Bishop Robert Barron in his book ‘Catholicism’ says that humans face three great temptations: sensual pleasures (including money), power and pride. He goes on to show how Jesus was tempted in each of these ways and overcame them, after his forty days in the desert.
I have recently been reading ‘Selfish Society’ by the parent-infant psychotherapist Sarah Gerhardt who identifies three very similar traps. She shows how babies who fail to develop a nurturing bond with a parent or parent figure in the early years of their lives will often try to compensate later on by pursuing material wealth, power or recognition.
She uses research on attachment in babies and the latest advances in neuroscience to show that small babies need a close, nurturing relationship in order to develop empathy and a genuine concern for others. Unfortunately, many parents struggle to develop good relationships with their babies due to the hurt that they themselves received as children as well as pressures from wider society. Sarah Gerhardt gives an interesting analysis of how society has developed to put pressure on parenting and family relationships.
I am getting a lot more from reading ‘Selfish Society’ than from the parenting handbooks which cajoled me into becoming a better, more efficient parent, and left me feeling inadequate when their advice didn’t ‘work’. It has helped me understand why I have struggled at times to build loving relationships with my children.
No longer the golden girl
Out of the three temptations, my weak point is seeking honour and recognition. I don’t like power (although I can sometimes be a control freak) and am indifferent to money as long as I have enough to pay the bills (which is perhaps not as indifferent as I should be). However, a substantial part of me wants to be admired and praised and throws a stooshie (creates havoc) when I amn’t.
Before having children caught up with me, I was very career-focussed. I strove for excellence in my work and received praise and recognition. Sometimes I received awards without even being aware that there was some kind of competition. I worked hard, and although I remained a smallish fish, I was proud of myself for swimming upstream like a salmon and with great effort flinging myself over the rocks into the big pond.
I took it all for granted, until I became a mother. Despite working as hard as I could, the honours and praise began to dry up. Eventually I exchanged an exciting career to become the family cook, bottle-washer and bum-wiper. I was no longer the golden girl, and on top of that I was getting wrinkles! My recent attempts to return to work, have meant retraining and starting again at the bottom.
You’d think that these experiences might have made me indifferent to honour, but, no, it’s still alive and kicking, like an ageing popstar who is past it, but still poses in a tight, shiny outfit that shows off rolls of fat.
One voice among many
Writing a blog is another temptation to seek honour. A part of me wants to collect likes and followers and readers, and thinks that I have failed when I don’t. Another part of me, knowing what the first part is like, has wondered whether it is wise to venture onto the internet at all. All the thoughts I had about becoming a Catholic threatened to boil over if I didn’t do something about them. I wrote the first draft of this post early one morning when I woke up with thoughts turning round in my head. Sometimes I have no peace until I write them down.
Instead of seeing the internet as an online space where I jostle with other people for a little bit of attention, and possibly praise, I’ve begun to turn this on its head. The internet is a way for many people to express themselves, including those who might otherwise have no way to share their thoughts and feelings. The apparent randomness of internet search engines and WordPress readers allows one voice to momentarily be heard and then sink back into the crowd.
When I thought about blogging in this way, I felt relief. I don’t want to stand out, at least, the deeper, wiser part of me doesn’t. All I really want is to express what I am thinking, and if that makes a connection with someone else, well and good, and if it doesn’t, that’s also fine.
I’ll end with a quote from Thomas Merton’s autobiography, ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ in which he describes his first impression of the Trappist monastery which eventually became his home. Oh, and by the way, please don’t like this post (even if you do)!
The logic of the Cistercian life was, then, the complete opposite to the logic of the world, in which men put themselves forward, so that the most excellent is the one who stands out, the one who is eminent above the rest, who attracts attention.
But what was the answer to this paradox? Simply that the monk in hiding himself from the world becomes not less himself, not less of a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself for his personality and individuality are perfected in their true order, the spiritual, interior order, of union with God, the principle of all perfection. Omnis Gloria ejus filiae regis ab intus.
The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!