Knowing Who We Are
Lately, journalists have picked their brains about a new social trend. It is the trend made of a long list of scandals perpetrated by middle-age highly successful leaders. The journalists are quite correct in asking the question: how is it that such powerful figures of the modern age, involved with the young, could go down the path of violence over powerless victims? No doubt, this is because they did not respect them but, most of all, they did not respect themselves. In other words, they had difficulty coming to grips with their true size and role in life, in a word, with who they are.
From a different angle, we now have social media gurus facing Congress and mega moral issues, like Mark Zuckerberg, but they too ignore who they are and their role in life. Zuckerberg, for one, appears to have difficulties knowing who he is, with his cool look, unpretentious, dressing with clothes which appeal to kindergarten children rather than adults. But he is not a child, he is a giant and one of the richest men on the planet ever. His virtual empire and colossal fortune seemed to have made him forget the sense of responsibility and duty to society. Like Prometheus, he is playing at god on behalf of fallen men.
A Different Type of Life
Like many of my readers, I have lived in an era when nothing was taken for granted: no free lunch, no easy way out of homework and chores, no nonsense allowed by our parents. We knew life was meant to be hard lived, ploughing our field with sweat long before we could reap its fruit. We instinctively understood too that each action had consequences, for better or for worse, and that we fully deserved the merit or the blame for them and there was no point arguing about it. This too was essential to our bringing up and making men out of us. More so, in the old country, abundance and wealth were virtually unknown and only seen as a remote planet occasionally seen on the screens. They told us of an Eldorado in the Americas, profusely portrayed as the land of plenty and of the free, but we were wiser. It sounded all too hollow and artificial and we did not believe this fantastic fairyland could do justice to its golden promise of happiness.
Europe had, at that time at least, a sense of depth, of history, of one’s position in life where no one took the revolutionary mottos of “liberty” and “equality” seriously. It was a place where there was orderly behavior because there was order and authority. In the old country, we knew that some people and places and attitudes had more relief than others: from casual to proper to sacred. And if teenagers were still uncomfortable navigating the etiquette which suited each situation, they were on the whole quick enough to accept the remonstrance of their stern parents, to imitate prudently the mass of people, and to follow their inner sense of propriety inculcated at a very young age. They knew there was a time to play and a time to be serious; there was relaxation and there was decorum; there was chit-chat and there was articulate conversation even in chance occasions. No adult would debase himself by screaming or proffering rough language in company: some things were simply not done! Ideas were taken seriously and life was seen as meaningful and worth struggling for, especially for Catholic families.
Some Illustrative Examples
Perhaps a couple of examples could help delineate the concept of knowing who you are and how to dress and act in company. I recall this youth in uniform at a small Swiss railroad station. He must not have been more than 22, and yet, his demeanor, his professionalism, all betrayed the man in total control of himself and of the importance of his function as the station manager with important responsibilities fully assumed. On another occasion, in Rome, you could also see this old restaurant’s waiter acting with the grace and seriousness of ages past. He was serving with the gusto and effervescence proper to the Romans, and yet, with such grace and punctiliousness you thought he was tending to Julius Cesar himself. You felt that he was carrying 2,000 years of Latin culture on his shoulders and it exuded from the slightest movement. This I think is what Shakespeare portrayed as he described King Lear being “Every inch a king.”
I’d be impious if I were not to bring out some example from my father in the priesthood, Archbishop Lefebvre. Here was a man of stature who had held important roles under Pius XII, as he was heading all of French Africa with 60 bishops under his jurisdiction. Later on, he became Superior General of the world’s largest missionary congregation, the Holy Ghost Fathers, before heading the Coetus at Vatican II to offset the liberal attacks. And, because he had wisdom coupled with a profound experience, he was at ease in every circumstance imaginable. He did not seem to feel the pressure from the media or the attacks coming from Rome or other episcopal denunciations, as I witnessed time and again. But more remarkably, he was most affable and patient with obnoxious youth or the shy young priests that we were. To us, he was the father listening attentively to his sons and, while adroitly redressing our awkward views, he was gauging our worth and purity of heart. In all this, he was not getting out of his role of founder and father. He was ever the same smiling, effaced, humble man who dealt with all things, in season and out of season. In hindsight, I think that, if he was somewhat detached from contingent events and troubles of life, it was because his soul was anchored in faith and prayer, which gave him the strong convictions and sound principles that guided his every action.
The habit does not make the monk. This truth does not quite hide the other side of the coin that the deliberate absence of the habit would greatly damage the monk. In ages past, adults dressed and acted in ways demanded by their stature and class in life, and were honored accordingly. Anyone would have been rightly scandalized to witness a young woman misbehaving at a bar or a city mayor spewing swear words out of anger. Why were they scandalized by such misbehavior? Simply because these people were acting in contradiction with who they were and with what authority or status in life they had to uphold; because there was an accepted order and hierarchy and these were being transgressed.
Where Are We Now?
What of today? Going through the busy city streets in daytime or through a crowded airport hub, the way people talk, dress and act, a visitor from a remote island would think he was at a bazaar or a circus, or by the beach. Yet, nobody takes notice of the scandal anymore. Why is this? It is because we have lost the sense of propriety, we have lost the sense of place, of decorum. Yet, more profoundly, it is because we have lost the sense of our own identity of reasonable men and children of God. We behave as children in the school yard where it is all up for grabs: all equal and free in the muck of society.
A last word on this issue of who we are. The ancient Greeks had a horror of the hubris: the hybrid monster. The good and beautiful, kaloskagathos, was cultivated by the Greeks, who had the cult of beauty, meaning propriety with due order and measure. Each item and person had to have the due proportions, neither too small nor too large. Each had its place in the universe which was called the “kosmos”, from which came our “cosmetics”, because it was beautiful and ordered. Moving on to the supernatural plane, we have a properly Christian virtue, humility, which consists in keeping one’s place in life. And, hereafter, faith teaches us that the city of the devil is where chaos and confusion reigns. By contrast, the city of God, as described in Dante’s Paradiso, is set in order with the nine choirs of angels and the corresponding planes of the elect. In the divine ordering and hierarchy, there is ample room for the liberty of God’s children. So, when all is said and done, we may conclude that, on both the natural and supernatural plane, knowing our place in society is key to success.