Reawakening Idealism/Not Becoming ‘Comfortably Numb’

‘When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
And I have become
Comfortably numb.’

The song, ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd ends with the lines above. Here, the artist sings about how, during his childhood, he caught a glimpse of something better than the life he currently lives.  Due to his life experiences, he has become cynical, disillusioned and in the end, ‘comfortably numb’.  It is obvious from this song that this ‘comfortably numb’ feeling is not a peaceful feeling of contentment but a feeling of bitter resignation. This feeling captures much of what has happened to people or is happening to young people, in our society today. Many of these people had or have a burning desire to live life to its fullest, i.e. they ‘caught a fleeting glimpse’ of the potential in life, but due to bitter life experiences they have become or are becoming disillusioned and fed up with talk about goodness, truth or high ideals, i.e. ‘the dream is gone’. So how do we maintain or reawaken this idealism of youth so that we can catch a glimpse of the true reality of life?

Re-inspiring Idealism in People’s Hearts

When people have become ‘comfortably numb’, something special needs to happen to shake them out of this.  This shaking can sometimes come in the form of pleasurable life events, e.g. falling in love, landing the job they always wanted, travelling to new and exotic places.  These events can awaken in people that inner idealistic teenager as one’s eyes are briefly opened to the beauty in life and hope emerges once again.  However, as these feelings are often transitory, e.g. the initial crush fades, married life becomes difficult, the new job gets tiresome, travelling becomes burdensome, this awakening is not sustained and often people end up back in their ‘comfortably numb’ state.  There can follow an increased cynicism as the person notes that the very thing that promised the fulfilment of happiness, i.e. the husband or wife, the new job, the exotic holiday, does not live up to the expectation and fails to satisfy the inner craving for happiness.  They all fall short of what one expected or hoped for. Martin Mosebach (‘The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy‘) also points out the various other avenues idealists go down on their quests for happiness, but which eventually lead to unhappiness and disillusionment, ‘Vegetarianism, cult of nudity, feminism, neo-paganism, pseudo-Indian meditation, gay liberation, ubiquitous guitar-strumming.  Basically, all these movements can be traced back to the burning idealism of good people who were led astray and betrayed.’ With so many disappointments and so many people and things falling short of the mark, cynicism about the possibility of a happy and joyous life and the feeling that you have been betrayed can seem like reasonable responses. Now, this reaction is not all bad. While indifferentism sometimes creeps in with setbacks and disappointments, cynicism can be a more positive reaction as it shows some sign that the person may, at least, still care, as Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary, points out in his insightful book, ‘The Spirit of the Legion of Mary‘, ‘When you find people cynical do not be over-hasty to condemn them.  Rather reason out the ‘Why’.  The answer to that ‘Why’ may form a condemnation of ourselves.  For cynicism is not altogether an unworthy product. In its essence it is disgust, despair, disillusionment.  Any idealist who is disappointed may become a cynic, but the idealism has not been destroyed. It is merely submerged. It can be brought to light again.’  This disappointed idealist ‘cannot put [his] finger on’ why he has become so cynical but Frank Duff realised that, with a little patience and guidance, the light, i.e. the ‘why’, could emerge from the darkness.  So how can this idealism, i.e. this striving and longing for something better, ‘be brought to light again’ and maintained? 

Presentation of The Truth

‘Many are the misguided men who in their revolt against the Christian ideal of human character and the Christian rule of life, are not in revolt against that ideal itself, but what they conceive it to be.  It is not to say how far Christian themselves are responsible for this state of affairs.  Not only inadequacy in the practice of Christianity, but also a faulty presentation of its values, is apt to rouse antagonism in the sincere and the reflective.  The Christian theory of life is so coherent, so logical, so simple yet so mysterious, so accommodated to the average man as well as to the most highly gifted, and finally so soul-satisfying that, when adequately presented it must readily recommend itself to all men of sincerity and good will.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘Why the Cross?

If the truth is to re-ignite the slumbering idealists, it must be presented clearly and convincingly.  It must not be watered down to appeal to the masses. It must be presented in a way that inspires and lifts as Frank Duff outlines, ‘It would be a tragic thing if, in any place, the actions of its members toned down the Church to such an extent that men looking at it could discern nothing of the characteristics of Christ; nothing virile, appealing, inspiring, conquering, grand; nothing but a slave of its environment, something that has made terms with the world.’  Those who don’t compromise, who speak clearly and precisely, and who don’t filter their message to appeal to modern or worldly eyes and ears will often be seen as naïve ‘idealists’ or mad men by the world.  However, these speakers of unfiltered truth need to remember that many great people, such as St John Bosco, were labelled ‘idealists’ who never gave up, ‘Many hoary sinners were won by that lovable and persistent kindness, by that understanding of human weakness and belief that in the most unpromising characters there was always, somewhere, a vein of good.’ (F.A. Forbes, ‘St John Bosco, Seeker of Souls’). 

Those who speak the truth must also remember the call from Christ to perfection as Fr Edward Leen points out, ‘Jesus was a lofty idealist as regards the destiny towards which He directed the aspirations of His fellows. His ambitions for them knew no limits short of the divine.  He would make them sons of God and co-heirs with Himself (Rom 8:17).  Being a lofty idealist, He was at the same time, as is usually the case, an intense realist…The obstacles that impede the soul’s vision of the Divine Beauty are the real source of human misery, for they are the one bar to human contentment.  The clearing away of these obstacles involves toil and hardship and pain, but this pain prepares the way for peace and joy and contentment.’  This idealism is based on reality. It is not sugar coated and the reality of the battle ahead is clearly outlined.  This intense realism is what appeals to the highest aspirations of the human soul as Fr Doolan (‘Philosophy for the Layman’) outlines, ‘There is a spiritual craving and energy in humanity as such, from which springs ‘longings, strivings, yearnings’ for things far beyond the experience of the senses or the desires of sensuality.  These strivings denote a certain idealism.  It is expressed in the art of human life itself, but most notably in our poetry and painting and music and soaring architecture.  Things like truth and goodness and beauty, and glory and fame, do mean something to men, and give rise to high aspirings.’  This appealing to the highest aspirations of man is also essential for the youth as Dr. Willibald Demal O.S.B. (‘Pastoral Psychology in Practice’) notes, ‘Pure love must be the ideal of the youth’ and  ‘The urge to honour and self-esteem awakens in the youth his fighting spirit, his urge to heroism; while his love impulses awaken his enthusiasm for everything noble, beautiful, and good, i.e. awakens his idealism.’ The youth need a challenge and one that will require the best of themselves. The words of Frank Duff speaking to his legionnaires, also appeal to those who desire a noble quest to take on, ‘You must outlive the world, outpace it, outlast it, outlove it, in everything – in science, in art, in business, in sport, in achievement of every kind.’  

Who is Appealing to Our Idealism Today?

The Catholic Faith, due to how it is presented to the world today, has lost many idealists to other causes that speak to them more convincingly and appeal more strongly to the noblest of their aspirations.  Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens (once referred to as ‘The Four Horsemen’) appealed to young idealists due to their conviction and eloquence, while also inspiring in idealists the belief that they were part of a noble battle against falsehoods and error.  The truth, i.e. the Catholic Faith, has failed to convince people, mainly because these people, usually the young, were not presented with the Faith clearly and/or it was presented to them by unholy pragmatists who tried to have two masters, rather than saintly idealists, such as St John Bosco, who knew, loved and served only one Master.  St John Bosco represented, in his words and deeds, more than ‘a fleeting glimpse’ of the Catholic Faith thus helping to prevent many souls becoming ‘comfortably numb’.

So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.‘ (Matthew 5:16)

To prevent cynicism, to awaken idealism in cynics, and to sustain this awakening, there is only one ultimate solution. It is the presentation of the Truth in all its glory and splendour. This is what must happen in our world today.  It will take humility, hard graft and study, sacrifice, plain speaking and most importantly, a display of true Christian charity, if people are to awaken in others a love of Truth Himself and a fervent hope that combats despair and disillusionment. Charity, radiating in and out from a saintly soul, has a deep impact on the one it is shines on, as Abbot Jean-Baptiste Chautard outlines in his inspiring book, ‘Soul of the Apostolate’, ‘The sinner has caught a glimpse of another kind of love, one that is pure, ardent, and noble, and he has said to himself: ‘So it is possible, after all, to love, on this earth, with a love that transcends the love of creatures!’.  The sinner has put his finger on the source of Love itself, the dream or yearning of the soul turns out to him to be a reality, and instead of becoming comfortably numb the inspired soul strives towards Christian perfection.  This is the best way to combat disillusionment and despair. Hopefully, young idealists and those cynics who were former idealists will then realise, like Chesterton, that ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’ 

So, let us not settle for being ‘comfortably numb’. Let us aspire to more. Let us take a closer look at the fleeting glimpses of goodness that we saw in the Catholic Faith and those that truly practiced it. Let us examine and consider the pure love we saw ‘out of the corner of [our eyes]’. Then, let us willingly take up our cross, understand the battle ahead of us, keep our eyes focused on Heaven, and let us realise that the truth is far sweeter and more liberating than any dream.    

God bless you in your efforts.

The Light Shineth in Darkness…

‘And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity’   (1 Corinthians 13: 13)

What is the most important factor that contributes to positive therapeutic outcomes? The type of therapy used?  The amount of qualifications that the therapist has?  The type of room where the therapy takes place?  The amount of time a person spends in therapy?  No, it is none of these.  The most important factor for predicting positive therapeutic outcomes is, what is called, the ‘therapeutic alliance’.  This is essentially the relationship that exists between the therapist and the person coming to see them. Numerous studies have shown that the therapeutic alliance is the most vital aspect of therapy.  But what is this therapeutic alliance and what gives it such power?

Many psychotherapists and counsellors use the phrase coined by the counsellor, Carl Rogers, ‘unconditional positive regard’, to describe what is deemed essential for positive outcomes in therapy.  Others speak of ‘genuine love’ or ‘genuine loving relationships’ as key to therapeutic success, e.g. psychiatrist and author of the book, ‘The Road Less Travelled’, Dr Scott Peck, and his followers. All recognize that charity and love play a central role in counselling and therapy. While many different therapies and therapists compete against each other in the marketplace to promote their particular type of therapy, there is nothing more powerful and effective than being helped and guided by someone who truly cares for you.  We know this from our own experiences.  When we are in trouble and the world seems to be crashing in on us, we naturally tend to look for help from those who are charitable, caring and kind.  As we struggle through this life, we all need help and a bit of genuine love from time to time.  The importance of the therapeutic alliance is also backed up by what the science tells us, with a comprehensive investigation concluding that ‘the quality of the client–therapist alliance is a reliable predictor of positive clinical outcome independent of the variety of psychotherapy approaches and outcome measures’ (Ardito & Rabellino, 2011). No matter what therapy is used, it will be useless without ‘genuine love’, ‘unconditional positive regard’, ‘therapeutic alliance’ (call it what you will) being at the heart of it.  St Paul expresses this deep truth beautifully: ‘If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.’  (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).  But how do we know if someone has charity in them? One piece of advice in making a decision about who to trust and open to is this:

It’s in the Eyes

The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be! (Matthew 6: 22-23)

Our Lord emphasises the importance of the eyes as ‘the light of the body’.  Our eyes are the windows to the soul and offer a glimpse at the divine spark within us.  In our modern society, sometimes we can become so disillusioned with the state of things that we fail to look for or fail to recognise the glimpses of goodness that can still be seen in others. This cynical attitude is exemplified by Bob Dylan in his song, ‘It’s Not Dark Yet (But It’s Getting There)’, where he sings about how he has almost given up completely on people, ‘I’ve been down on the bottom of the world full of lies, I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes, Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear, It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there’. Sometimes all we see is anger or darkness or danger in someone else’s eyes.  This can be particular true if we have not received adequate care, love and attention from important figures in our own lives, e.g. our parents, or we are burnt out by our experiences of the world. Like Bob, we can stop even looking for the light in another’s eyes.  When we do meet someone whose eyes are shining (or ‘smiling’ as the famous song, ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ tells us), and we recognise this light, it can give us a lift and help us to get through the toughest periods in our lives.  We can see light in the world again through their eyes.  Through someone’s eyes we can often tell if they really care for or love us and if we can trust them.

Clever Imitations:

Before I lose myself in romantic notions about this life, I do want to give a note of caution. Don’t fall for cheap imitations of the therapeutic alliance. Don’t fall for the helping professionals who just nod their head and occasionally throw out a ‘that must be tough’ slogan and treat you like a commodity or a being without a unique soul.  Marketers, advertisers, government spin doctors and businesses know the psychological tricks to convince you that they are kinder and more compassionate than they seem – they are skilled at this, e.g. they have even helped to create the notion that abortion is ‘compassionate’.  Along with engaging your heart and senses in evaluating whether you see light and goodness in someone else, make sure to engage your mind as well. Without being cynical, be mindful in evaluating whether what certain people are selling is aligned with reality. Make sure that the people you decide to trust and open up to have a firm understanding of the reality of this life.  Check out the actual fruits of the professional’s labour and if they have really helped people overcome their distress. Through reading, studying, prayer and reflection, come to know what the words ‘compassion’ and ‘love’ actually mean and do not fall for distortions of the truth of these words.  While being humble, trust your common sense.  Keep before your mind and heart, memories of someone who you knew really loved you. Focus on the divine and supernatural images, words and ideas associated with Love. In doing so you store in your heart and mind the true understanding of compassion, love and charity.  You will then know them when you see them and it becomes less likely you will be duped by imitations, however clever they might appear. 

Keep Searching

Even when it’s getting dark all around you, keep searching for the shining and smiling eyes in the world, whether that be in the eyes of the professionals you meet, friends and family members you have, or the strangers you meet along this journey.  While it is tempting to give up while we struggle through this valley of tears, this Easter period shows us that the darkness cannot master the Light. Have courage and keep looking for those sparks of goodness and light in others.  Hopefully, in time, your eyes will shine and smile again too.  Then you can be a light in the world for someone else and add goodness and joy to this world, which, in turn, can help others along the straight and narrow path.  And as the song goes,  

When Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, ’tis like the morn in Spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter
You can hear the angels sing

Happy Easter!