In doing all of this reading on character, I’ve been clued in to a key development in postmodern culture: the preeminence of feelings. Feelings have displaced truth as the primary mediator of society. The shift leaves us clueless as to what is actually good for us but all too aware of what we want.
We live in a psychotherapeutic age in which self-esteem is the cardinal, and perhaps only, virtue. How one feels is the most important matter to ascertain. Not, mind you, how one is, that is, how one acts and behaves. No, what is most important to our postmodern world is how one feels. The self-esteem culture has taught us always to take our “feelings” temperature and, more than this, to always pursue feeling good. We want to feel good at all times. Indeed, self-esteem ideology tells us we should always feel good. If someone is making us feel bad, then they are wrong. Perhaps the only thing that society at-large considers truly sinful is the act of making another person feel bad. For such an offense forgiveness does not easily come.
All this has clipped the wings of our culture. We have no ability to speak truth to one another. In our world, drenched in and pervaded by a relentless commitment to self-esteem, there is no place for truth-speaking. Noone is average anymore. Everyone is above average–or just about to be. People who would have been called “bright” a generation ago now are called “brilliant.” Youth soccer players now get a trophy whether they won the championship or not. Folks who would have been encouraged to take better care of their bodies (or, alternatively, to “get in shape,” a strange and startling phrase nowadays) are left alone in order not to be hurt by truth-telling. Noone wants to be hurt nowadays. Noone wants to be told they need to change and be exhorted to do so. We have no tolerance for the notion that we might need to improve or change or grow. We bristle at criticism and smart after receiving it, whispering ill words to ourselves of the character of those who dare to suggest that we are not fully realized human beings. To say it again, there is no place for truth in our lives.
I recall seeing this matter played out in the film “Emma,” which my wife and I watched a little while ago. To cut to the chase, at one point Emma, the main character of the play, castigates a woman who talks too much in public. Now, Emma does so unkindly, and for that she should be rebuked. But the movie presents her unkindness as the most wicked of sins and Emma is tormented long after it. As I’ve thought about this wrongdoing, which indeed was wrong, I have also thought that Emma was punished not merely for speaking harshly but for speaking truthfully. That is, the woman who prattled on forever was wounded because someone actually told her she talked too much, a fact everyone knew but noone would say. This is an excellent example of a much broader movement in our culture. One should be left alone to oneself, goes the saying. If you’re rude, you’re quirky. If you’re lazy, you’re just a little slow. If you’re uncouth, you’re daring. If you’re narcisstic, you’re a character. And on and on it goes. We have all these excuses developed to explain away our sins and weaknesses, and we have no stomach for truth-telling. We are in a bad way culturally.
We need the recovery of truth-telling. We need to be told when we talk too much or cry too much or are unkind to others or are lazy or are narcisstic or are selfish. We need to hear such criticism and not bristle. We need to know that we are not called to feel good at all times. We are often called to not feel good. In such a cultural moment, the gospel bears great power, for it is the truth that renders us just as we are, and gives no place to feeling and self-esteem. The gospel shatters the false gospel of self-esteem. We must speak it, and we must believe it, and we must live it, and lead our culture out of its delusional goodness and into the freedom that comes when the truth is told.