By Lindsey Weishar
Monsters—the stuff of fairy tales and childhood anxiety about dark rooms. Yet, I’ve come to realize that the monsters don’t leave us when we grow up; the word is merely reapplied. Monsters, especially in this polarized climate, unjustly become our fellow women and men, as when we might say of someone we find particularly horrible, “what a monster!” When it comes to ourselves and those we consider decent people, we are better at separating ourselves from the monsters, which take on a malevolent spiritual quality, becoming our everyday demons.
In 2013 I “met” an author who has impacted the way I understand the monstrous in society and in myself. Her name is Caryll Houselander. A self-described neurotic, she lived in England during WWII, experienced the Blitz, and offered psychological help to those suffering from the aftershock of this devastating war. In the early 1950s she penned a book called Guilt, which discusses the complexity of this feeling. During the time I was reading this book, an acquaintance told me, “It’s never good to feel guilty about things.” But I must disagree. This book has reminded me that a healthy sense of guilt is precisely how we can confront the monsters in us, and come into right relation with those around us.
Before I begin, I want to be clear about one thing because the idea of guilt can be tricky. For those who have survived abuse or other types of trauma, guilt can be a deep-seated burden a person carries with them for life. What I say about a healthy sense of guilt does not include the guilt an abuse survivor took on as a result of the abuse inflicted upon him or her. This guilt, which should have been carried by the abuser, was unjustly placed on the abused. And this transfer of guilt is utterly wrong. Houselander’s notions of guilt align more closely with the image of the human body and the reality that when any part of the body is ill, the whole body suffers.
Houselander contends that “[t]he suffering of the whole world is the concern of each one of us.” This means that when I hear about the latest mass shooting or a new revelation of sexual abuse in the Church, I feel these events as a personal blow. St. Paul talks about the human family as a body, and living as a member of this body in today’s society means that I must become more vulnerable. I mustn’t “toughen up” as I’ve been told by some who see sensitivity as a liability. I must allow myself to feel the searing pain that the body feels when any of its parts hurt.
But there is a second piece to this process of accepting suffering. Not only must I enter into the world’s pain instead of isolating myself from it, I must also recognize my own responsibility for this suffering. That by virtue of being human, I have also inflicted suffering on my fellow human beings—I’ve been critical of others, I’ve prematurely judged them, I’ve ignored them or their pain, I’ve cut myself off from them to protect myself from being hurt. Though I have not taken away another’s life or abused someone, I am guilty of having caused others spiritual and mental suffering. Houselander highlights my own resistance to face my guilt when she says, “[i]t is from the responsibility of guilt that modern man turns away, from the constant effort of self-conquest, from the acceptance of the world’s suffering as his own business which he cannot shelve…”
To recognize my own responsibility in the suffering of the world is not an exercise in mental self-flagellation. Rather, this recognition is supreme realism, and it strikes at the root of where the evil in our society exists. It does not exist in the physical weapons we wield against each other, but in our own hearts. Though we are created good and for good, Houselander reminds me that I cannot be slack in fighting against the reality of the darkness within me. Instead of lackadaisically saying, “Oh, I’m a good person,” I’m called to take myself in hand, to listen for the ways in which I personally begin to break others into labels and paint them with my assumptions of their beliefs. I’m called to acknowledge the ways in which I fail to see them as humans who are both broken and beautiful faces of Christ. In Houselander’s words, “The danger is great when we are not in conscious conflict with ourselves. We must bring the evil out into the light of consciousness, in order that we may meet it on the battlefield of our own souls….We are safe only when we are consciously at war with ourselves.” Just as we pray that all the abuse in our Church and in our world will come to light, a similar action needs to take place on the individual level. We must work to bring the dark places in our own souls to light, so they can be renewed.
Houselander does not advocate for a self-deprecating or obsessive approach toward the self (Guilt also addresses those who struggle with scrupulosity) but rather for an action of heart that opens us to love others—and ourselves—more deeply. For to accept the person as a whole is not only to accept all sufferings, but it is, as Houselander says, to accept the great variety of love that also exists in the world. This introspection allows reflection in the face of suffering. Before I can begin to speak about the problems of the world, I must speak with myself. I must locate within myself—which so often mirrors the brokenness of the world—the ways in which I fail to love. It is through a recognition of myself and others as members of a common humanity, that I can battle the monsters in me.
As a teenager I encountered a striking Nietzsche quote: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” And these days, I’m reflecting on this quote more often. By externalizing the monsters as an “other”—another person, another political party, another religious institution—I sometimes forget to cultivate in my own soul the peace I need to continue fighting the monsters in me. The world gets darker with every “yes” I give to certain lies: “This world is too broken to be repaired.” “People are monsters.” “Peace will only come when people agree to_________.” “This world is so awful that I’m going to look out for myself and not worry about others.”
From Houselander, I’ve learned that the renewal of the world begins with me. Though this may sound trite, I think I must begin aiding in the healing of others by looking into how I can heal myself. Though I cannot erase the suffering that has been enacted on this earth since my life began, I am not powerless. I can learn to interact with suffering, and it is Houselander who reminds me that suffering always shapes us:
Suffering does something to the man who suffers, not merely something for him…It is quite impossible to suffer anything, no matter what it is, and not be affected by it. The effect may be good or it may be bad. One man will be made new and whole by suffering; another will be destroyed by it. In its turn, the character given to a man by suffering will affect everyone with whom he comes into contact. It leaves a stamp upon the soul, a seal, as if it were the sacramental of some mysterious force, like the chrism in Confirmation; but a sacramental which can be used by the evil spirit as by the Spirit of love. It may disfigure, it may make beautiful; one or the other it will do.
When I look at the ways our nation and world have suffered even in this past year, I realize we all bear within ourselves marks of suffering. These are anxious, uncertain times. The question I must ask myself is if this suffering is shaping me for the good. Am I becoming a person more open or more closed to those around me? Am I letting suffering distort my view of those around me, or am I allowing myself to be converted by their goodness? Do I believe there is a goodness to be found in all people, even my ideological opposite? Am I separating the person from the monstrous?
I look at how my own personhood is sometimes perceived by others, and the ways in which this perception is flawed. And I wonder if we all don’t do the same to each other. I wonder if we see others as “other,” instead of parts of a whole human family connected by our humanity. I wonder if we measure others against ourselves as better or worse, stronger or weaker, more innocent or guiltier. I wonder if the “monsters” we make of other people are really the call of our souls to confront our own monsters.
The work to be done in this world starts with the tilling of my own heart. The rocks may be wedged deep in the soil of myself, but pulling them out, according to Houselander, will be to the benefit of the whole world.
Caryll Houselander’s book Guilt, reerenced above, was published by Sheed & Ward in 1951. This book is unfortunately out of print, but a typed-out copy can be found online.