In his new book, “Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future,” Pope Francis articulates exactly how I feel during the pandemic and whenever I think about all the problems in the world. He feels overwhelmed, but he insists that he is never hopeless. That he is never hopeless with all the problems he must confront encourages me not to be hopeless but to try to believe that, with God’s help, there is no problem that we cannot confront. The Holy Father notes that we cannot serve others unless we let their reality speak to us.
I love the idea of letting reality speak to us. We can blind ourselves to what is going to challenge us. Unfortunately, we can blind ourselves to the needs of others. Pope Francis warns about three disastrous ways of escaping reality — three ways of avoiding reality, three ways that block our growth, and especially block the Holy Spirit’s action. He identifies those three ways as narcissism, discouragement and pessimism.
Pope Francis writes the following about narcissism:
“Narcissism takes you to the mirror to look at yourself, to center everything on you, so that’s all you see. You end up so in love with the image you created that you wind up drowning in it. The news is only good if it’s good for you personally; and if the news is bad, it’s because you are its chief victim.” (p. 16)
It is very difficult to deal with a narcissist. They make themselves the center of the universe, and to disagree with them puts you on the outside and one of the enemies. Psychological counselors have great difficulty with narcissists because the narcissist will only allow the counselor to enter their world on the narcissist’s terms. Apparently, the narcissists cannot recognize their vulnerability. My limited experience trying to help narcissists was frustrating. I recall concluding that a narcissist I was trying to help needed a psychologist or psychiatrist rather than a priest. Even if we are not seriously narcissistic, we have to be cautious that we are interested in the needs of others.
Pope Francis writes the following about discouragement:
“Discouragement leads you to lament and complain about everything so that you no longer see what is around you nor what others offer you, only what you think you’ve lost. Discouragement leads to sadness in the spiritual life, which is a worm that gnaws away at you from the inside. Eventually it closes in on yourself and you can’t see anything beyond yourself.” (p.16)
In recent years reflecting on the Christian virtue of hope, I have come to believe that discouragement should never be an option for a Christian. I think it is legitimate to be disappointed when something has not gone well in our lives, but because of the Risen Lord and the Holy Spirit present in our lives, discouragement should not be an option. I think the Holy Father’s image of discouragement as a worm gnawing at our souls is a powerful image and unfortunately true.
Concerning pessimism, Pope Francis writes the following:
“And then there is pessimism, which is like a door you shut on the future and the new things it can hold; a door you refuse to open in case one day there will be something new on your doorstep.” (p.16)
The pope summarizes his observations about these three ways that can close us to what is most important:
“These are three ways that block you, paralyze you, and cause you to focus on those things that stop you from moving ahead. They are all in the end about preferring the illusions which mask reality rather than discovering all that we might be able to achieve. They are siren voices that make you a stranger to yourself. To act against them, you have to commit to the small, concrete, positive actions you can take, whether you are sowing hope or working for justice.” (p.16)
I believe that what the pope calls “small, concrete, positive actions” are terribly important. There is a sense in which they are not small. Why not small? First, because they change the person who is doing them. No matter what the action is, no matter how small it may appear, the person doing it has stepped outside himself or herself and reached out to another.
Who can tell how much that action will change the one doing it? It is actually a step toward heaven. Who can tell how much that action affects the person who is the beneficiary? It might change that person’s day. More than that, It might move the person to reach out and perform some action that helps another. The Catholic novelist, Francois Mauriac, said that a chance encounter between two people might have implications for eternity. I believe that is true.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.