Our human tendency seems to gravitate towards being rewarded and recognized, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. We don’t need trained psychologists to tell us that when we receive a positive stroke for good work done, when our sedulousness has been recognized, or when we receive a note of thanks, our self-esteem is given a shot in the arm, enabling us to be more positive in our outlook and increase our productivity.
But the ‘high’ that this brings can sometimes become a very hidden narcotic that is not easily recognized and we are loath to admit it. So, while the public, outward and expressed self does magnanimous, generous and generally noteworthy acts of kindness and mercy, the hidden, inward and unexpressed self waits in the shadows of the inner corridors of our hearts, anticipating the next ‘fix’ of the ego boost. If we are truly honest with ourselves, the best of us has seen that side of our personality, and it is not something we are proud of. In fact, the more we personally admit to it, the more real it becomes. If others ‘uncover’ it, our defense mechanism automatically kicks into high gear and often, our first words of retaliation would be ‘are you sure’?
St Paul’s haunting phrase in Rom 7:15 comes to mind when he says so honestly “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” All us, if we are deathly honest with ourselves will resonate with the apostle in his human struggle. It seems to be ingrained in our shared broken humanity.
One of the more effective ways to address this is to practice acts of mercy, and to do that often. Visit the sick, give alms to the poor, attend to those who are worse off than yourself, stoop to speak to the little ones. I can almost hear my detractors saying “but can’t we end up doing these for the sake of being thanked, seen as humble and in that way, being worse off than when we first started?” Of course that is possible but it doesn’t mean that we should not try.
When we do this often enough, when it is part of our schedule, when it is not a once-a-year affair, but purposefully done, it can weaken the hidden self that lurks in those chambers of our hearts. To be sure, that self will never be completely removed. At least not while we are alive. But that self can be given less food to grow, and his condition can be stifled and his development stunted.
I find this true in my own life. I have an aunt who has been slipping into dementia for the past couple of years, and is now in nursing care in a home for the aged. I have made it a point to visit her every week on my day off and she cannot remember my name even though she may try. I have lost count of the times she calls me Dominic, which gives credit to the real Dominic, a very genial and caring man who works full time in the said home. Dominic has a heart of gold. Sometimes, when I share with others that my aunt never remembers my name when I visit her, their reaction has sometimes been “and you do this so often?”
When a person slips into dementia, and when we visit them regularly, it is not for them to remember us, but for us to show that they are remembered. Whether aunt Michelle calls me Dominic, Terence or even Shirley matters not as much as my calling her “Ee Mah” (that, for my non Cantonese-speaking readers, means eldest maternal aunt). The same goes for people who visit patients who have had severe strokes and are in a comatose state who have no response at all. Doing these regularly with a dedication makes us weaken that part of us that hopes for some ‘recognition’ or ‘thank you’ simply because they cannot. It is times like these that show that hands reaching out to others are far more important than the hands that are unable to respond and reach back. These acts of mercy really can help us to nurture that part of us that recognizes God’s mercy when we it comes to us at the most unexpected and unrecognizable times.
As most of my readers know, I am being sent to Washington DC for further studies for two years, and I leave shortly. Friends and parishioners have asked me what I will miss most. Some think it is food, some think the warm weather, others my links to a parish community. Actually it is none of them.
But among the things that I will definitely miss are my weekly visits to my aunt as well as to one other comatose patient in another home. In fact, they probably don’t realize that what they do for me is more than anything I could have done for them, because each time my visits end, I gain more strength and determination to slay that hidden, lurking self.