“The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit . . . . The more he examines his life, the more he looks into himself with complete honesty, the more clearly he perceives that what he has is a gift. Suppose he was an upright man in the eyes of society, then he will now say to himself: “So you were an educated man, yes, but who paid for your education; so you were a good man and upright, yes, but who taught you your good manners and so provided you with good fortune that you did not need to steal; so you were a man of a loving disposition and not like the hard-hearted, yes, but who raised you in a good family, who showed you care and affection when you were young so that you would grow up to appreciate kindness – must you not admit that what you have, you have received? Then be thankful and cease your boasting”.”
That is from the young John Rawls, in his undergraduate thesis at Princeton. Read more about it here. I can’t help but be sympathetic toward the sentiment he’s expressing. There is a huge chunk of luck in any human success — and of bad luck in human failure — and there is always a temptation to make ourselves out to be more responsible than we really are.
But I’ve read enough Nz to be skeptical of that which prompts both Rawls and me to be attracted to this sentiment. That last line — “must you not admit that what you have, you have received?” — sets off the alarms. I think I am smelling some original sin here. The feeling is that what I have done and what I can do is never sufficient to merit any praise. Only the benevolence of the greater reality outside me can give my life any value. I am only the loathsome worm who lucks out. But why feel this way? Why hate my life so much as to deny any possible value to what it can produce on its own? Pathological. “Condemnation of the self” indeed.
Rawls was concerned here with only good luck. It’s easy to extend the same thought to bad luck, though, and excuse human criminality by external causes. But the perspective has to switch. It sounds pathetic when I say to myself, “So you hacked up an old lady with an axe, but who was it that taught you to wield the heavy blade?” etc. On the other hand, it sounds wondrously kind-hearted and sympathetic when I ask someone else, “So you became a bully, but who taught you such hatred?” It is especially wonderful when I say this to the man who just punched me in the nose. Once again, it is not me who was causally efficacious enough to merit the punch in the nose. I am but a poor, ineffectual worm in the cosmos; greater causes from beyond led to the collision of fist and face. I think that when we excuse other cases, of crime done by others to others, by pointing to external causes, it’s only an extension of when we excuse others who hurt us. We’re worried that if we concede that others had it coming to them, we’ll have to concede both that sometimes we may have it coming to us, and that sometimes we’re right — on our own causal oomph! — when we let others have it. (I wonder: do kids learn to forgive violence done to themselves before they learn to forgive violence done to others? My own experience suggests so.)
So the deeper desire motivating Rawls’ sentiment is escapism — I wish to bow out from the universe, shrink into a little bug whose life has no consequence. The truth is messier. There is indeed a lot of good and bad luck shaping who we are and what we do, but regularly we are agents, in varying degrees, and it is almost always difficult to tease apart what we’ve done from what we’ve suffered. In some cases we can sort it out, but lots of times we can’t. The price of being real.