Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My Dear Wumpick ...

In an admittedly dubious and belated homage to Labor Day, with respect to those who've done this sort of thing far better (including Mary Eberstadt, Peter Kreeft, the forgotten Joseph A. Breig, and the master of them all, C.S. Lewis):

My dear Wumpick,

I am a little perplexed by your statement that you patient is lazy. In what do you suppose laziness among humans consists? Surely you do not think that mere dissatisfaction with their labors is enough to make them lazy or, in the Enemy’s eyes, guilty of the capital sin of Sloth?
As yet you have nothing worse (to use their terminology) of which to accuse the patient than wanting to play when she is supposed to work (and, with typical human inconsistency, being incapable of play when her work is over). This is not laziness. She has committed no real sin—yet. She has put off nothing till tomorrow that ought to have been done today—in fact, there are a few things she has done today that, strictly speaking, might well have been left to look after themselves. Really, Wumpick! Unless you can prod her into active procrastination, all your tales of her “laziness” are nothing but idle fluff with which you seek ineffectually to cover up your own inefficiencies. Remember, it is not the feeling that counts (would that it were; would that it were!) but the “thought, word, thing done or thing failed to do.” Has she neglected any positive duty? No; on the contrary, by performing her duty at times when it is dull or downright unpalatable she has, if anything, done better for herself than if she had been able to perform it with a joyous spirit. Has she rebelled interiorly against that duty? No; indeed, she is even ashamed of her feelings of slackness. She has been as miserable as possible about this little malaise, and is almost approaching genuine humility on the subject, and all because of some emotional baggage which proceeds largely from external circumstances over which she has no real control and of which she is for the most part unaware. That we—and even you—have done much to create those circumstances is some comfort. But the circumstances, however useful, are not sufficient. No occasion is any to good to us unless in the end we can get her to act.

With this end in mind, there are several possible strategies you can pursue. Is your patient afraid of self-examination? inclined to general descriptions of her sins? temperamentally presumptuous, and used to falling back on "Love" as excusing all? Then your best mode of attack will be to see that this atmosphere of dullness and drabness continues to hang about her. Sooner or later she will slip; her "forgiving" mentality will make it so easy for her to excuse herself that she could hardly help slipping. Only do not let her think too much about her duty. If the word "duty" enters her mind at all, see that it is accompanied by a disagreeable image—a sour-faced grandmother, all black crepe and stiff back and knobs; or perhaps a disagreeable smell or a sound or a voice that she has learned to hate. Associate, associate! and don't allow her to use logic. Or, if your patient is of this vaguish character but bears a more humorous frame of mind (take care, by the way, that your patient does what most humans do, and associates her sense of humor with intelligence), use some literary caricature of dutifulness to subvert her respect for the virtue. If she is musical, try Frederic's "slave of duty" line. If she is literary, remind her of Fanny Price and Agnes Wickfield. There is nothing likelier to pervert a witty mind than dull portraits of goodness; and, as always, anything that distracts the patient from the reality of sin and glosses over its sordid details is of great use to us.

If, on the other hand, your patient is inclined to scrupulosity and over-analysis of her inclinations, your best tactic is to focus all her attention, and ultimately all her efforts too, on determining the source of her current temptation to sloth. If you do the job well, you can even turn the patient's attempts to eliminate such feelings into occasions for genuine misbehavior. I once had a patient so well in hand, that his immediate reaction to a slothful inclination (in his case, an almost completely biological affect) was to unwittingly indulge in it by setting his work aside and researching the probable causes of this feeling for nearly three quarters of an hour! (The near-omnipresence of the internet is most helpful in encouraging cases like this one.)

This excessive preoccupation with the causes of her feelings of sloth will have several potential benefits for the patient. First, it turns the patient's attention inward towards herself. This is almost always a good thing, since each human being is generally the worst possible judge of his or her own intentions and moral state. Thus the patient is once again learning to escape reality for some fictitious universe largely of her own construction. It matters very little whether that universe is what the humans would call "happy" or not, whether its inclination is finally Pelagian or Jansenist—so long as the universe is false, even a near resemblance to The Real World cannot do us a great deal of harm. (Consider how much difference in potency there is between a picture of a friend, or a letter, and the friend's real presence.) But of course, the more you can falsify the Interior World, the better off we are. Is your patient inclined to despair? Then see if you cannot use those feelings of humility to create some hidden shame, shame that may lead to discouragement. More sinners have been claimed through that method, perhaps, than any other, especially in the last two centuries or so—recall the excesses of Victorian moralism and of Existential philosophy, two ideologies in apparent conflict but with similarly depressive tendencies. Is your patient inclined to Pollyannize? Then see if you cannot teach her to excuse the occasional indulgence of her feelings. "Five minutes' nap" or five minutes anything else "can't do much harm." Take care always that your patient (if she is of this sort) should use the "can't do harm" line. Never let her ask what possible good it could do (not that, if she is of this sort, she is likely to ask). If, however, the Enemy puts that question to her, you must immediately counter it with, "Why, five minutes' break would clear my mind of this bothersome worry!" and so turn neglect of the job into a positive virtue.

Whatever the tendencies of the examining sort of patient, you will find the new trend towards evolutionary explanations of everything very useful here, especially if the patient is at all of a scientific turn of mind. The notion that all or most of a person's habits, temperament, and character can ultimately be traced to genetic determinants which promote survival of the fittest is an excellent tool for getting humans to believe that they cannot help their behavior. From this invalid conclusion (for it does not follow, however accurate the genetics) you are but a few easy steps from being able to make the patient think that sin is inevitable. And once the patient thinks sin is inevitable, "thinking makes it so."

Your affectionate uncle,


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