Bullying – First Thoughts

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February 12, 2013 by lucieromarin

Since reading this post over at Charming Disarray, I’ve been mulling over her questions, apropos men (and women) who judge other women by their clothing: “…isn’t the bigger problem that they’re judging their morality at all?” and “…why are these men bossing these women around in the first place?”

Bullying doesn’t only take the form of men (or women) using insults to try to compel women to dress a particular way. It manifests itself as pressure to associate with a particular group or to give time or money to a particular apostolate or event. It takes the form of publicly accusing subordinates in the apostolate  of lack of commitment for needing time off to recover from illness. It even appears as the cool snubbing of one family by another family, because of the choice not to homeschool. Whatever the subject (modesty, commitment, education), the method is the same. Why does it happen?

At first, I thought my answer would be that, for want of quality bishops to do the judging for us, swift moral judgments about others became so intrinsic to the conservative experience in the 1980s and 1990s (why does the machine want me to use apostrophes here???) that it has just become habitual to us. Then, however, I remembered these wonderful lines from the anonymous work, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’:

‘The Devil chooses to deceive some people in the following way. He will marvellously inflame their brains with the desire to uphold God’s law and destroy sin in everyone else. He will never tempt them with anything that is manifestly evil. He makes them like anxious prelates watching over the lives of Christian people of all ranks, as an abbot does over his monks. They will rebuke everyone for their faults, just as if they had souls in their care; and it seems to them that they dare not do otherwise for God’s sake. They tell them of the faults they see, claiming to be impelled to do so by the fire of charity and the love of God in their hearts; but in truth they are lying, for it is by the fire of hell surging in their brains and their imaginations.’

Now, this book was written in the fourteenth century. Apparently this is one problem that cannot be laid squarely at the feet of modern bishops.

Okay, I thought to myself, the problem, then, is just, basically, original sin. It’s a problem about people who are doctrinally particular but not truly spiritual or religious.

Then I remembered these words from St Therese of Lisieux: “Formerly, when I saw a Sister doing something which appeared to be against the Rule, I said to myself: Ah! if I could only tell her what I think and show her she is wrong, how much good this would do me! Ever since I have practiced a little the trade of correcting [as mistress of novices] I assure you, dear Mother, that I have entirely changed my attitude. When it happens that I see a Sister perform an action which appears imperfect to me, I heave a sigh of relief and say: How fortunate! this is not a novice; I am not obliged to correct her. I then very quickly take care to excuse the Sister and to give her all the good intentions she undoubtedly has.”

Now, while she was born as afflicted by original sin as the rest of us, St Therese is hardly the kind of character described by the author of ‘The Cloud’ – yet she, too, experienced that desire to go about fixing other people’s mistakes. And notice, too, that sanctity (because she was holy when she wrote those lines!) does not seem to consist of never noticing faults. It consists of recognising that this ‘fixing’ is actually a burdensome duty, of keeping one’s opinion to oneself, and of excusing the person whose imperfections are not one’s business.

While I would like to apply blistering epithets to all modern-day bullies, these passages, taken together, suggest to me that there is more to the problem than just vice. Obviously vice is a part of it – but it’s not the only part of it. I think the following can also be targeted:

1) the choleric temperament;

2) ‘like anxious prelates’…that is, the feeling that unless we are exercising a quasi-priestly authority over somebody, then we’re nobody;

3) a misunderstanding of certain incidents found in lives of the saints.

The first two points deserve their own post – and will, in fact, receive one. But I’ll finish with a thought about the third point. We often read, or hear preached, stories to the effect of, “There was a notorious sinner. Saint Someone boldly approached him and said, “You will go to hell for this!” and the sinner broke down and wept and asked for confession,” or “When Saint Someone spoke to her friends on religious subjects, they could not help but listen, and they loved to do whatever she instructed.” From this, we take away the idea that going around being blunt with people will make them do the right thing. Some Catholics genuinely believe that they are imitating the saints when they behave rudely, and they are genuinely surprised to find that the results aren’t instant conversion. So, we need to remember this:

a) That when Saint Someone approached Notorious Sinner, he had already spent twelve years learning and conquering his own faults, had developed a high degree of union with God, and was radiating with love and compassion even at the time of the rebuke;

b) Saint Someone did not go around looking for Notorious Sinners in a spirit of being called to fix things. In fact, Saint Someone didn’t go around seeking out any imperfections at all. Notorious Sinner was the exception; the rule was all those hundreds more people who the Saint did not rebuke…

c) …because Saint Someone was prudent. He knew that the straight-talking method of changing lives is only suitable in certain circumstances and with certain people. And he saved it for them;

d) Saint Someone had a sense of humour. It makes a difference.

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