Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Different Fear

Out of the many fears of aging, I have one I seldom see mentioned: fear of moral deterioration. You can find a thousand discussions of our coming physical disintegration, and how our short-term memories will begin to fail, but the thought seems to be if we can fix those, everything's gonna be pretty good. Live to 120 - go for it. That we might become in some way worse people doesn't enter into it.

I spoke with a young woman today who had been given a bracelet by a mentally ill person. The bracelet turns out to be worth $21K. Her husband wants it back. Yesterday, the young woman told me that she had brought it to a pawn shop, found out it was valuable, and given it to someone to sell. Today there was a subtle change in her story. She had given the bracelet to someone and then found out from him it was valuable, so he won't give it back. An enormous difference, and clearly a story she is telling herself to self-justify. I thought immediately of Gollum's story about his "birthday present." That lie was wrapped around a bit of truth, changed over the years. Most lies are.

There is also the chapter in The Screwtape Letters in which Wormwood is told not to panic at his patient's religious conversion, as there are many long, quiet years in which to slowly steer him toward Hell. It is hardly surprising to see a theological similarity between Lewis and Tolkien, but I think this is echoed in great literature over the centuries, at least in the Western tradition. We change our stories over time, fitting them into the narrative we prefer. It is not that we can never absorb uncomfortable information about ourselves and integrate it into our understanding of the world, but we resist it. We cannot be counted on to own up to our shortcomings. We will admit some, but others we will slowly change, enlarging our own virtue and innocent victimhood.

I don't suppose there's much in the way of evidence that this gets worse as we go along, but I have to think it is cumulative most of the time. We may do most of the reworking in the first few months or years, and living another decade or two may not add to the lies much. Some lies we may be able to reverse a bit because of added wisdom. My worry is that these are very much the exception. I consider what stories I have already changed and no longer even acknowledge that to myself. Perhaps I was better person 10 or 20 years ago. I haven't noticed any improvement in self-honesty - I hope there has been no worsening. Yet even if the worsening is slight, what does that mean for humans living to be 100, 140, 200 years old? We may become horrible to behold.


Anonymous said...

I don't think I justify (re-justify?) my past much. I figure I really can't afford to. I mean, if I indulge in whitewashing what I've done, that makes it easier to justify what I do and will do.

And, quite frankly, I have done some awful things in the past. Things that I refuse to let myself do (or fail to do) in the future.

I really try to make my mistakes only one time.

who, me? said...

Your description of "spinning the story" to ourselves rings true. The churches that require confession before participation in the sacraments know what they're doing -- prohibit self-serving spin and pin it down right away.

I know an old gal, well-brought-up, and into "spiritual studies." As she has gotten older she has been observed doing things like sideswiping parked cars and denying it has anything to do with her.

Another prayer. "Make me repentant now and in my old age."

terri said...

The parable of the sower and the seed would seem to point to this trait. As the worries and cares of this world grow around us, they begion to choke out and hinder our growth.

Even though only 33, I do tend to see this happening now and then, less in application and more in thought processes. I sometimes feel myself more willing to entertain ways of thinking that I would have previously squashed. Somtimes it works in favor of my spiritual growth and, at other times, I recognize it as a pernicious weed born of my own selfish desires.

We all need a little weed-killer in our lives every now and then.

bs king said...

I think this is an interesting question. As we get older, we do have more of a stake in our particular narrative about ourselves and our lives remaining unchanged...after all as the years go by we have more and more built on it. I was thinking about something similar the other day, when someone brought up a dating situation I was in some time ago, and told me what had happened from the guys perspective. It was quite different from what I had assumed happen, in a way that actually made me look much better, and the guy look much worse. What was strange is that I had made quite a few decisions in my dating life based off of what I thought had happened, and finding out that my narrative wasn't true threw me. It was a strange feeling to realize that I had made changes (some fairly good ones) based on false information. It made me want the original story made things less shaky. Anyway, I can just imagine that if I was inclined to continue sticking to a story that was actually less flattering to me than the truth, just because it made my reality more stable, that tendency would probably be much worse five (or ten or twenty) years from now when more decisions had been piled on top of that same misinformation and that it would be much much worse if the truth that was trying insert itself made me look worse rather than better.

It's like I mentioned to my mom once, when her older brother (a non church going "good person") got very frosty when she mentioned church. I pointed out that in his late 50s, he had a vested interest in church going not being important...he had been wrong for 30 years if it was. Someone my age has far fewer years to recant on if one of the pillars of their life turns out to be wrong.