Archive for the ‘Human Dignity’ Category

Morality Part 1: It’s About Relationship

The other day at dinner, I tell my boys that I am looking forward to teaching a class that evening on Morality–a favorite topic, which I hadn’t taught in a while.  My 6 year old asks:

“Mommy what is mowality?”

I pause, since I usually begin by acknowledging that most of us presume morality is about following a set of rules, and it’s not… it’s about relationship. But in that moment I was challenged to accurately and succinctly describe it in a way that my 6 and 7 1/2 year old would understand.IMG_1199

“Morality is about what’s right and wrong, and why.”

Without missing a beat, he tells me:

“Oh, Mommy!  But you teach me and my brudder about that evewy day!”

I want my kids to be good people, so yes, every day I am concerned with the decisions they make and developing their character–whether they’re playing with friends, following through on responsibilities around the house, working at school, or paying attention to the needs of the world around them. Morality is concerned with what’s right and wrong, and why, but it’s not about rules; it’s about relationship.

Relationship

The reason Why something is right or wrong has everything to do with relationship.

  • Think about three of your closest friends.  What are some of the “unspoken rules” that close friends follow to maintain a healthy relationship?  List these relationship-guiding rules out: trust, honesty, care and concern for one another’s well-being… what else would you add?

Who: From the perspective of Christian Morality, we are talking about living a good life in relationship with God.  What makes something moral or immoral is whether it strengthens or damages our relationship with God.  When we say something is a “sin” it’s because it damages our relationship with God; not because it is “breaking the rules.”

HowSo how do we strengthen our relationship with God?  By loving, honoring, and respecting God and all of God’s Creation.

The number one overarching principle that guides our approach to being in right relationship is a respect for the value, worth, and special dignity within each person as a child of God, created in the image and likeness of God.  Catholic Social Teaching refers to this as respect for human dignity, which finds its Scriptural roots in Genesis.

God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

I love how Richard Rohr explains the depth of what human dignity means:

“You are a son or daughter of the Good and Loving God. The Divine Image is planted inherently and intrinsically within you. You cannot create it, you cannot manufacture it, you cannot earn it, you cannot achieve it, you cannot attain it, you cannot cumulatively work up to it. Do you know why? Because you already have it! That is the core of the Gospel” (Adapted from Dying: We Need It for Life)

As Christians, we are called to respect human dignity with the care and concern of divine, agape love.

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. (John 15:12)  

20090528_066 When we put together the Who and the How of morality, we can see that living a good life in relationship with God has three dimensions:

  1. Interpersonal– respecting the human dignity of others, which is demonstrated by how we treat one another.
  2. Personal – respecting one’s own human dignity, which is demonstrated by how we develop our internal quality of character
  3. Transcendent – respecting God, which is demonstrated by practicing the virtue of faith.

The Commandments, Beatitudes, and Virtues help flesh out the What of Catholic moral teaching with more specifics, but if we don’t begin with that understanding of being in right relationship with oneself, others, and the God who created us and loves us, then our approach to morality will be limited to simply “following the rules.”

In the next post, I’ll discuss the role of conscience and moral responsibility.  For now, consider how you think about morality:

  • What attitudes or assumptions do you bring to a discussion of morality?  Are they helpful or limiting?
  • Think about your relationship with yourself, with others, and with God.  In what ways do you see love and respect for human dignity guiding your behavior in those relationships?  Where do you succeed in practicing this “respect”?  Where do you struggle?  Is there one area that you feel called to work on improving?
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Daring to Try

I am amazed at the things I will do for my kids.

And I’m not talking about the maternal-instinct so-they-will-survive stuff (like sleep deprivation and all those things I blocked out of selective memory).

I’m talking about Daring to Try.

For my son’s 5th birthday, we had a dance party for 17 kids ages 3-8.  Two months prior to Max’s birthday, we attended a cousin’s wedding, which is where we introduced my kids to the dance floor.

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This would probably be a good time to mention that I really can’t dance.  I try.  I have fun.  But to be honest, I’m not very good at it.  I’m a big ball of uncoordinated, awkward self-consciousness.

But what I’ve come to understand about my kids is:  They. Don’t. Care.  They just want me.  Having fun.  With them.

I see the way my kids look at me with awe and love.  It’s like they take my own awe and love of them, multiply it and thrust it back upon me.

My kids see me with God’s eyes.  With God’s love.  And with all my humanness, imperfections, and limitations, they still see awesomeness.

I have two choices here:

  1. I can correct them: tell them why I’m not-quite-good-enough and effectively model self-doubt
  2. Or I can make an effort.  I can try.  I can model humility and try, and try, and try again…

It’s not all that easy to try…  In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown explains how putting yourself out there requires quite a bit of vulnerability and courage.  It doesn’t come naturally.  It’s a choice.  A choice I want my kids to make.  So I force myself to model it.

Don't Let Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

So for Max’s 5th birthday, I gathered 2 hours of kid-friendly dance music, including lots of line dancing stuff apropos for weddings, and burned the playlist to a 2-cd set as the party favor.  Then we cleared the furniture out of the living room, set up some dance lights, and effectively turned the living room into a dance floor.

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 That was the easy stuff.   At a certain point, it became necessary to actually lead the line dances.  In case I wasn’t clear on this, let me lay it out: I would rather have crawled under a rock and died than get up in front of people and lead the Electric Slide.

Except that’s not true.  Not when I look into the eyes of my kids and see their joyful desire.

So I threw caution to the wind and I Dared to Try. And the kids Loved. It.  Everyone had a blast.  Including me.

There’s a post I found through Pinterest called “Waking Up Full of Awesome.”  The author, Melissa, posts an appropriately absolutely awesome picture of her 5 year old and reflects on the phenomenon of how we once – when we were 5 – “woke up  full of awesome.”  And at some point most of us lose that.

I don’t want that for my boys.  And I don’t want that for me.  And neither does God.

I want them to see their awesomeness as clearly as I do.  And I want to see my own awesomeness as clearly as they do.

Because that–with all that awesomeness–is how God sees me.  So that’s where I’d like to be.  For now, my next step is focusing on Daring to Try.

Perfect

If there was one thing you could (magically, effortlessly) change about yourself, what would it be?

Play along: come up with one thing.  Perhaps it’s…

  • developing virtuous habits (and eliminating unhealthy ones)
  • addressing some physical characteristic (in the realm of body image or ability)
  • acquiring a desired talent

Sit with your answer.  What does it tell you about yourself?

  • Is it just for fun?
  • Does it have to do with something you struggle with?
  • How does it relate to your personal goals?  Hopes?  Dreams?

What does it tell you about where you are on the spectrum between self-love and self-loathing?

In the lifelong journey of growth and change, there is usually some thing or another that we are working on improving.  This is good.  However, there is a legitimate concern for our spiritual well-being insomuch as how we treat ourselves in the process.

You are a child of God, created in God’s image and likeness.

Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.  God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

When it comes to the things about yourself that you want to change, do you honor the image of God within?  Do you treat yourself with the love and respect that the image of God deserves?  

Healthy self-love appreciates the goodness that is.  It is from a place of love, not hate, that we are called to conversion – or metanoia.

In the reflection “Just Paint Over It,” I referenced the Greek word metanoia while discussing the transforming process of forgiveness.  Metanoia [pronounced meta-noy-ah] translates as “a change of heart.” Meaning a conversion where the person turns away from what is destructive, hurtful, hateful, and instead turns towards God.

Too often, however, we can be overly critical of ourselves in a way which is neither helpful nor loving.  There is a fine line between goals that motivate and the expectation of nothing less than perfection that can shut a person down.

The need for perfection.

There are two times that the word “perfect” appears in the gospels, both in the Gospel According to Matthew.  The first is in Matthew 5:48, which is the part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus discusses Love of Enemies.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matthew 5:43-48)

The Mount of Beatitudes and The Sea of Galilee

The second appears in Matthew 19:21 within the story of The Rich Young Man.

Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?”  He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good.  If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”  He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22)

If you wish to be perfect…

In reality, there is always room for improvement.   If we think we are all done with the personal/spiritual growth thing (as if to say: “I have arrived”), we are reminded that our work is never complete.It is then, that Jesus will say to us:

If you wish to be perfect…

It’s the all-or-nothing extremes that are useless.  Unhelpful.  Paralyzing.  In no way does Jesus insinuate that this rigid interpretation of perfection is what we are to aim for.

Growth—change—is a process.  Metanoia is a “turning” away from something (sinful) and towards God (who is wholeness, life, and truth).

Think about the self-improvement / growth things that you are working on in your life.  Do you treat yourself with love in the process of turning?  Or do you become overly critical and hateful about perceived failures?  Because that “hateful” thing is not what Jesus would do.

To move beyond my own struggle with perfectionism, I found it helpful to redefine “perfect” as functioning at my best, right now.  For me that implies being my best and doing my best in the present moment, while looking to take the next step to become better.

The “next step” is an important concept in overcoming paralyzing perfectionism, because it recognizes the space between the “reality of now” and the “ideal” or “goal.”  And in order for it to function, the “next step” should be realistic.  Small.  Doable.

And then celebrate the success.  And build upon it.  Because that is perfect.

You are not now what you were… You are not now what you will be when God has perfected you.                  – St. Vincent de Paul

Actually, no – it’s YOU!

My Dad’s work with Dell has offered my parents the opportunity to live abroad for two brief stints.  Their first experience as expatriates landed them in Xiamen, China for 3 ½ years.  Presently, they are in the final weeks of a summer in Limerick, Ireland.

If you ask my Mom about their travels, you are likely to hear some of her adventures filled with self-depricating humor.  (Anyone who has ever met my Mom has undoubtedly heard her “My Trip to the Chinese Spa” story, which she recently submitted to Ellen.)  Mom will often humbly speak with awe and wonder at how she—a kid from Upper Darby—has had this amazing opportunity to travel.

What really gives you insight into her daily experiences, however, is her photographs.  It’s not the pictures of the sights that strike me.  It’s the pictures she takes of people.  Strangers.  Ordinary people doing ordinary things in their own cultural context.  My Mom might tell you that she’s inspired by the National Geographic images, or that she’s just capturing part of the experience of the country.  But I’m certain it’s about something more.

About a year into my parents’stay in China, Mom had mastered many of the challenges expats face, but still struggled with just getting things done some days.  She explained that she had a ton of errands to take care of…or rather it wasn’t actually that many…it was just that every errand literally took 12 times longer than it needed to because everyone wanted to talk with her.  Picking up tickets from Apple, the travel agent took an hour.  Shopping for jewelry meant another hour or two with Lenna, “the Pearl Lady.”  And of course on her way to Lenna’s she had to stop by to see Yogi—whether she needed anything from his shop of handpainted knicknacks or not.

And it wasn’t just shopkeepers. The tiny young woman who Mom frequented for facials and massages—Sha-Sha—wanted to talk with her throughout the entire session. Same went for Mrs. Lee, her acupuncturist.  Talking is a huge no-no in Mom’s book of relaxation, which I completely understand.

Mom couldn’t understand why all of the Chinese people she interacted with wanted to befriend her and talk.  Maybe they want to work on their English, she surmised.  Maybe they have just never seen a “big mamoo” like me.

Actually, no, Mom.

People are drawn to you because you see past their function and engage them as a human person.  You greet the cashier at the airport parking booth with the same genuine care and concern that one would use for friends and family.  People are drawn to you because of how you are with them.

The first time I began using the Catholic vocabulary word human dignity—the specialness, value, and worth each person has simply because we were created in the image and likeness of God—was when I started teaching a Peace and Justice class in the late 90’s.  It may have been a new phrase to me, but it was by no means a foreign concept.

Respect for human dignity is one of the Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.  It is a foundational principle of who we are and how we practice our faith; respecting human dignity leads us to both moral behavior and acting with justice (which is precisely why I use it as a central concept when teaching).

Jewish theologian Martin Buber (d. 1965) contributes great insight to the ways in which we do (or do not) respect human dignity in his classic philosophical work I and Thou.  Buber identifies and describes the two fundamental ways we relate to our fellow human beings:

I—It                   and                  I—You

I—It  objectifies people, treating them as a means to an end.  I—It uses people as things.

I—You exemplifies genuine care and concern for people as human beings.  There is a real, personal presence in I-You encounters.

When we interact with other people, we either I—It them or we I—You them.

We immediately know it when we are on the receiving end of an I—It encounter.  For me, the epitome of this is represented by the retail sales clerk who puts out her hand to receive payment and the customer absent-mindedly tosses money in her general direction.

The quality connection which occurs in the I—You encounter brings life and love to the participants.  True human presence in an I—You exchange could be as simple as a non-verbal, eye-contact and head nod.  Or it could be the conversation true friends share over a glass of wine.  One thing is for sure, in that true human presence, we encounter the Divine: “in every You we address the eternal You” (Martin Buber, I and Thou.  Translated by Walter Kaufman. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970, 57 emphasis added).

I am so very fortunate to have had such an amazing example of respect for human dignity, and such a wonderful experience of I—You encounters with my Mom.  Wishing her a Happy Birthday in Ireland.  Cheers!

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