The richest man in the world, being asked one day for the secret of his unparalleled success, replied: "I never deceived myself." Everyone who is accustomed to dealing with individuals has discovered that the average human being possesses an almost infinite capacity for self-deception. There is simply no limit to the way people fool themselves. There are thousands of people around us who are blind to their own inner needs. We see this every day, and marvel at the ignorance so many people have of themselves. Yet we ourselves go along in our own way day after day suffering frequently from the selfsame disorder and do nothing about it. Just as we think and speak of the self-deception of others, so do they in turn speak of the selfsame defect in ourselves. The prayer of the blind man in today's Gospel can be adopted by all of us as a practical ejaculation: "Lord, that I may see."
People Should Face Their Defects
Now to come to grips with the problem. Before there can be anything in the way of self-knowledge and self-improvement in a person, he has first to admit to himself that there is something in need of improvement. If we continue to be satisfied with our condition and do not take the necessary trouble to make an adequate examination of conscience, then we have no reason to look for headway. If a man of our acquaintance is seriously ill and refuses to admit that he needs the services of a good physician, we have little reason to look for improvement. Home remedies and drug store cures will go just so far. In the first examination of cancer patients the doctor frequently asks: "How long have you had this trouble, and why didn't you come sooner?" The answer generally is: "I thought it wasn't serious." One of the first principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, now 40,000 strong, is to get the subject to admit that he is an alcoholic, that his life has become unmanageable, and then to proclaim publicly this to others over and over. After he takes this first step, one can mark some improvement.
It is hard to get people to admit their defects. It is said that the English painter Romney could never attempt a self-portrait, his hand always trembled. So, to take the knife in our own hand and to carve out some miserable little defect in our character is not an easy task. One of the common throwbacks is to pin the blame for our troubles on anyone and everyone but ourselves. So well do we convince ourselves that this is true, that a long time goes by before we face the facts. Indeed in many cases our troubles are due to things outside ourselves, and frequently beyond our control, but not all of our troubles. "We have given ourselves more trouble than any ten other men with whom we ever came in contact." It matters not who said that; the quotation can come from you or from me, for it is perfectly true. Most of our troubles are not from the outside but from the inside. This is what we are interested in. We want to see ourselves as others see us. We want, above all, to see ourselves as God sees us. "Lord, that I may see."
Self-examination is extremely difficult today. One of the marks of our day is the prevalence of superficial diagnoses. In personal life, the most recommended cure for anything is to "forget it." In our efforts to cast off worry and distraction, we are constantly brushing off things that need more serious attention. The cure for many things-in fact, the only cure-is to get down to the roots of the trouble, to find the true cause of the difficulty, and to begin work from that point. Treating the surface and allowing the cause to go uncorrected gets us nowhere. We must discover the cause, and this calls for close self-examination. In many cases we may find ourselves badly in need of a good mission or a closed retreat, where, with the aid of experienced priests, we can be aided to see ourselves as we are in the sight of God.
Our Deepest Sins Remain Often Undiscovered
The deepest sins of our nature are frequently sins we have not discovered at all. They are very often associated with something about us with which we are particularly well satisfied. Witness the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee was quite well satisfied with himself; all he could think of before the altar of God was his good points, but God's view of the man was quite different. C. S. Lewis in one of his "Screwtape Letters" writes:
"You must bring him to a condition in which he can practise self-examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about himself which are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house with him or worked in the same office."
Shocking, isn't it, to think that our faults and failings are so well known to others, and we ourselves are so blind to them? Someone meets you on the street and by way of greeting says: "We were talking about you the other day." Instantly comes the thought: "What were they saying about me?" It would do some of us the world of good if we could listen sometime to some of the things that are said. It would undoubtedly serve as an eyeopener.
Remedies for Soul Blindness
How are we to have our eyes opened? Certainly, we will have to bring it about ourselves. We cannot depend on others to do it. The reason it cannot be delegated is our own fault. Many would, sincerely like to help us, but we have tied their hands. As we grow up, we build a little wall about ourselves as a strong protective against anything in the way of outside interference in personal matters. Frequently, we challenge anyone to break down this wall. In family life this is especially noted. The people closest to us, who have in the main our best interests at heart, many times would like to speak to us and in a kind way point out defects and so-called "peculiarities" that need to be corrected. But they are afraid for the simple reason that we have, on former occasions, so strongly resented anything in the way of correction. As the problem of living in peace and harmony under the same roof with a person is such a mighty one, the average member of one's family pretends not to notice our obvious defects, and refuses to speak about them in our presence. This is quite wrong and very unfortunate, but most of us have no one to blame for the situation but ourselves.
If our family cannot be counted on for correction of our defects, then there is the bare possibility that some friend will undertake the job. Again, we face a condition of our own making that is no help. The average friend is a "yes" man. We ourselves are responsible for the "yes" men and the "yes" women. We do not invite criticism, and resent it when it is given. So, we unconsciously surround ourselves with a little group who cater to our whims and fancies. Depend upon it, that your so-called friends see your defects. They bear with your so-called "peculiarities," but when it comes to taking the initiative, they beg to be excused. Secretly, they would like very much to have the courage and freedom to speak their mind. But you have tied their hands and sealed their tongue. There is no one to blame for this but yourself.
Learning from Our Enemies
So, if "our best friend won't tell us,' " then there is one other possibility. I doubt very much if there are any of us who have any real enemies, but there is bound to be someone in the life of everyone here present who can be classified as downright unfriendly. Now, such a person is completely unafraid of us. His hands are untied and his tongue is loose. When he speaks of us, you may depend upon it he will hit a tender spot. He will hold the glass up for a first-rate inspection. Now, the motive behind this criticism may be dead wrong, but much good can come from it if it is accepted in the right way. It has been truth- fully said that "a man's outspoken enemies are often his best friends, teaching him more unvarnished truth about himself than those who love him would never tell." When un-friendly criticism comes your way, wring every blessed bit of good you can out of it. Pointedly, ask the question: "Is there any truth in what has been said? If it is true, then here and now I will so change that the remark can never be made again." That's the way to take criticism.
The Church is constantly urging us to closer self-examination. If one were simply faithful to the teachings and directions of the Church in the matter of preparation for reception of the Sacraments, one could overcome in good time many tendencies, dispositions, and weaknesses that a liable to produce sins unless checked in time. Be more careful about your daily examination of conscience. Be more frequent in your confessions, and make better preparation if you feel that it is necessary. For some a good mission or a private retreat would be a valuable aid. Do not be content to go on from day to day assuring yourself that everything is alright, without making decent effort to discover anything to the contrary. Do not wait until Judgment Day to have your eyes opened. Be resolved to have them opened now, and fearlessly see yourself as you are in God's holy sight. "Lord, that I may see."