Monday, May 14, 2018

The Pleasure of a Preening Self-Righteous Anger

Reasonableness and amiability (both cheerful “habits” of the mind) are stronger in the end than the . . . spleen. To rail is the sad privilege of the loser. -CS Lewis

In a letter in which CS Lewis is critiquing George MacDonald’s (his spiritual mentor) novels, he writes: “The pleasure of anger – the gnawing attraction which makes one return again and again to its theme – lies, I believe, in the fact that one feels entirely righteous oneself only when one is angry. Then the other person is pure black, and you are pure white. In fiction you can put absolutely all the right, with no snags or reservations, on the side of the hero (with whom you identify yourself) and all the wrong on the side of the villain. You thus revel in unearned self-righteousness which would be vicious even if it were earned. Haven’t you noticed how people with a fixed hatred, say, of Germans or Bolshevists, resent anything which is pleaded in extenuation, however small, of their supposed crimes. The enemy must be unredeemed black. While all the time one does nothing and enjoys the feeling of perfect superiority over the faults one is never tempted to commit.” *

The first thing that jumped out at me was the fact that, while CSL revered George MacDonald, he hadn’t made his hero so heroic that he had idealized him. MacDonald was a human with faults common to the human condition. The second thing that hit me was the temptation common to us humans of making our “enemies” out to be all black, thus giving us a sense of superiority while we self-righteously pour out our anger on the villain.

The second temptation is the one I am interested in, here.

One feels entirely righteous oneself only when one is angry.
When the only time we truly feel righteous is when we are angry then what we are feeling is self-righteousness. Anger is such a delicious emotion. We fondle it like Sméagol fondled his precious ring. (LOTR) Why: because, all too often, our anger is not about righteousness, not elicited by the desecration of God’s standards, but because it causes us to feel superior. Look at my anger: Dost thou not see my blazing righteousness? Dost not my parries and ripostes with this villain prove that I am the all-white hero? Actually, no: it doesn’t. How so?

One does nothing and enjoys the feeling of superiority
Doing nothing covers a number of breakdowns. For example, how about when we judge the sawdust in another guy’s eye, while doing nothing about the log in our own eyes? Or what about our trashing the all-black villain along with anyone who “pleads in extenuation” while we are doing nothing to demonstrate Christ’s love and Truth? And posting diatribes on FB rarely count. I suggest we need to check the “pay off” for our anger: is it virtue signaling to our tribe, ego boosting, or has it come from a place of devotion to God and love for others?

Playing the All-White Hero
The Pharisees’ prayer: God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax-collector … or CEO, politician, neighbor, TV personality, or minister. (Luke 18.11) So my sins in comparison to the villain’s sins are trifles?  His moral caca smells but mine doesn’t? Of course our intent is not to play the Pharisee. However, when we judge others while not judging ourselves that is exactly whom we are playing. But Wilson, I have never committed adultery or stolen from anyone or made a wicked deal with Iran. No, those are sins you were “never tempted to commit.” Ok, but what about pride or a preening self-righteous anger or the hypocrisy of being a poser?

How do we combat the temptations of self-serving comparisons and self-righteous anger, of playing the all-white hero against the all-black villain? We make our lives the prayer of the tax-collector, who would “not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’ [….] For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18: 13,14. NIV)

* CS Lewis: A Biography, by Roger Lancelyn Green & Walter Hooper. Letter written on January 17, 1931.

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2018

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