August 11, 2006
Freedom of Choice
Well, here’s a second post in as many days. In the words of Calvin and Hobbes: “Reward, please!!” :D Actually, if you take a look at the top of this page, you’ll notice I’ve added a new section—posts I’m considering writing. In the past, I’ve often had ideas for posts and other things to write about that somehow never got written or I forgot about them. The new section will hopefully accomplish two things: remind me of the interesting subjects I’ve got to write about, and give my loyal readers an incentive to bug me about writing the ones they’re most interested in. If not, it will at least be evidence of my good intentions! :)
Now, on to the post itself.
My father periodically writes and suggests reading material to me. Most of the time, I do little if anything about it; those suggestions go on my “good ideas” pile where they rot along with all the other good ideas waiting for opportunity and motivation. But, in this case, he was particularly insistent and the request stuck in my mind. So that’s how I came to read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Dr. Stephen R. Covey.
The 7 Habits is one of those books that most people have heard of but never read. I, for one, heard about it, saw it, and dismissed it as another one of those self-help books. Perhaps a very famous self-help book, but just a self-help book nonetheless. In reading it, I have begun to suspect that the titles of the book and chapters and habits are buzz phrases to wow PR people into recommending the book to their employers and suckering them into reading it. Because the book itself is good. At least, I am finding it so. After all, the first habit has prompted enough thought on my part that I’ve talked about it to four people or so (and am about to write about it).
The first habit is to “Be Proactive.” Did I mention I dislike nearly all the titles in this book? But what he means by this is quite simple, yet fundamental. He recounts the story of Victor Frankl, which I was familiar with in bits and pieces, but had never heard the whole. If you don’t mind, I’ll quote from the book here:
Frankl was a determinist raised in the tradition of Freudian psychology, which postulates that whatever happens to you as a child shapes your character and personality and basically governs your life. The limits and parameters of your life are set, and, basically, you can’t do much about it.
Frankl was also a psychiatrist and a Jew. He was imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany, where he experienced things that were so repugnant to our sense of decency that we shudder to even repeat them.
His parents, his brother, and his wife died in the camps or were sent to the gas ovens. Except for his sister, his entire family perished. Frankl himself suffered torture and innumerable indignities, never knowing from one moment to the next if his path would lead to the ovens or if he would be among the “saved” who would remove the bodies or shovel out the ashes of those so fated.
One day, naked and alone in a small room, he began to become aware of what he later called “the last of the human freedoms”—the freedom his Nazi captors could not take away. They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Viktor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact. He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him. Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.
The first and most fundamental principle of highly effective people is the conviction that they can choose their response to what happens to them, and that it is this choice that makes them free agents, makes them human. To an enormous degree, this is basic to everything else: if you’re going to write a self-help book about how people can change, first has to be the conviction that they can change. Covey says a little later that “until a person can say deeply and honestly, ‘I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,’ that person cannot say ‘I choose otherwise.’ ” (p. 72)
This principle of freedom rung a bell with me. I’d heard things like this before ... actually, I was raised on them. But I also realize that I’ve steadily drifted farther and farther from actually believing it. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that a person is not defined by their choices, but by their “heart” in making those choices. And I’ve (foolishly, perhaps) come to believe that a person’s feelings and a person’s heart are almost the same thing. You can, I freely concede, choose your actions and responses, but I am far from convinced you can choose the heart from which you act. And I’ve also come to doubt my heart, my motivations, for everything. This threatens a total paralysis, as I cannot do anything without wondering if my motivation for doing it is good, suspecting it isn’t, and despairing because I can’t change that motivation (or, at a deeper level of doubt, that I would if I could. That, after all, would be saying that my intentions are good.)
I’m not quite sure why I’m so pessimistic about my own fundamental nature. Part of it stems from the Biblical doctrine of the fundamentally deceitful nature of the heart and the total depravity of mankind. That’s my intellectual justification, anyway. But on a more personal level, I note the tendency going back a long time. I think it’s something I learned from the stories I read as a child: that you can never relax your guard, never take anything for granted, never assume the best, never be sure things are ok ... because as soon as you do, disaster strikes. Or, so I learned, anyway. I can see this “wary” tendency in me as I competed: I refuse to be confident I have won until the game is absolutely over and I refuse to rejoice much in victory (there’s always the next test). Indeed, I hated losing much more than I loved winning for that reason. I am indeed a competitive person, but I also tend to shy away from competition.
Earlier, I mentioned that I have come to identify one’s “heart” with one’s feelings. I also came to define “hypocrisy” as “hiding your true feelings.” This has had some beneficial affects on my character—I am a very transparent person. I say what I think, I don’t hide what I feel, and I follow my impulses (mostly). This causes another block against accepting what Covey says, because after you realize you can control your responses to what happens, you then realize that you can subordinate your impulses to your principles. You can act because of what you believe instead of what you feel. To me, this is rank hypocrisy. Yet I encountered it years before in Mere Christianity.
May I once again start by putting two pictures, or two stories rather, into your minds? One is the story you all have read called Beauty and the Beast. The girl, you remember had to marry a monster for some reason. And she did. She kissed it as if it were a man. And then, much to her relief, it really turned into a man and all went well. The other story is about someone who had to wear a mask; a mask which made him look much nicer than he really was. He had to wear it for years. And when he took it off he found his own face had grown to fit it. He was now really beautiful. What had begun as disguise had become a reality.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. p. 187, at the beginning of chapter 7, “Let’s Pretend”
Lewis goes on to make the argument that, as Christians, we all “put on the mask” and try to behave better than we really are. We attempt to put on the face of Christ, and find that as we do, our true faces change to become more like His. It’s a good argument ... and I disliked it from the first time I saw it (around 13 years old, if memory serves). Part of me rebelled against having put to on a nicer face than my own, though a more rational part of me accepts the necessity. But I was never comfortable with it.
A few moments’ thought will show that my conception of “hypocrisy” has a few holes in it. A rather large hole appears as soon as you consider that my conception means that self-control is no longer a virtue. For, if self-control means anything, it means controlling your behavior in order to act in a way you don’t wish to. So clearly, a little rethinking needed to be done. And I started to ... but never really finished my thought. Or never believed my conclusion, anyway. But in talking with Miss Tucker a few days ago, I returned to my conclusion and mused about it. Wearing a mask is essential, for fallen people. The reality of my sinful inclinations long ago convinced me of it. So all of us pretend ... we must. We all wear masks more beautiful than our real faces (according to our own definitions of “beautiful”). But who then is the hypocrite? I think that the hypocrite is the man who has forgotten he wears a mask, and has come to fancy his mask is his true face. He is satisfied with his pretty mask, and no longer feels the grief that his true face doesn’t match it. The hypocrite is the mask-wearer without grief.
For we all must wear masks, but it is essential to remember that it is a mask. That memory keeps us humble, for we know our pretty appearance isn’t the full truth ... and that memory keeps us longing for it to be the full truth.
God’s peace be upon you. Thanks for reading.