Meditations for Layfolks - Human Respect

It is most paralyzing to character to wait to hear the judgement of others before venturing to state our own; that is, when we can only determine our opinion by following the opinion most prevalent in our circle of life. Partly out of politeness, partly out of desire not to offend unnecessarily, partly out of pure nervousness, and partly out of insipidity, many of us are afraid to have our own opinion, and still more afraid of contesting the opinions of others. No doubt the matter is further complicated by the fact that, for the most part, it is always possible to say a great deal on both sides of any argument, and therefore we may feel that we are not doing anything wrong, nor acting in any sense contrary to truth, if we simply repeat the arguments against what we personally hold to be true, without adding how inconclusive we find them; or at least that we allow these arguments to be repeated, without protest, in our presence. Of course, it is clear that when the matter concerned is faith or the honour of an absent friend, we cannot willingly sit and hear in silence. Bat in all questions that concern politics or what are called social problems, it is quite possible for us to find ourselves in a hostile circle and feebly to accept whatever is said. We have thereby, perhaps, pleased our acquaintances, and we cannot honestly see that we have denied anything which we knew to be true. Does not my own frame of mind sometimes come dangerously near to this? Obviously I can always defend myself by asserting motives of prudence and charity, and even find myself quoting that very deceptive phrase, "breadth of mind"; or perhaps seek justification in this, that the clearer-headed I am, the more obviously will objections to my own views become evident.

Now all this may be perfectly true; but must I not admit this much at least, that it is also perfectly unhealthy and perfectly dangerous? Surely it cannot be good for me to be always adapting my views to my environment? Let me grant to myself that it is certainly necessary to be kind and charitable, and not to provoke needlessly the anger or impatience of my fellows. But does not this affect the way my protest or dissent is expressed rather than the mere dissent or protest? Surely people are not generally so utterly unreasonable that they cannot hear me differing from them without explosions of indignation. It is very rarely that such can be the case; ordinarily, if I am only restrained and moderate, I can easily find that a hearing will be allowed me. I may, perhaps, refrain from continuing the argument, but is it wholesome for me to pretend to agree with my companion when I am really noting how untrue his statements are? I may never, indeed, sacrifice one atom of the truth, and all that I agree to may be incontestably correct. But what, in the meantime, is happening to my soul? Shall I not find that indirectly I am lessening my respect for the high attribute of truth? It is this effect on my character that is leally the most evil result. Bit by bit the whole of my attitude, even to the things I hold most dear, will be sensibly affected. Human respect will invade and determine not only the opinion that I hold most securely in politics, art, social and national debate, but it will spread to the profession of my faith and the practice of it; and the mere jeers of acquaint ances and friends may drive me into sins, gross and dishonourable, though it is just possible that these may keep me from those too open and too evident.

Even when human respect thus acts as a barrier to sins more apparent and more revolting, the harm done may possibly be greater. The woman taken in adultery appeals to us as a better type of soul than the Pharisees who condemned her. In any case it is these little repeated acts of weakness, of infidelity to my principles, of disloyalty to my ideal, which will gradually rot the strength of my soul. I shall become so accustomed to trim and hedge that I shall have, as a result, no opinions at all. Not, indeed, that I must always have a definite opinion on every subject, still less that I should keep to it however convincing the arguments on the opposing side; nor even that, if I happen to have strong views on any particular matter, I should be in a hurry to advance them in company; but that I should keep my conscience so delicate that I do not, even in matters not of spiritual moment, allow myself to be thought to agree with whatever savours to me of untruthfulness. There are times of silence? yes; but not when silence suggests to others that I consent to something from which I heartily and seriously disagree. It is ultimately a question of allowing my conscience free rule over me, and of taking care lest I numb or deaden its responsiveness to the spirit and the inspiration of God's grace. Nor should I ever be afraid lest people should care less for me when they find me so often crossing their thoughts or their opinions. As a matter of fact, it is the insipidity of people, their breathless acceptance of everything we say, that most bores us; while the sincere talkers are always the most stimulating and the most Christ-like. Human respect never wins respect from man or God.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.