Some Helpful Thoughts on Spiritual Progress BY REV. EDWARD F. GARESCHE, SJ.
THERE is a curious fact in the physiology of the eye, which can be demonstrated by a simple experiment, that there is one point in the retina which is blind. Whatever part of the field of vision falls on that spot is quite invisible to us. It is true we are unconscious of this singular blind spot, perhaps because we are so used to it, perhaps because for one reason or another consciousness does not report this singular area of insensibility. But there it is, and it presents a curious anomaly. This bit of anatomical information would have little enough significance for us did it not point to a corresponding anomaly of our intellectual and spiritual nature. For we have blind spots in our perceptions and comprehensions no less than in the retina of our eyes.
Oddly enough we are unconscious, most of us, of our blindnesses of comprehension. Particularly do we wonderfully miss receiving our lack of sympathy and discernment in dealing with one another. It is quite astonishing, indeed, how even highly intelligent persons will cherish blind spots in their sympathies and their affections and almost make a virtue of antipathies and gaps of comprehension which come directly from a lack of understanding of the needs and distresses of others. Most of us are by nature tenderhearted and have honest compassion for the woes of others, providing only that we can get a glimpse of them. Most hardness and lack of sympathy comes rather from an inability to perceive or appreciate the trials of another than from any want of the virtue of compassion. That we are so lacking in feeling and sympathy is much more due to the blind spots in our intellectual comprehension than to any want of heart or coldness of feeling. But it is quite amazing how blind we can actually be to the woes of others and how insensible to their difficulties and inabilities. It is one of the standing wonders of human nature that, having such good hearts, we can contrive to use them so partially and with such scant comprehension.
Those of us especially who notice in themselves strong antipathies and violent prejudices would do well carefully to examine, so to speak, the retina of their mind for blind spots of comprehension. Among good people there is never reason for violent antipathies and rooted prejudices. Their cause usually lies in the fact that the prejudiced person fails to see the counterbalancing good qualities which offset the uncomfortable traits of others, or neglects to notice those circumstances which palliate objectionable features and explain away disagreeable characteristics. It is quite amusing sometimes, when it is not pathetic, to see how a perfectly good person can become violently opposed to or prejudiced against another perfectly good individual whose shortcomings he has catalogued and discerned, but to whose good qualities he is singularly blind. These frank detesters of their neighbor sometimes excuse their antipathies by mentioning the bad qualities of the one from whom they are estranged, as if they forsooth had no bad qualities of their own, or as if anyone could endure them on the same terms on which they detest their neighbor, by overlooking, that is, their counterbalancing good qualities and fixing the eye upon their faults alone.
All human characters except the very perfect, and even they in their degree, are a curious mixture of goodness and of imperfection. The French have a shrewd saying that one is very likely to have the defects even of his good qualities, by which they mean that even good qualities usually have, as it were, a shadow to them, and involve some imperfection. Thus those who are very gentle are apt to be timid and too yielding, the energetic are likely to be harsh and inconsiderate. The earnest and determined are in danger of being domineering. In a word, it is extremely difficult for human nature to stop at the precise and delicate balance between excess and defect. A strong virtue is likely to go so far in one direction that it passes the golden mean and falls into excess.
Now there are three ways of dealing with such a character. One may be blind to the defects into which an excess of the good qualities in question has hurried their possessor and fix one's gaze solely on the excellent characteristic without adverting to its accompanying defect. This is an amiable blindness, which neither the individual in question nor any reasonable person will be inclined to quarrel with except where the observer has the duty of correcting the faults of the one observed. Secondly, one may praise the good quality and still admit, though without rancor or antipathy, the defect which follows so close upon it. Or, lastly, one may be blind to the virtue and notice only the defect, a sad and inhuman sort of blindness which takes no account of the customary defects of human nature, but savagely demands a perfection not to be expected, and gives no credit for the good while blaming bitterly the evil.
Yet, when one thinks, this is a very common way of judgment among persons of strong antipathies. They somehow have a very vivid sense of the defects of those toward whom they feel antipathy. They see with singular clearness each detail of the less noble and more repelling qualities of their character. But when it comes to acknowledging and esteeming the counterbalancing good qualities they are singularly obtuse. These better traits of their neighbor's character seem to fall on some blind spot of their soul.
It should serve as a corrective of such one sided judgments to reflect that these same persons toward whom one is inclined to feel a sense of deep antipathy are heartily esteemed and regarded with earnest friendship by others no less acute in their discrimination than oneself. The difference is that they are more inclined to see the good than the evil, are more intent on recognizing and praising goodness than on blaming its accompanying defects. The one looks at the light, and for its sake forgets the shadows. The other is so keen in seeking for the shadows that he overlooks the abundance of the light. Which is the worthier attitude or the more noble impulsed Since we must have blind spots somewhere about our mental composition, is it better to keep them for our neighbor's faults or to let them blot out his compensating virtues ?
This same curious obtuseness of the mind follows us also into other departments of our spiritual life. There are some duties which we are inclined to see with vivid clearness and to lay stress on, to ourselves and others, with insistent emphasis. At the same time there may be some other duties or obligations no whit less important, and perhaps even more deserving of our notice, to which we are curiously blind. Thus one sometimes finds men and women who are immensely concerned about some one point of duty, even to the verge of scrupulousness, while at the same time they calmly overlook other obligations which in comparison are very much more serious. We have all reason to be cautious of these blind spots in our mental makeup. Unless we notice and correct them we shall be biased and perhaps even unbalanced in our estimates of duty.
It is not always easy to say from what these partialities to some duties and neglect of others spring. Perhaps from having had our attention sharply called to the one, while we were never admonished of the other. Perhaps from some ingrained inclination to the practice of this virtue and an unconscious aversion to the other. Perhaps because one is easy to us and the other hard. Whatever the reason may be, we are likely to be blind to one or another element of our duty, and it is wise to examine ourselves from time to time and see just where our pet blindness may reside.
There is no need of disquieting ourselves unduly because of these blind spots which we may suspect or perceive in our spiritual outlook. Rather the prudent thing is to endeavor rightly to survey our mental horizon and make compensation for any spots of dull perception which we discover there. The thing is, not to fret over the knowledge of our deficiencies, but to use that knowledge for their correction. Begin, then, and in a quiet way survey your own antipathies. There is So-and-So—a most displeasing character! Why do you find him or her so difficult to get on with? Because he has divers odious qualities. But consider that this very person is liked, esteemed, and made friends with by others quite as normal in their perception as you yourself. Must it not be that they discern attractive and engaging qualities which somehow miss your vision? They see, in other words, good elements in this character to which you are blind, and for the sake of these good elements they are content to put up with the faults they find there, just as your friends and you must mutually forbear with defects and failings for the sake of the preponderating good you mutually find.
Such a reflection should at least enable us to temper our dislikes and repress aversion. Even though we cannot see quite all the good that must be in others, we may at least take it on faith and make it a motive for forbearance and charity in our judgments. The very introspection and cataloguing of our aversions will do us good, because it will clear out many an old and musty corner of our heart where antipathies have gathered dust perhaps these many years, with no sound reason but only custom to justify their bitterness.
It will be well for us, too, while we are about this introspection, to see whether there are not some blind spots in our outlook upon our own duties and responsibilities. Here, too, it will help us to rectify our judgment by comparing it with that of others. Are we not half conscious that our judicious friends and well-wishers think us a bit remiss in certain of our duties while we are laying emphasis on others of which they think we make a trifle too much? If we have any means of learning the honest judgment of others, it will prove a very efficacious means of correcting our own viewpoint. The normal and general view can usually be found by getting a consensus of the views of several common-sense individuals, and it would surprise us sometimes what light we should receive on our own conduct if we knew the judgment which others whose opinion is worth considering are passing on our ways of action.
Taking it in all in all, then, this consideration of our spiritual blind spots is not without its use in the affairs of the soul. Those known and approved practices of the spiritual life, the examen of conscience, the practice of meditation, the hearing of spiritual instructions, and the reading of spiritual books, all have their part to play in curing us of these mental blindnesses and this spiritual obtuseness. The practice of having a spiritual director to whom one's interior life is known and who can point out one's blind spots and correct one's deficiencies of inward vision has been recommended these many days, though it has somehow fallen into disuse in our generation. It has the notable advantage of helping one to rectify one's blind spots by the aid of a prudent and disinterested friend who has no motive but one's perfection and salvation, and who may be trusted to speak the plain and sincere truth and thus compensate for one's defects of inward sight.
Yet in the lack of such a director we can do much for ourselves by observing the attitude and opinions of those about us and by manfully struggling against our antipathies and steadfastly looking at the good elements in others whom we are inclined to dislike. We can rectify our notions concerning our own duties and responsibilities by attending to the judgments of others whom we respect and whose opinions we can trust. In this way, our sight of our own selves and of others will more and more approach the normal vision, that golden mean and balance between extremes which is as needful for advancing in the science of the saints as it is for success in the affairs of the world.