Sunday, August 28, 2016

Degradations: A Sunday Rumination

     It may be that there are things Man was not meant to know, but of this I am certain: There are things no man wants to know. Yet some of those things are essentials, bits of knowledge without which a life is markedly incomplete, sometimes to the point of being unworkable.

     One of the essentials that the average man strains mightily never to learn is the abysmal depth to which degradation – including self-imposed degradation – can descend.


     It’s been my cross to know people who seemed to be striving to plumb the depths of degradation. Two are most vivid in memory. One sought mindlessness through immersion in the flesh: sex with as many strangers as he could entice into his bed. The other embraced filth: he created surroundings for himself so disgusting that they could not be worsened.

     Both those persons had been blessed with substantial intellects. They were fully aware of what they were doing. They might have been mentally ill, but they could not claim that “it was all a mistake,” that “I had no idea what I’d done to myself.” And both came to unhappy ends.

     For a long time afterward, I flogged myself about what I might have done to help them. In neither case did I ever come up with anything. In one, I eventually saw myself as one of his several enablers, who ought to have known better. It’s been a source of regret for some years.

     Degradation can look incomprehensible from the outside. Indeed, it usually does, for one who is unafflicted can never grasp the entirety of the degraded person’s background or mental state. Of course that doesn’t change the reality of the condition. However, it does tempt the man of good will to do well meant but poorly thought out things, out of a sincere desire to help. I’d wager that everyone who’s ever lived has felt or will feel such a temptation.

     As much as we want to help, that’s an objective: i.e., a goal to be sought within the confines of physical, moral, and ethical constraints. And foremost among the ethical constraints God has laid upon all of us is this one: Don’t make things worse.

     The creed of Alcoholics Anonymous holds that the alcoholic must “hit bottom” before he can regain the clarity and humility required to face his disease in its enormity. So it is with every species of self-degradation. The degraded one must descend so far that he can no longer hide his sickness from himself. Until he’s fallen that low, he will continue to believe that his condition is one he can correct at any time, by himself. Therefore, he will regard any aid offered to him as gratuitous – dispensable.

     Are there exceptions? Possibly. But I haven’t known any, nor has anyone with whom I’ve discussed the subject.


     Christian thought and teaching exhorts us to charity toward the less fortunate. Charity – the care for another that sprints from caritas, benevolent emotional involvement with him – is not exempt from the “Don’t make things worse” constraint. Moreover, among the “less fortunate” are many whose condition is of their own making. The only possible form of charity toward such persons is to tell them what they need to hear and then stand well back. All else is an enabler’s folly.

     Even telling a self-degraded man what he “needs to hear” is pointless unless he’s already grasped his sickness for himself. He’ll dismiss it as meddling, an outsider’s uncomprehending intrusion into “stuff I can handle by myself.” The benevolence that animated it will usually be invisible to him. He might say “I know you mean well,” but inside he’ll be thinking “Stay out of my affairs.”

     This is a critical qualifying clause to the Christian exhortation to charity. It couples to another aspect of charitable action that’s all too seldom addressed: Are you sincerely trying to help him, or are you more concerned with gaining merit for yourself? Like all the rest of us, the unfortunate man exists for his own sake. He must not be treated as an opportunity to amass “brownie points with God.”

     How often have you heard a priest, minister, or lay preacher mention that little codicil?


     I’ve only scratched the surface of this subject. Many side trails lead from it into other regions of Christian life and thought. For today, suffice it to say that self-degradation – and in the United States of America, it’s by far the most common variety – is something to be treated with maximum delicacy. No matter how well meant, meddling in the affairs of a self-degraded man before he’s “hit bottom” will do him no good. More likely than not, it will set him back. The other elements in his emotional mix, including his vestigial pride and his all too human stubbornness, will make him react against you.

     Your desire to help is admirable. Would that everyone were as benevolently disposed toward his fellows! But as the physicians among us would say, Primum non nocere: First, do no harm.

     May God bless and keep you all.

3 comments:

Weetabix said...

Several thoughts in no particular order.

When I went to college in Texas in 1983, the drinking age was 19, but no one checked ID close to campus. I wandered the path toward alcoholism but stopped well short because I'd seen that path in someone else, and I didn't want any part of it. So, I think self awareness can keep people from needing to reach rock bottom, but they probably don't discuss it much because even starting on the path is embarrassing.

Re: "The only possible form of charity toward such persons is to tell them what they need to hear and then stand well back." Admonishing the sinner and instructing the ignorant are still spiritual acts of mercy. Of course one needs to watch one's own spirit when engaging in those acts.

Re: "Are you sincerely trying to help him, or are you more concerned with gaining merit for yourself?" That's another that needs some self examination. I'm convinced that most "charity" dispensed by most organizations are brownie points efforts. Giving money is much easier than rolling up your sleeves. With beggars, I won't give money, but I'll offer to buy them food. You can generally tell how serious they are by their reactions. One young man was insistent that he hadn't eaten in three days and he really, really needed money. I told him I'd be back in 15 minutes with a McDonald's value meal. "No, man! I need money!" Another young man's face flooded with relief, and I took him into a local coffee house, let him order, paid, and left. There are lots of reactions in between where it's hard to tell, but I give them the benefit of the doubt.

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed. Charity is not just giving and being nice. Sometimes the most worthwhile charity can appear to be cruel on its surface.

Yet another term that has been redefined to the detriment of society.

Phelan Kell said...

I don't believe in coincidence any longer. I believe God puts things in our paths for a reason. Lately a reoccurring theme in my daily blog reading of the inter webs is "Yes, yes, the system is broken and sure to crash soon, but what are YOU doing about it?"

I've read this one a few times now and I keep coming back to it but from a politics / current events perspective. I have been a prepper for years and one of the issues I have is the extended family members that refuse to do anything for themselves. They have their car repossessed but have the latest iPhone. Spend an unseemly amount on cable every month but can't afford to send their grandchildren a birthday card.

Now look at our society thru the same lens. It really makes me think about going 'Galt' and it's importance in a whole new light. Time to stop contributing to the problem.

Just some ramblings.