Here I am, on the eve of my 30th birthday. And I finally understand myself.
By nature I am earnest and passionate. I am sincere. These traits were not learned. They were in me from the start. And so in my earnestness, I have always been eager to learn and to learn well.
From my earliest days, I was taught to value what was right, and to hate what was wrong. I was given a consistent and unwavering standard to live by. The way I learned it was to take on a very black vs white view of the world. So from my youngest days, I was intolerant of mistakes whether in others or in myself. I was clear what was acceptable behaviour and what was not. I either admired people greatly who epitomized what I saw as virtues or I was disillusioned and judged others whom I felt had fallen short of the mark. Much of this was automatic and accompanied by great emotional sentiment. For e.g., I had a gut reaction of disgust for drunkenness, smoking and gambling. And anyone who partook in any of these activities immediately sunk in my estimation. Neither did I take well people who seemingly lacked discipline or self-control. This disdain extended to myself.
I was always taught to put others before myself. And so I did. I put others’ interests and welfare before my own. But I was only taught the form – not the essence. I only knew I should put others first. So I did it at all costs – even when it drained me, even when I was hurt, angry or upset, I continued to put others first. Sometimes it left me bewildered and lost and empty. But I always continued to put others first – because it is the right thing to do. And I have always been taught to ‘do the right thing’ at all costs.
I was taught that discipline of self was a great and necessary virtue. But the way that I was taught led me to see any failure to hit the high mark set as not only a personal set-back but a moral one. If I wasted time doing things that did not edify or improve me – it was a moral lack. If I did not take care of my health – it was a moral lack. If I did not try my best for anything – it was a moral lack. If I could not control my emotions – not that I have outbursts, but just that I felt overwhelmingly emotional – it was a lack of maturity. And again, somehow, I perceived it to be a moral lack. So when I sleep late, or veg out in front of the TV, or indulged myself – I always had a subsequent attack of guilt. Automatically, I imposed these same standards on others and judged them accordingly.
My life was a tightrope of dos and don’ts – shoulds and should nots. Vanity was frivolous, but sloppiness was lazy. Extravagance was irresponsible, but I should be willing to spend when it is the right thing to spend on. I should have a high standard for all things I do, and for other people as well, but I should be understanding, patient and tolerant when they fail to measure up.
So I spent my entire life trying to follow all these wonderful ‘laws’ of living ‘right’ because I was convinced of how right they were. But I only knew to impose the laws on myself and others without ever really understanding or knowing what the spirit behind these laws were. So I was dogmatic with the application and soon these laws had become more important than the people in my life. Even myself.
Though in my heart there was always a whisper that learning to understand and accept myself and others was more important, I never learned how to do that. For I had never learned how to see myself or others apart from these ‘universal laws’. Things were always either black or white, right or wrong – and those that did not fit into either made me uncomfortable. Though I became much more flexible and comfortable with ambiguity in my years abroad studying philosophy, old habits die hard. I became more easy-going and less judgmental, but in my core, I never stopped judging myself. And all it took was for some encouragement to revive these laws in me to let it take over my life again.
Now it does not bother me anymore to realize how enslaved I had been. What matters more is that I am now free from my past. That I have forgiven myself for my ignorance and unawareness, and that I have asked forgiveness for imposing these laws on others – especially my younger brother. I am blessed that I have come into this awareness before I have any children of my own – for I would certainly have imposed these laws upon them too.
Our Lord had famously said that “Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath”(Mk 2:27) when He had broken the Sabbath laws by healing a man. His words reflect a truth higher than the law – and that truth is His love for His people. The well-meaning pharisees had come to put the law before Man in their zeal to follow it. Jesus Christ put it back into perspective.
And so it is that all debates of right and wrong and all efforts to ‘live right’ would be a distortion and a distraction if they were valued above loving and accepting any person. Put another way, if we followed Christ’s greatest commandment given to supercede all others – “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 13:34), all the details of living right would fall into place by themselves. And we would not be enslaved by dogmatism and the blindness of the pharisees.