O what a good boy am I!

We are all aware that, at the heart of the Christian life, we are judged not by what we do but by want we are. The key virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance challenge us, despite their old fashioned names. But I would like to look at some minor virtues, and today I have chosen the virtue of self esteem. That may seem a perverse. After all we are encouraged to see ourselves as perennial sinners, constantly falling short of the glory of God. But I want to argue that self esteem is one key to the Christian life.

Some years ago, when I spoke more frequently to secular audiences, I introduced them to LIPS. It stood for Limited Image Performance Syndrome. The claim I made was that our performance is directly related to our self image – and we all have one. We have an interior idea of what we are capable of accomplishing, and what is beyond our capacity. We rarely act below our image level and, equally rarely, do we exceed it. My argument was that if we wanted to raise the performance of those we lead, the essential first step was to help them to raise their image to a higher level.

Jesus gives us an enlightening example. He describes himself as meek and humble of heart. Everything that he has comes from the his father. But what a father! He tells us that he is one with the father, that those who see him see the father, and when push comes to shove he simply and categorically says “Before Abraham was, I am.”

We cannot quite match that. But we can remember that we are made in the image and likeness of God. That we are appointed as God’s ambassadors. That we have all necessary help directly from God to do our work. That we are so dear in God’s eyes, that he sent his son to suffer and save even when we were mired in sin. It’s not a bad start, is it?

Despair is the opposite; it is a great sin. I do not speak of clinical depression, which is another matter, but of our conscious rejection of God’s gifts to us. We refuse to accept the value which God gives us, and we self-indulgently substitute the value we give ourselves.

False guilt can be very damaging. For example, parents whose child turns out badly will certainly ask themselves what they did wrong. But which is more likely to improve the outcome: indulging in feelings of guilt for what cannot be helped, or exorcising the baggage of guilt and getting on with tackling the constructive steps which may be open to them today? If we forgive others, we can forgive ourselves.

Many sociologists and criminologists have identified low self esteem as a major factor in criminal behaviour. But, well short of the criminal, we can see in ordinary people, including ourselves, how anxieties, fears and loss of sense of control can lead to inappropriate behaviour. A fact which any teacher will confirm from daily observation.

It is interesting that psychologists have identified a cluster of qualities in people who have high self esteem. They tend to be confident, to have high self respect, to view problems not as something unmanageable but as a challenge they can meet. They do not regard their failures as “written in their stars” but as something for which they can take responsibility and about which they can do something constructive. They tend to be relaxed and they tend to be courteously mannered.

Saint John Paul reminded us, when he spoke about the moral life, that our sins not only do their direct damage, but they lead inevitably to increase our tendency to sin – we are creatures of habit. So, in our nightly examination of conscience, we must not be concerned only with identifying our sins and repenting, but we must also consider, and rejoice, the little steps, however small, through which we have done better and grown a little in virtue. In that way we begin to replace, in our consciousness, the habit of sin with the habit of virtue.

As Christians we have no business going around with heads lowered and sad expressions on our faces. On the contrary, we should dance.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality, virtue ethics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to O what a good boy am I!

  1. tim says:

    ‘Perichoresis’ – the divine dance. Not underrating ourselves is a very attractive idea – but full of dangers? ‘Nemo judex in sua causa’. Would we not be tempted to say, like the Pharisee, “I fast twice in the week, and give tithes of all I possess” (which was, presumably, perfectly true)? Or was his great offence comparing himself favourably with the publican?

    • Brian Hamill says:

      I once attended a funeral Mass for a friend who died in the fulness of life after a long illness. The preacher who knew her well said that she had told him that she did not want her funeral to be a ‘celebration of her life’, as so often seems to happen these days. She wanted people to pray for the salvation of her soul. One could say that she was very conscious of her own sins and failings. For my part, when the time comes, neither do I want my funeral to be a celebration of my life; I want it to be a celebration of what God has done in my life. I do not want to be the centre of attention; but I am more than happy to be the secondary cause of the celebration since I am well aware of so many good deeds in my life. It seems to me that a Christian knows that all the good deeds he/she has done are primarily God’s work with our cooperation, and even this is God-inspired. But under God, they are indeed ours. So we should rejoice in them. Our sins and failures we offer in trust to our loving Father for forgiveness and God turns our failures into his successes so that we can rejoice with the angels in our forgiveness. So it is ‘all good’. The title ‘Confessions’ which St Augustine’s gave to the story of his conversion was not a record of his sins but the proclamation of the goodness of God manifested in his life.

      • John L says:

        I agree, Brian, – my funeral instructions include “No Eulogy”. I seldom attend a funeral where prayer for forgiveness of sins is specifically requested. It used to be automatic in the currently despised “Extraordinary Form” but I doubt I shall be privileged to have what we once called a “Black Mass”. I agree that our small successes are by God’s grace, but I don’t want someone standing up and saying what a great bloke I was. If I have had any influence for good, no-one else is in a position to say what was due to my efforts and how much to God’s work..

      • Singalong says:

        I agree with this too, though I would prefer white vestments, and have come to appreciate Mass said very reverently in our own language.

        Self esteem is a term widely used in psychotherapy I believe, but I think it is only helpful when used in the context of our relationship to God. Perhaps self respect, and quiet confidence, based on God`s love, and the nurturing love of our families and friends, are better ways of expressing the attribute which we should aim for and value.

      • John L says:

        Singalong, I have no dispute with your basic premise. However, and I am open to correction, it was explained to me that the significance of the old black vestment was one of sorrow and penitence, while that of the current white is one of celebration of the deceased person. Perhaps I am guilty of low self esteem, but I am guilty – period – and find little to celebrate. I can’t disagree with what is constantly preached about God reaching out to us in love and forgiveness, but I find it hard to relate to at a personal level. To say I can’t feel worthy is to doubt’s overriding love, but I fear I am not alone in this. It’s the old Catholic Guilt Complex.

      • milliganp says:

        The “correct” current colour for funerals is purple, the colour for Lent which expresses eschatological hope.Black was the traditional colour for mourning in western society (in Amalfi there is a statue of Mary at the foot of the cross in full black court mourning) and this was adopted by the church, so black is not a negative colour. White is now often used, not because we are canonising the corpse but because it is the colour of the resurrection we look forward to.
        I think it is important that funerals address the needs of those who mourn. If someone was a loving parent, inspiring teacher or holy cleric we have the opportunity to hold them up as an example.
        The one problem though is that not everybody is a saint. I was at a funeral where the resident drunk of the church social club was canonised – the wife and children he neglected and abused found the eulogy clashed with their memories.
        I find myself changing my mind in mid post – more later.

  2. Ignatius says:

    “As Christians we have no business going around with heads lowered and sad expressions on our faces. On the contrary, we should dance….”

    No, rather, when we bump into each other on account of our over burdened shoulders we should have a laugh about it and tell a joke or two. I had a good friend and Pastor once who went into hospital for a triple bypass, when he got out again he told me his story and of how the patients on the ward encouraged each other:
    “In the end it not the Doctors or nurses who get you better” he said,
    ” its each other” (meaning fellow patients)
    I completely agree with his sentiment and have noted in my own life that the friendship and kindness I have valued most has not come from Christian dancers giving advice on how to tap, but from fellow stragglers. I was at a study group the other night and we were watching the video ‘Catholicism’ The speaker eulogised the saints as those having the courage to ‘not be prepared to tolerate a mediocre spiritual life’ Great for him, as he spoke confidently and expansively into camera – not so great for the huddled group. We are who we are and no amount of examen or introspection will alter that over the long term, though of course it will help – as does anything which makes room for God. False humility on the other hand is a danger as is the over magnification of an anxious outlooks under the guise of religion, those things are habits best checked I agree.

    • My favourite quote is from Hilaire Belloc :-
      “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
      There’s always laughter and good red wine.
      At least I’ve always found it so.
      Benedicamus Domino!”

      but I think that this implies ‘humility’ rather than ’self esteem’!

  3. johnbunting says:

    It seems to me, rightly or wrongly, that there is a subtle – or perhaps not so subtle – difference between ‘self-esteem’ and ‘self-respect’. The former seems a wish to think well of oneself: the latter seems a resolve not to act against one’s professed principles, or those of any group or society with which one is freely associated. What do others think?

    • milliganp says:

      When my grand-children come to visit they know they can enjoy themselves. I’m interested in their lives and achievements but make it obvious that my greatest pleasure comes from being with them.
      Every Christian becomes, through baptism an adopted child of God and co-heir with Christ to eternal life. We should celebrate that in both life and death. That type of guilt which depresses and disables should have no place in the Christian life. I’m proud to be the lost sheep the shepherd thought worth rescuing.

  4. Nektarios says:

    Is self-esteem a virtue actually?

    We all place ourselves at various levels, and we are always falling from these heights. It is these falls we are ashamed of. Self-esteem is the cause of our shame and our fall. So, it is this self-esteem that must be understood and not the fall.
    If there is no pedastal we have put ourselves on, how can there be any fall? Why have we put ourselves of a pedastal called self-esteem, human dignity, the ideal and so on?
    If we can actually understand this, then there will be no shame of the past; it will have completely gone.
    We will be what we are without a pedastal. If the pedastal is not there, the height that makes us look down or up, then we are what we have always avoided. It is this avoidance of what we are actually are that brings about confusion and antagonism,shame and resentment.
    We do not have to tell each other what we are,whatever it is, pleasant or unpleasant: live with it without justifying or resisting it.
    Live without naming it; for the very term is a condemnation or an identification. To avoid it, we put ourselves back on the pedastal of self-esteem.
    Live with it without fear, for fear prevents communion, and without communion we cannot live with it.
    To be in communion with God, another, or ourselves,is to love. Without love, we cannot wipe out the past; with love there is no past.
    Where love is, time is not.

    • Quentin says:

      I wonder whether you have thought about my suggestion in Second Sight News that, in the secular life, we have learnt that noting good qualities and achievements is the best way of helping the young. And, if that’s so, why does not it apply to the spiritual life, too?

      Of course, care is needed. The indiscriminate praise showered on the young today is not helpful. It can sometimes be harmful when they know in their hearts that they cannot live up to it. But noting real effort and identifying concrete progress does help; they want to live up to that.

      We may of course find that it runs against our instinct to think that natural phenomena like psychology can contribute to our spiritual growth. But this veers towards the heresy that fallen man is utterly corrupt in himself — and remains so notwithstanding that the merits of Christ cloak and protect him. This is classical Protestantism. The Catholic view (I cannot speak for the Orthodox) teaches that man is one person, body and soul, and through embracing Christ — consciously or unconsciously — becomes truly holy. Pope Francis was not wrong when he emphasised that even atheists can do good things; we are all redeemed.

      • Singalong says:

        Certainly, atheists and those who think they are not religious, can do good things. A very good friend of ours has died recently, and I am sure that Christ has welcomed her into Paradise, “When I was hungry you gave me to eat, when I was thirsty you gave me to drink . . ”

        Encouraging the young is very important, and the extra dimension of helping them to see their achievements as making the best use they can of the talents God has given them can encourage the right kind of humility to accompany self esteem or self respect.

      • Nektarios says:

        Quentin & fellow bloggers,

        It does not directly apply because one proceeds from a fallen nature that is spiritually dead.
        Hence there is the invention that the secular life and the spiritual life are essentially one. Because it takes place in the one person, the two should not be construed as even similar.
        The natural man regarding spiritual matters is walking in the dark, until he hears the Gospel and believes, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, made spiritually alive.
        As I have said on previous occasions, the spiritual life proceeds from a different source, has different potentials, powers and life. That source is our life in Christ.

        I dealt with the question head on – Is self-esteem a virtue?
        Again, as I have said on previous occasions: The secular life has more to do with the mundane, routine and repetitive.
        Man is inventive for sure, everything from god, godesses, religiousity of umpteen types
        and so on. Man is a godlike creature who has fallen from their first estate, to his present state. He cannot rise by himself.

        In dealing with the question `is self-esteem a virtue,’ everything I said there is neither Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox or any other group, but as we can all look for ourselves to see the truth of it.
        Lastly, encouraging young people in things that are good and so on is fine, but to move from that into a secular understanding as contributing to the spiritual life is a bit disengenious.There is so much quasi- spiritual matterial on the market, which is little more than secularism with a religious, psychological agenda.

      • milliganp says:

        I believe tHere is a letter in this weeks CH, by Bernard Longley defending his critique of St. JP II ‘s theology of the body for not including the lessons of Psychology or social research. Mind and consciousness are part of being human, and the underlying means of consciousness is the operation of neurones in the brain. Even our spiritual is created and in that sense, surely,material.

      • Quentin says:

        And the very latest has Clifford Longley’s reply.

        You may find my response to your thought simplistic. And I hope you will say so if you do. But the analogy I use is the violin and the violinist. Although everything that we hear comes from the violin, it does not follow that the violinist is surplus to requirements. However essential the brain is to our cognitive processes it doesn’t know nowt. We do the knowing using the instrument of the brain.

      • milliganp says:

        Surely the two are ultimately co-terminus, the mind is a self playing violin, or would you say the soul is the violin player?

      • Alan says:

        I could propose that the violinist knew nothing also. That yet another layer of existence were required to produce the music. A soul’s soul as it were. Nothing indicates that this is surplus to requirements – although it might well be. What sort of support, if any, would you want to see for such a claim?

        Can I perhaps show that the violin and the violinist aren’t all that is required? Can I separate the violin and the violinist from this additional element and show that there is something more to the music?

  5. mulligan says:-
    “. . the underlying means of consciousness is the operation of neurones in the brain.”
    It seems to me that the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is necessary precisely because of this; we need a brain in order to be conscious.

    • Singalong says:

      Wouldn`t this cause difficulties with belief in judgement after death, and time in Purgatory?

    • milliganp says:

      This, however, begs the question – what is the soul?

      • Singalong says:

        Yes, indeed, to your first reply, but surely we will be conscious?

      • Nektarios says:

        Are you really asking -`what is the soul?’
        I wonder if we actually know what the soul is?
        Let me encourage us to give our whole attention to finding out.
        I will not accept that there is an intellectual understanding of the soul, for that is meaningless. Find our soul, for there, abides God – our Beloved and our Life and end.

      • Quentin says:

        The standard answer to ‘what is the soul?’ starts from its Latin form: anima. It is the principle of life, and the form of the body. So, as soon as the soul leaves the body, the body begins to break down into decay. Every living creature has a soul (by definition, animate), so there is a vegetable soul, an animal soul and a human soul. The human soul (the Fathers teach) can exist without the body, but it differs from the angelic soul because it is fitted to the body – to which it returns at the resurrection of the dead. However, modern thinking (18th century plus) reminds us that time is no more than a concept through which we are helped to understand human experience. Purgatory and Heaven are outside time, and to speak of time in Purgatory, or time between death and judgment, is merely to use an accommodation to our restricted understanding. We could say that we move instantaneously from death, through cleansing, to resurrection – except that ‘instantaneously’ is a ‘time’ word, and so not strictly applicable.

        While it is useful to discuss the different characteristics of soul and body we have to remember that they are one organism. Think of a cabbage growing in the garden: it has a vegetable body, susceptible to the microscope, and it is alive. We can distinguish these two aspects conceptually, but a living cabbage is a single organism with all the characteristics which come from being alive. So we are a single, living organism, created as such – and our glory is that we are redeemed as such and will rise again as such.

  6. John Candido says:

    I generally agree with Quentin on the importance of self-esteem. It is the very foundation of a normal and relatively happy life. One of the chief tasks of parents is to ensure that they do not get in the way of the development of self-esteem and confidence in their children. Apart from a spiritual life, assuming that that is what our children desire, self-esteem is the basis of weathering the many disappointments that life inevitably brings.

  7. Ignatius says:

    Couldn’t agree more John. When it comes to self esteem I’m personally in the shallow end of the gene pool and can’t do much about it despite having struggled with the thing for more years than I care to remember. This is probably why I can barely tolerate a clichéd analysis of the subject. My daughter on the other hand is currently excelling at Law school and seems to have a secure and happy temperament. She will hopefully never fully understand the amount of careful and deliberate work which has gone into the laying of her foundations or what it is like to battle through on shifting sand. The power of positive reinforcement is a truly amazing thing. Haven’t heard from you in awhile, hope you are well.

    • John Candido says:

      Thank you for your concerns. I am fine. I have to have a break from SecondSight every now and then. It is nothing personal against anybody. I simply get tired. There are many people in the world who excel in reading, writing, and thinking, with an equally prodigious output. Many journalists, lawyers, doctors, academics, etc. etc. have this gift. I deliberately call it a gift, because that is what it is. I am afraid that I am not one of them. It is regrettable, but that is the way that I am built. I am also getting a little older as well, as we all do. I completely understand the warning to the young to make hay while the sun shines, or words to that effect. I am progressively slowing down as well. If anybody can operate at top notch as I have described previously, at an advanced age, they are truly gifted and should thank God for this gift. I don’t think that this gift is all that common.

    • John Candido says:

      There is no doubt in my mind that your daughter, or any of your other children that you might have had, is very lucky to have had you as a Dad.

    • John Candido says:

      I must also add that one does not have to be professionally qualified in order to have intellectual gifts of one kind or another.

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