Monday, March 10, 2008

Digression: obedience, freedom, passive-aggression

Writing a blog is an interesting project. I am still working on ways to maximize the product for the effort, and at the same time being realistic about what I have the energy for. In any case, I have been shying away of late from 'random' sorts of posts, though I have been building up plenty of that sort of material. So maybe I simply ought to share it, since these sorts of posts often generate more interest.

These thoughts are inspired in part by my reading of Peter Gay's The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (itself inspired by our recent reading of Philip Trower's Enemy of the State in the Catholic Readers Society), and in part by experience. As usual, my natural contrarity plays into them as well.

We live in an era that prizes freedom as 'autonomy'--the absence of restraints on our individual decision-making. In this circumstance, monastic obedience is a scandal both inside and outside the monastery. Outside the monastery, there is a sense that one cannot be a mature human being if you simply do what the superior asks. There is some truth to this, and there have been, in my opinion, examples of this exagerrated version of obedience put forward in monastic and religious life over the centuries, not least in the nineteenth.

On the other hand, serious Christians I believe have some innate sense of the need of obedience. Christ was obedient unto death, and we are called to conformity with that death, including, one assumes, the obedience that went with it. We also belong to a revealed faith, in which we must on some level accept that revelation will force us to do things we would rather not do, but that we know are good for us (I like to remember the moment in the musical Godspell where Jesus teaches not to lust with the eyes, and the one character says incredulously, "O Come On!"). I believe that we religious usually enter religious life with a very lively desire to give ourselves over to obedience, to a total self-gift mediated by the community and the superior, but going to God.

Here is where the second scandal--the one inside the monastery--crops up. We bring to the monastery the default assumptions of the culture that we leave behind, and as much as we wish to give up that false sense of freedom for the true freedom that comes of a radical assent to revealed Truth, a large, subconscious part of us rebels against this change. When we are asked to do things that we don't like, it is so easy to slip into denigrating our superiors, even only at the level of the mind. We get frustrated that we waste our time in the monastery doing things over and over again, being assigned to thankless jobs. This is the strong temptation at least, and while when we step back and look at the glory offered us in Jesus Christ and the cost of it in this life, we can see that faith is a good bet. But I'm not sure that we talk well about this particular challenge.

This problem is not at all unique to monasteries. Most marriages go through a characteristic crisis that this incomplete idea of freedom tend to bring about. There is a moment when one or both spouses senses that the other, the children, and the job are an obstruction to human growth (rather than the precondition for genuine humility and maturity, as the gospel teaches). We all have to make a decision at this point to embrace (freely!) our limitations, especially those placed on us by others to whom we have committed, or one of two things will happen. In the first, we will assert our freedom by breaking our commitments. Obviously this is all too frequent today.

In our second option, we can stay legalistically within our commitments but become filled with the bitter zeal that St. Benedict warns about in chapter 72 of his Rule. This brings me to the last term in the title: passive-aggression. I have a sense, and I am very much in need of corroboration or refutation by those more qualified than I to speak on this, that when our 'freedom' as autonomy is effectively negated by conventional restraints, that is by our commitments and our need to be mutually obedient, if we have not embraced this (freely!) then we will try to wrest back our freedom in some way that gives the outward appearance of consent. This behavior is called passive-aggression. In other words, we say 'yes!' and then we either don't do what we said we were going to do and thus assert our freedom, or we do a lousy job to assert our freedom from outside standards or to get others not to ask us to do things anymore, and thus to win back a measure of freedom.

To this, I would like to add one final observation. This phenomenon is labelled as 'aggressive' behavior, as distinction from 'active' aggression, which is generally not condoned by the majority of our population as a way to solve problems, especially with authority. In fact, and I think that this is probably significant, active aggression is also not permitted to authority, and active assertion of the prerogatives of authority is often avoided for the same reasons of presumed impropriety. Put another way: corporal punishment is out. I personally find this one of the more interesting developments in our cultural history, and possibly a dubious advancement. I say this for two reasons.

First, St. Benedict, as well as Biblical tradition and most cultures throughout history, have recognized that certain behaviors are not cured by reasoning, and reason can ony be awakened, if at all, by resorting to sterner stuff than words. Perhaps we could say that tough talk has to be backed up somehow (think of the ongoing problem of U.N. resolutions). By beatings? I hope not; but let's be honest about the prevalence of this sort of solution in human experience. In my fleeting acquaintance with Buddhism in the early 90's, I was impressed by the koans that mention the use of blows and even more serious measures to bring about enlightenment (and please note that this is very much in the context of a loving master and eager disciple).

Second, the incentive of pain is used in all kinds of situations even today, if indirectly. It is often simply a reality treatment, but also used to reinforce the necessity of good discipline, order and obedience. Obviously I am think of the armed forces and sports, the latter of which I have plenty of experience with. If you lapse in concentration on the practice field, and the coach doesn't like it, he can yell at you. If that doesn't work, he will probably make you run sprints or do push-ups until it hurts. Or he will get some big kid to put a big hit on you. I've had this happen to me, and I did not begrudge it. Why not? Our bodies are often the hidden drag behind the mind's assent to a situation, and sometimes one needs a direct appeal to the body's own language: carrot and stick. Coaches are also noted for taking the team out for pizza after a big win, for example. In the same way that bodily weakness can drag us down, the presence of blows to the body can stimulate it awake and make rational thinking more possible.

So I suspect that the absence of corporal punishment in polite society outside of the military and the football team is an accident of the Enlightenment dualism that imagines that the mind can achieve freedom by separation from the body. Conversely, bodily incentives do not shape the mind, at least in this worldview. Because this possibility is cut off, passive-aggressive behavior is harder to confront, because there are fewer consequences to worry about. Someone who acts out aggressively against someone who is outward conforming and passively resisting is automatically in the wrong and confirms the passive aggressor in his or her self-justification.

I don't mean to give the impression that passive-aggression is a new phenomenon: I just think that up until the Enlightenment, it was dealt with by a show of physical threat instead of left to fester. Were not the philosophes passively aggressive in their dealings with the establishment, and is there any doubt that Voltaire's exile was hardly the punishment that Dante's was (the accident of place was no longer of significance to Voltaire)? The philosophes could get away with their machinations because the body/mind dualism was already well-inscribed. They knew that there were no real consequences to thinking mutiny.

The answer to these problems is local commitment, freely chosen and assented to repeatedly.

Just some random thoughts...


Macrina said...

Well, this is provocative but very definitely food for thought. It has sometimes struck me when hearing the Rule read how easily we skip over some bits ... not that I'm suggesting that we should keep it literally, but rather that we need to probe our own cultural assumptions concerning what we ignore.
I'd certainly appreciate more of these random thoughts!

Michael D said...

Hello Peter, as you know I read every blog post, I often do not comment because your thoughts seem complete and of course sometimes over my head. If you do want reactions, or have questions for your readers, just don't hesitate to ask!

Mr. Potato said...

Perhaps my comment on the use of pop psychology terminology might best be expressed in a question: Would we say that Eve was "passive aggressive" or just disobedient? Did Judas have a "passive aggressive" nature or did the devil enter him?

Secondly, psychology is a myth of the mind(c.f., Bettelheim's "Freud and Man's Soul"). It's not totally scientific. Take, for example, the idea of repressed memories. There are two ideas - consciously repressed memories and subconsciously repressed memories. There is no scientific evidence for the latter but there is for the former. Yet, psychoanalysts use both.

Americans have a new industry - creating maladies and the "passive aggressive" diagnosis/malady seems to be one of its spurious products. In dealing with the soul and God, we must be extremely cautious about importing some of these products. A lot of them have a coating of lead paint that might be lethal to real progress in the spiritual life.

Prior Peter, OSB said...

Mr. Potato--thank you for your comment. I perhaps should clarify that I mean to use the label 'passive agression' (as an identifiable type of behavior) to indicate something at best disordered, at worst sinful. In either case, I do not mean to mitigate culpability. I do believe that it is a type of aberrant behavior to which our breakdown in authority has given opportunity. In part, I am happy to accept the psychological name because I believe that any aggression is wrong. If we identify ourselves as passive aggressive (and I think most of us have some of these traits when we don't get our way), the proper course of action is not medication, but repentance. That said, if therapy can help us see what needs to change and how to do it, there are therapists out there who subscribe to the Christian or more specifically Catholic idea of the person and morality who can aid in real repentance.

I would not, therefore, so so far as to say that psychology _in toto_ is a myth. The Church has possessed a psychology from the beginning, though it was not fully systematized until the scholastic era. I agree that psychology of any stripe is not scientific: it deals fundamentally with the freedom of human beings. Science in the end can only derive rules from repeatable phenomena, and human beings are not bound by mental laws that force us to behave any which way.

On the other hand, the Fathers of the Church were keen observers of human thought and behavior and bequeathed us a very reliable spiritual theology that contains a sophisticated psychology, in my opinion. I believe that they didn't describe passive aggression primarily because, as I suggested, authority figures would have had methods for dealing with excuse-makers and intransigents, not excluding physical persuasion. St. Benedict recommends excommunication (for those who stubbornly defend their actions against communal authority). This punishment in modern times has lost any effectiveness it may have had in his day.

I also would agree with you counsel of caution before we adopt too readily the categories of modern psychology, which bears little resemblence to traditional spiritual theology.

Thank you for the thought-provoking comment!

Mr. Potato said...

Fr. Prior,

Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting response. I really liked it. I would agree with you.

Let me qualify my point on "psychology is a myth" and support your point that psychology could be useful.

Both Freud and Jung used ancient Greek myths as foundational to their ideas on the psyche. B.F. Skinner, behaviorists and cognitive psychologists do not take this route. I should have been more careful about generalizations so as not to discredit what could be healing to many people.

Further in favor of your argument, I have read a scholarly paper that shows that in the treatment of depression psychoanalysis alters the chemistry of the brain to the point of activating certain recessive genes. It concludes that the "talking cure" is more effective than drugs in the majority of cases of depression. As you rightly note it can be a very useful tool.

May Christ bless you and the other monks.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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