Quoting Saint Augustine

Our classics reading group will have our last discussion about Saint Augustine’s Confessions tomorrow. I feel sorry to leave St. Augustine behind, for he has become an honest, passionate and true Christian friend. I think that Renaissance Guy would understand if I dared to write that I had literally fallen in love with Saint Augustine.

My ideas about Augustine before reading the Confessions this time were based on a cursory reading during my undergraduate years. The manner in which I read Augustine all those years ago indicates to me how really shallow I was during that time of my life, for how can anyone skim through his Confessions?

Witness this:

Lord, before whose eyes the abyss of man’s conscience lies naked, what thing within me could be hidden from you, even if I would not confess it to you? I would be hiding you from yself, not myself from you. But now, since my groans bear witness that I am a thing displeasing to myself, you shine forth, and you are pleasing to me, and you are loved and longed for, so that I may feel shame for myself, and renounce myself, and choose you, and please neither you nor myself except because of you.

Therefore, before you, O Lord, am I manifest, whatever I may be. With what profit I may confess to you, I have already said. [. . .] When I am evil, to confess toyou is naught else but to be displeased with myself; when I am upright of life, naugh else is it to confess to you but to attribute this in no wise to myself. For you bless the just man, O Lord, but first you justify him as one who has been ungodly. Hence my confession is made in silence before you, my God, and yet not in silence. As to sound, it is silent, but it cries aloud with love. Nor do I say any good thing to men except what you have first heard from me; nor do you hear any such thing from me but what you have first spoken to me (229-230).

And then, as if Augustine has been reading a proliferation of blogs:

What have I to do with men, that they should hear my confessions, as if they were to “heal all my diseases?” I race eager to know about another man’s life, but slothful to correct their own! Why do they seek to hear from me what I am, men who do not want to hear from you what they themselves are?

When they hear me speak about myself, how do they know if I speak the truth, since none among men knows “what goes on within a man but the spirit of man which is in him?” But if they should hear about themselves from you, they cannot say, “The Lord lies!” What else is it for them to hear from you about themselves except to know themselves? Who knows anything and yet says, “It is false,” unless he is a liar? But because “charity believes all things” among them whom it unites by binding them to itself, I too, O Lord, will confess to you in such manner that men may hear, although I cannot prove to them that I confess truly.

But those men whose ears charity opens to me believe me (230).

So beautiful, so well put. I especially like, “But those men whose ears charity opens believe me,” for I’m familiar with the feeling or idea that I know another person whom I’ve just met. My father used to say, “Birds of a feather flock together,” and “Water seeks its own level.” These sayings annoyed me when I was younger. I thought that he meant to comment on people’s narrow-mindedness, whereas the issue for me was my own narrow-mindedness at age 20-something. I was so narrow that I couldn’t recognize myself; I therefore also couldn’t recognize believability in another person.

The issue isn’t so much, in my way of thinking, whether another person is truthful about him- or herself; the issue is whether I can recognize authenticity because I’ve done the work to become, and be, authentic. Then I’ll see it sure enough in another person.

  

The Confessions of St. Augustine, John K. Ryan, Trans.

15 Minute Relationships

Today my daughter and I were discussing the peculiarities of the modern world and its enhanced opportunities for connecting as well as for literary voyeurism and exhibitionism. YouTube, My Space, Facebook, blogging: reality TV has come to the web.

In other times, this sort of exhibitionism was reserved for essayists, novelists, and the like. If they weren’t talented or honest enough with their craft, people didn’t read them and they (presumably) faded into oblivion as their essay collections or novels went out of print. This isn’t the case today, when anyone can have his or her 15 minutes of fame (which will be archived or preserved for posterity on YouTube), just as Andy Warhol predicted.

Yet somehow I doubt that even Andy would have predicted the in-your-face-ishness of places like My Space or YouTube, where anyone with a digital or video camera can become notorious, and where people think that human beings can be reduced to several thousand bytes and frozen like embryos for later revivification.

People seem to think that there are shortcuts to intimacy, as if putting up a My Space page, or blogging regularly, will build real relationships.

“It’s like making Inside Edition efforts, but imagining Lord of the Rings relationships and endings,” my daughter observed.

I loved her comment, and (with some relief) realized it was true. Relationships have always reflected the time and effort invested in them. If we make Inside Edition efforts, we’re going to get Inside Edition results. Only people willing to go on dangerous quests with tried-and-true companions can hope to come away with a friend like Samwise Gamgee.

Losing Streak

How do you recover from a losing streak, a run of bad luck, a change of fortunes? When your confidence is shaken–whether financially, emotionally, physically, or spiritually–and you doubt yourself or the universe, what drives you to the point of no return or to the point of recovery?

These are questions I’ve been asking myself and wanting to ask others as two random events collided and sent such questions crashing into my consciousness.

My brother claimed throughout our childhood that he would be a millionaire by the time he was 40 years old, and he was. An intelligent and honest man, after earning his master’s degree at the Wharton School of Business, he made his millions by returning to the midwest and combining the principles he had been taught at Wharton with hard work and determination. He won, all right–but he also lost through several downturns in the business cycle. He lost so much, he said, that he might have lost not only his business but his home, too, had he not been able to maintain his confidence and determination.

“Sis,” he cautioned, “When you’re doing well financially, always remember there will be a downturn in business or in the economy, and be prepared.” This was his advice upon seeing my newly-decorated media room–not compliments or praise for the pleasant and comfortable room I’d designed, but caution: don’t spend all your money on stuff, but instead, spend some of it preparing for the inevitable bad times.

Then, last week I was listening to Ira Glass’s interview with a professional poker player on This American Life (in Act Two), and heard that professional poker players have losing streaks that are not only expected, but can last for months. The subject of his interview, a female pro, said her longest losing streak lasted about eight months. She said that the biggest problem with a losing streak, besides the loss of income, is the loss of confidence; pros stop playing smart and start playing emotionally when they’ve been on losing streaks. Players who normally play a psychological game will begin to make more and bigger mistakes, perpetuating the losing streak. Some never recover.

Her comments recalled to mind my brother’s of earlier in the year. Both of these successful people in quite different fields accepted losing streaks or downturns in the business cycle as part of life. Whole teams go on losing streaks, and the only means of recovery, according to Harvard Business School professor and author Rosabeth Moss Kanter, is confidence. I recently started reading her book, and will report later on anything new I learn about winning and losing streaks. But the very title of her book, Confidence, says enough to make a person think.

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Diagnosing Boys Who Behave Badly

Earlier this week I felt anger and sadness over watching a little boy I know seeming to fade away into the black hole that sensitive and artistic or sensitive, but ignored, little children can go into. Then today I ran across an interesting post by a mother, who, by all appearances, seems to be the sort of mum the little guy I wrote about last week needs to have, but doesn’t. This article is about the pressure in our culture to violate one’s own mothering instincts, and why an alma mater (nourishing mother) just shouldn’t do that.

So far, I’ve raised three sons to adulthood, and I have three in the finishing school of manhood, so to speak; besides my education, I also have parenting credentials, you see. I credit their father with teaching our sons the really hair-raising aspects of manhood (like driving a golf cart up into a pine tree, or chasing a young bull into a holding pen, or riding trash can lids and other makeshift sleds down huge ice hills). I teach them how to treat the ladies.

Today it seems that the obvious must be stated: boys are different than girls. They start different, and they end up different. They act different at school, and they are often punished for that. However, since children can no longer be hit or shamed by teachers, the methods of punishment and control used in the classroom have changed. Today, schools slap the child with a label, not a ruler.

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Grow a Self

 You do not need to be loved, not at the cost of yourself. The single relationship that is truly central and crucial in a life is the relationship to the self. Of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never lose.

— Jo Coudert, “Advice From A Failure”

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