of time. Why did they say it was great? They’re stuck for an answer. It’s the tyranny of niceness. If we speak frankly, we’ll look like cranks or ogres. When I started teaching, one Principal always told us that we were all doing a wonderful job. He knew that wasn’t true. Only some were doing a good job, but it’s not nice to too honest. This kind of personal dis-integrity can have serious adverse consequences down the road, both psychologically and spiritually.
Well, holiness is not niceness. Holiness is heroic faith, heroic hope, and heroic charity (supernatural love of God). Jesus is Holiness itself, the perfection of holiness, the fountain of all holiness. But read the Gospels. He wasn’t nice, especially to the Pharisees. St. Paul wasn’t always that nice. Note what he said to the Galatians: “As for me, brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why do the attacks on me continue?… Would that those who are troubling you might go the whole way, and castrate themselves!” (Gal 5, 11-12). Not a nice thing to say, but Paul is a saint. Study the life of St. Padre Pio, one of the greatest saints in the 20th century. He was not always nice, but he was a man of heroic charity.
The letter to the Romans wasn’t nice at all, by today’s standards. It would be horribly offensive to a large number of people: “Let us conduct ourselves properly, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy… make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
Sexual integrity is so important, because sexual immorality affects our ability to relate to each other. It affects marriage, which is the foundation of the family, the fundamental unit of society. Sadly, most people today, including educators, are silent on sexual morality, because they fear causing offence. Unfortunately, some priests and bishops have become disciples of the tyranny of niceness, which is why we rarely hear about controversial issues from the pulpit.
How do we prepare for the Second Coming of Christ? By growing in holiness and personal integrity. Lust above all has the power to destroy that integrity. Neurosurgeon Donald Hilton has recently written about the effects of pornography on the brain. The research is very disconcerting, especially in light of the revelation that 87% of college males and 31% of females view pornography. He says that pornography causes a disruption of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is essential for human beings to desire appropriate pleasures in life. Without it, we would not eat; we would not procreate, nor would we even try to win a game of checkers.
Addiction is caused by overuse of the dopamine reward system. When the neural pathways are used compulsively, dopamine is decreased. The dopamine cells begin to shrink or atrophy. The pleasure reward centres of the brain crave dopamine, so the brain re-wires itself. The “pleasure thermostat” is reset, producing a new “normal” state. To feel normal, the person must capitulate to their addiction increasingly to raise dopamine to high enough levels.
That is the case with all addictions, but especially sexual addiction, which establishes itself very rapidly and is the hardest to overcome.
Most importantly, Hilton points out that the frontal lobes of the brain, located just above the eyes, also atrophy, and these lobes have important connections to the pleasure pathways in the brain, so that pleasure can be controlled. The frontal lobes are important in our ability to make judgments. If the brain was a car, the frontal lobes would be the brakes. When they atrophy, a person’s ability to process the consequences of the addictive behaviour is impaired. This neurological decline is analogous to brake pads wearing out in a car. People who suffer from frontal lobe damage are impulsive, acting without any thought about consequences. They are compulsively fixated on certain objects or behaviours. They experience sudden and unpredictable mood swings and their judgment is impaired.
Dr. Victor Cline, in his essay on the effects of pornography on adults and children, says that it dramatically reduces a person’s capacity to love, resulting in a dissociation of sex from friendship, affection, caring, and other emotions that are part and parcel of healthy marriages. He says a person’s sexual side becomes dehumanized, and many will develop an “alien ego state” or dark side, “whose core is antisocial lust devoid of most values”.
The consequences this has on marriage are devastating. Cambridge anthropologist Dr J. D. Unwin examined the effects of sexual restraint and sexual abandon in 86 cultures, spanning 5, 000 years. He found that cultures practising strict monogamy exhibited “creative social energy”, culminating in “the zenith of production”. However, cultures in which there was no restraint on sexuality deteriorated into mediocrity and chaos, without exception.
As time goes on, sexual restraint in our culture continues to loosen. As it becomes more sexually abandoned, we are witnessing a steady decline in marriage. The consequences of marriage and family breakup, as any teacher knows, are calamitous.
Real men are becoming rare in western society. Many of our male celebrities are stuck in a perpetual adolescence. A boy does not have control over his passions, but is led by them. A man possesses himself by governing his passions and subjecting them to reason. A boy loves things for what they do for him, but a real man loves another for who they are, not for what they do for him. Many young couples give up on marriage because they have not learned to rise above hardship through an act of the will. Many think life—and marriage—is about non-stop exhilaration.
To be truly happy, we need to take St. Paul’s words seriously: “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy… But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
In the struggle for personal integrity, we have to cultivate chastity in ourselves and foster it in our children. It is impossible to grow in holiness and prepare for eternal life without chastity. We have to be careful and prudent parents, assertive parents. We need to stop being so nice. Tell them the truth with compassion and consideration. Witness to the truth which they are being cheated of. It is a sacred duty which we must not shirk.
Deacon Doug Mcmanaman
is a retired teacher of religion and philosophy in Southern Ontario. He lectures on Catholic education at Niagara University. His ministry as a deacon is to those who suffer from mental illness.
In the midst of the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic life as we knew it continues to change. We are stripped of so many things that were once a part of our everyday lives. And we stand amidst it all figuring out who we really are in this new normal. Typically, we spend our lives working hard to shape our own identity, to brand ourselves. We want to control the kind of person we appear to be. Depending on our interests, we pour our time into specific activities, sports, hobbies, and into whatever work has helped shape the perception of “who we are” for the rest of the world. We desire to be seen and known as a certain kind of person and sometimes we even flaunt our special achievements or successes. We buy into the idea that the things we have, do, and accomplish are what make us who we are—that they create our identity. And then all of a sudden, the whole world stops. No more sports. No more concerts. No more large social gatherings. No more intimate get-togethers with friends. No more travel. No more sense of security. And for some, a loss of money. a loss of employment. a loss of business. a loss of health. a loss of loved ones. a loss of life. We have been stripped. Stripped of much of what we thought we were, and much of what we thought we needed. Such a process of detachment is hard and painful and sometimes very scary. Sometimes, even without a world-wide health crisis, God allows us to go through a process of detachment from the things and ways we use to identity ourselves so we can discover our true identity. Inevitably, if we do not know who we are and what we are worth, we attach our identity to earthly things that are fleeting and can be pulled out from under our feet at any time. Our sure and solid source is God and God alone. And we need to know him intimately. When we do, we will know how much he values us. You and I, my friend, are first and foremost beloved children of a loving Father. That is our true identity. That is the only identity that matters. The world will try to tell you otherwise. Your friends might try to tell you otherwise. The Tempter surely will try to tell you otherwise. But nothing changes the Truth of who you are. It is your Truth and it is my Truth, and it is every person’s Truth. And it does not matter whether or not we come to own it and believe it. Nothing we say or do can change that Truth. Our identity rooted in the Father is where we find life. And an interesting fact about the Kingdom Jesus established is when we feel we have nothing left; we realize that we actually have everything we need. Now, in the midst of this crisis, when each one of us is being stripped of some aspect of our former lives, now is the time to dig deep and claim our true identity. So I will start. I am Jackie Perry, a beloved daughter of our merciful Father. Who are YOU?
The simple and tender words of Jesus instructing us to “love one another as I have loved you” have taken on a deeper meaning for me over the past few weeks as the coronavirus has spread throughout the globe. I have witnessed love of neighbor in action from every end of the earth, and in my own backyard. And if this love had a sound, that sound would be silence: quiet classrooms, empty offices, and desolate parks. The silence is powerful. It is the sound of love. It is the sound of Isolation, sacrifice, and self-denial for the health and safety of humanity. What a beautiful movement in a defining moment. Odd as it may sound, there is an immeasurable amount of beauty in all this suffering we face. As I look in my daughter’s closet and see her dresses for prom and graduation hanging up, now never to be worn, I can’t help but feel a twinge of pain and sadness for the memories she and so many others will never create. But she is living in a moment she will never forget. A moment that none of us will ever forget --when the world came together and love spread faster than a virus. That is the most extraordinary memory to keep. That is what makes this time of pain and loss extraordinarily holy. Like many people, I hope that when love and prayer and science conquer this pandemic, life does not return to normal. I pray kindness and compassion will continue to overflow this earth. I pray the pain, sacrifice, and hardships we are all enduring softens us – softens our hearts, our actions, our thoughts. I pray that each of us will appreciate our blessings in life a little more, that our faith will become a little deeper, that our love for each other will grow a little stronger. My hope is that the little things in life become the bigger things in life, as our appreciation for everything around us flourishes. I pray that we fully understand what it means to love each other as Jesus loves us and actively live this love, because we are all in this beautiful life together.
“You touched my coffee!” the customer screamed at the young barista, who burst into tears as she helplessly tried to offer a new cup to the angry woman. We sensed she was not a local and the loyal patrons rallied to defend the young girl. “If you are so worried about contamination, you should not even go out!” shouted one patron. “Stay home!” another butted in. As a pastoral worker, I offered her a word of comfort. While she made my cuppa between sobs, I reminded her that the current environment made everyone tense, so she shouldn’t take it personally and let the incident ruin her day. Just a few minutes later, I had to take my own advice. When I accidentally overstepped the 1.5 meters mark at the grocery store, an elderly gentleman admonished me with disgust: “Stay in your spot!” adding a poke in the arm for extra emphasis. Then, when I took my little granddaughter out for a much-needed exercise, she was berated by a passerby, shouting “1.5 meters!” as he huffed away. Whew!!! Many of us have similar incidents to recount as the COVID-19 pandemic takes its toll. We are all so full of fear and anxiety that we seem to have lost the love, joy and graciousness of life. Hardly anyone smiles now as we walk past them. Heads are bowed, as eyes flit about, alarmingly vigilant but spaced out. The body language signals, “Stay away from me”. This is easily understandable as we face a dangerous, invisible enemy and we do not know who will fall by its sword before the pandemic ends. Thousands of lives and livelihoods are being lost or impaired. Although we all know that social distancing and self-isolation are necessary shields, we all suffer its effects – some catastrophically. Everyone has been affected, especially the dedicated front-line health workers, who heroically continue their care despite the risks. Sadness over the loss of loved ones, for any cause, becomes overwhelming when mourners are unable to receive the comfort of friends and family. My heart breaks for them as I pray for the souls of the dead and for comfort for their families. Government and health authorities are doing everything they can to enforce what they believe to be the best measures to control and prevent it. Many of them compare it to warfare. And indeed, there are casualties. Every nation is at its knees. But what has been its impact on me personally? When the lockdown and the shutdown were imposed, I looked at the projects I was supposed to be working on. At that moment, they seemed irrelevant. I decided to put them away in the garage, knowing that I would not be able to work on them now. My perspective has quickly shifted as I live moment by moment, prioritizing health and safety. I needed to visit the doctor for a medical issue. I implored the Lord to spare me from needing hospital care, as I dreaded the atmosphere there at present. I am forced to be more reflective and examine which parts of my life need to change. Every day I pray on my knees to ask the Lord for help. At every hour, I pray my favorite psalm 91 for the Lord’s protection for everyone, and the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I usually get excited about future projects, but with COVID-19, the future is a blur. The unknown has become my daily reality. Because I am accustomed to a busy life, I needed to find activities to help me cope. I cook for the family more. Since my daughter and son-in-law work from home, I have taken on substantial duties in the kitchen. Family life has become our foundation. The first few weeks of staying home 24/7 were trying, but things improved as family solidarity was given greater importance and we appreciated each other more. Each of us contributed more to home duties. The daily laundry has become a consolation; its gentle whirring a sound of normality. Having ample time to clean cupboards and sort the house has given me a purpose. Sleeping-in became an escape at first, but then I also realized how exhausted my body had been over the years and I welcomed the rest and the slowing down. My shower in the morning has moved to an afternoon ritual as I rush to the shops for our essentials in the morning, while stock is still available. Simplicity has become a norm – no make-up, no perfume, just my unmade self. Little miracles happen. When I was desperate for toilet paper, hand wipes and disinfectant sprays and none was found at the shelves, some were left in an abandoned trolley! Reports from some parts of the world reveal that nature is taking a recuperative rest as pollution reduces and sky, oceans, forests revive. The closure of our churches during Lent and Easter was particularly difficult, and I wonder what message the Lord is revealing to us. Where is God in all of this? many people ask. Spiritual messages are plentiful. Most of them are encouraging, affirming that God is not the source of this, as He knows no evil, but He is travelling with us on this painful journey, just as He did when He suffered here on earth with us and His Resurrection gives us hope that we will endure this trial. Our prayer group that has been meeting weekly for the last 22 years was not discouraged by the lockdown. Led by the Holy Spirit, we conduct our prayer meeting and spiritual fellowship by phone conference every Friday and, gather prophetic messages and exhortations to see us through these difficult times. By embracing the use of technology, we can remain connected to our priests who continue to celebrate Mass for us. The blessing from this is that many people who were not previously present at Mass have joined us in tuning in to church gatherings and teachings, paving the way to a deeper, inner recollection and understanding of the faith. Never again will I take the gift of the Eucharist for granted. It is the most profound fast I have ever experienced. Recently, I got a call from a friend who is battling serious illness every day – at any moment she could die from heart and kidney problems. When she came out of hospital after another bout of complications, she told me that her outlook is one day at a time. I reflected that we are all in the same boat now. COVID-19 is teaching us an important lesson – to value each moment and be full of gratitude to God, from the instant we wake and all through the day. Words and deeds of love need to be spoken and performed right now, right here – not tomorrow. And have we ever said a genuine thank you to someone who served us today? “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors and all your creation, and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.” Amen. (A Liturgy for Morning Prayer, Upper Room Worship book)
I had the most extraordinary experience of love of neighbor with a Hindu family. A gentleman came to our house and said, “Mother Teresa, there is a family who has not eaten for so long. Do something.” So, I took some rice and went there immediately. When I saw the children, their eyes were shining with hunger. I don’t know if you have ever seen hunger, but I have seen it very often. The mother of the family took the rice I gave her and went out. When she came back, I asked her, “Where did you go; what did you do?” She gave me a very simple answer: “They [a neighbor family] are hungry also.” What struck me most was that they were a Muslim family. And she knew. I did not bring any more rice that evening, because I wanted them - Hindus and Muslims - to enjoy the joy of sharing. Those children were radiating joy - sharing their joy and peace with their mother because she had the love to give until it hurts. You see this is where love begins - at home in the family.” [Excerpt from “A Call to Mercy” by Mother Teresa] This happened at a time when religious violence was prevalent in India, and thousands of people died in the riots between the Hindu and Muslim communities. The unselfishly generous gift this poor woman unhesitatingly gave to her hungry neighbors, who happened to be a Muslim family, deeply touched Mother Teresa. She often looked to the poor; for their love was simple and their hearts were full of joy. Mother Teresa invites us to learn from the poor and receive their joy by sharing our blessings generously. “Not all of us are called to do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Mother Teresa
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