I belonged to the church,
And to the party of prohibition;
And the villagers thought I died of eating watermelon.
In truth I had cirrhosis of the liver,
For every noon for thirty years,
I slipped behind the prescription partition
In Trainor’s drug store
And poured a generous drink
From the bottle marked
Why can we know the good, “see” the good yet not grasp it? Not “do” it? This is not the Socratic and Platonic “To know the good is to do it?”
It has fascinated me for a very long time. That is I think that the Socratic statement is not the case at all.
Our history and drama are full of tragic figures who strive for “the good” only to fail.
But I turn not to great literature but to a situation comedy of recent years that always comes to mind when I think of this situation entitled “Arrested Development.”
Briefly this is a wealthy “dysfunctional family” with one “functional” member.
Long and short of it, while the CEO father sits in prison for misdeeds and the mother continues to spend corporate money via embezzlement and siblings and extended family simply cannot “function” the son “keeps” getting “pulled back in” because he is the only one that is stable enough to fix things. Of course all the while everyone takes pot shots at him.
Or one of my favorite ones is when a patient actually says “but you’re a doctor you’re suppose to do it.” That is do some virtuous thing and of course they are not up to being that virtuous.
In my mind the “problem” is how is it in this rather brilliant show or in any situation, real or imagined, can it be that a person can “know the good but not do it?”
“To Know the good is to do the good” and “shame is the impediment to ongoing interest,” according to “Affect Psychology” between the two is the entire history of Western thought and in there lies the entire history of Christianity and it’s struggle to deal with sin, blame, guilt and damnation because if you know the good you must be able to effect it but we now know that we simply can't. We can’t until we can. And so if there is a gospel it is The Gospel of community love and support. Interest is the impediment to ongoing shame. 1
This type of question weds reason and emotion. There they are sided by side. We came up with the term “cognitive dissonance” because of these situations.
It seems there is a quite simple but maybe not obvious answer: it is because we do not feel worthy.
It is a frightening thought. “I am not worthy.” And it can be dangerous because this can be a shame sink hole as there is nothing anyone can do to convince me otherwise and I can drag the whole world with me. A phrase others and I have used is a “black hole of shame.” Just as a “black hole in space” is so powerful it sucks in everything around it so does the personality of a person with such shame. It tries to destroy you and make you as miserable as they are. We have all kinds of terrible names for them and if we live with them or love them we “pity them” and see their agony and if we do not have the benefit of understating their shame then are left to our own devices.
Of course not all are so off the bean but still so many suffer a whole continuum of this shame dynamic that keeps them and all of us from time to time in the shadows and form participating in “The Good.” The most common mode is the “simple” and hurtful “withdrawal.” The “impolite” unanswered phone call or email after the heartfelt request.
One thing being “on this side of understanding” is I cannot imagine life without this understanding. I cannot imagine being as civil as I am. And yes, so, by implication I do think I have come to be able to, without, embarrassment say that I have participated in “The Good” to some extent. My understanding of shame in others is the only thing that really keeps me sane. So I wonder how we have survived and tolerated others so much in the troughs of shame and what we have understandably until now called their “evil ways.” Well, we know what we have done and said; literature and drama well document this, to say nothing of the real historical record. But it also shows that we have often been surprisingly tolerant of ourselves and others. We have been strikingly good despite the existence of so much toxic shame in our lives. At least history shows we have improved despite our ignorance. It is so because all we have done here is discovered shame. Shame has always been with us and so everyone of us has had to live it and live the consequence of the options that pain gives us whether it had been articulated or not. Point? Well, albeit we are still not all that empathetic it seems we have been empathetic enough to give, on average, each other many breaks along the road as we recognized from early on that we are “all fellow travels to the grave.” (Dickens)
But why am I not worthy? It is mainly because I have been told so or because I have been made to feel I am nothing by some kind of abandonment. The shame and humiliation, i.e. the enormous pain and void that leaves consumes my life. Life is for others form then on. I have but one job and that is: Well, what is it? Hard to define isn’t it since I am nothing?
As the king said, though in another context, “Nothing will come of nothing?”
But interest is the impediment to nothing.
1Of course early Christianity adopted this dictum and much of Platonism as being consistent with the Christian ideal of participation in the good or Holy.
Shame and Humiliation
http://www.squidoo.com/thinking-feeling-doing (Summary of Principles used in these posts.)
Tomkins, Silvan S.: Affect Imagery Consciousness NY: SPringer Publishing Company, 1963.
Shame and Pride : Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self by Donald L. Nat
On Amazon by Brian Lynch Paper Back and Kindle:
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