Have We No Place to Stand?

Continuing my last post of neurosis and the gnomic will, I would argue that one consequence of the gnomic life, or if one prefers a neurotic approach to the spiritual life is an ever growing sense of isolation. This experience of isolation, I would suggest, is in fact inescapable since the exercise of gnomic will undermines a life of communion. Why do I say this?

Living by own idealized self-image means (and here I return to Horney) that I am “driven instead of being . . . the driver” of my own life. My idealized self-image, precisely because it is false, or at least unrealistic and out of balance, causes me to see the world around me as one that is “peopled with enemies ready to cheat, humiliate, enslave, and defeat” me (p. 101). Why is this world so hostile, such a threat? Because even if the world of persons, events and things affirm my own idealized self-image, I eventually come to realize that, just because they are there, other human beings disturb the placid flow of my own fictitious self-image in much the same way that rocks disturb the flow of water in a river.

Tragically, choice undermines autonomy.

And so I find myself structuring my life in such a way so that that I can avoid any “questioning or criticism from outside, any awareness” of my own failures “to measure up to the image” of myself that I have created. To remain undisturbed by “any real insight into the forces operating” within me, requires that I “restrict” my life. My life must become increasingly restricted, I must evermore narrowing the nature my encounters with others, “lest [I] be exposed to such dangers” that make inevitable the contradiction of the story I tell myself about myself. To maintain my idealized self-image I must be every vigilant, always “the mastermind” of my own life. Failure in this regard leaves me vulnerable to “an admission” of powerlessness that I find unbearably “humiliating” (p. 110).

Over the years I have come to realize that I am especially vulnerable to the image that I, and others, have of the priesthood. In this I am no different than any other priest, minister, rabbi, imam or shaman, or (for that matter) human being. But for a complex of psychological and sociological reasons, clergy seem especially vulnerable to a life “dependent upon the endless affirmation from others in the form of approval, admiration, flattery—none of which, however, can give . . . more than temporary reassurance” (p. 110). For reasons not simply of our own choosing, clergy often find ourselves “on a pedestal” and are even more prone to the common human tendency to “tolerate [the] real self still less.” As a consequence we are therefore also more prone to “rage against [our real self], to despise [it]” even as we “chafe under the yoke” of others, and our own, “unreasonable demands” (p. 112). I recognize this tendency in myself, and not a few of my brother Orthodox clergy as well as Catholic and Protestant clergy friends. Horney describes this the neurotic’s constant wavering “between self-adoration and self-contempt, between [the] idealized image and [the] despised image, with no solid middle ground to fall back on” (p. 112).

The lack of middle ground, or so I would suggest, is the chief psychological consequence of the gnomic will. Or maybe more accurately, it is our futile quest for a middle ground of our own creation that is the chief consequence of the gnomic will. No where is the futility of this quest seen then in our approach to religion in general and the Gospel in particular.

I will, in my next post, turn our attention to the psychological difference between faith as a choice and faith as a gift.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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