Stumbling over Human Nature

Have you noticed how tolerant we are of our own failings yet how critical we are of others?

You see examples within families and in the attitude of some toward government and religion. Spouses are all too quick to criticize their mates without first asking how their behavior may have contributed to a conflict. Was it avoidable? Was it really that important? Could they have handled it better?

Many have left the Catholic Church because of differences with church policy and teachings or are simply disgusted with how the church covered up the widespread abuse of children. There is certainly no excuse for such behavior and it was not the only grievous error made by the church over the centuries.

We are also constantly reminded of the flaws of other institutions. The failure of governments to act openly, honestly and responsibly is a major source of cynicism. Elected officials change, promising reform but things remain essentially the same.

It is helpful to recognize that institutions from the family to the church to government in all their varied forms are composed of human beings like us. The fact you are a husband, bishop or senator does not make you any less a person although it does bring additional responsibilities.

While it’s true that they can and should do better; the same can be said for all of us. Instead of blaming others, we should spend more time looking at ourselves to determine how our behavior may have contributed to a problem and what we could do to alleviate it.

Within the family, do we have to win every argument? Are there minor irritants we can overlook? Can we realistically expect people to fundamentally change? Conflict avoidance is not surrender, it is often prudent. Making a bad situation worse is not a solution.

It is often difficult to place the interest of the institutions we serve (family, church, government, business) over our own. Because that may involve sacrificing something we view as personally beneficial and important and “sacrifice” is a word rarely prized in our culture.

It means giving up something and that sounds a lot like “losing;” another label we try to avoid even when the greater good requires it.

Paradoxically, sacrifice in war becomes a virtue. The sacrifice of the nation as a whole as it shares the burdens in the struggle for victory or, even more compelling, the ultimate sacrifice of those who died in battle.

Sacrifice is also the linchpin of Christianity; a belief founded on sacrifice and taught as a fundamental tenet. Sacrifice represents the most compelling manifestation of love.

We are all struggling up a treacherous slope toward something better. We see in the world around us, in ourselves and in others, reflections of goodness; love, mercy, beauty, truth and justice. Although imperfect in their earthly forms, they draw us on to their source.

We all carry heavy packs that slow us down, cause us to rest or follow an easier downward path. The better we understand human nature, the lighter the packs become. We are less inclined to blame the terrain and more likely to challenge ourselves. We have the energy to help others.

One can always find a good reason to do the wrong thing. Wisdom involves questioning your own motives and thinking critically, not just about others but about yourself.

Questions like: What do I want? Why do I want it? Do I really need it? What do I have to give up to get it? What harm may it cause? Am I deluding myself?

The trouble with the rich and powerful is they are like us except more so. Their status brings more attention and exaggerates their influence. It also results in more temptations and distractions.

Is it any wonder that with an inflated notion of their own importance, they fail to see their packs are larger and consequently stumble more often? Instead of being envious, we should recognize that human weakness is one burden money does not relieve.

The more power one has, the more opportunities to display those weaknesses we all possess. Power does corrupt; as temptations grow the will to exercise restraint diminishes. It takes an extraordinary person to recognize that and resist the impulse to give in.

What attracts young women to rich older men? Is it their good looks, charm, stamina and the hope for a long life together? When asked why he became a bank robber, Willie Sutton said: “That’s where the money is.” The same can be said about most May - October romances.

The fact you don’t find younger women marrying older low or middle income men should give you a clue. The primary attraction in such relationships is the lifestyle. Does anyone think that John Henry’s lovely young fiancé would have given him a second look if he worked for the T?

Similarly, would Senator John Kerry have fallen for Therese Heinz if she was a legal secretary rather than an heiress?

One “advantage” average couples have is they are so busy earning a living and raising a family, they have neither the time nor the money to succumb to the temptations of the rich and powerful. Some may wish they could but their options are limited.

Sometime we manage to avoid what the nuns called the “near occasion of sin” not by choice but by circumstances. While the first is preferable; either one can keep us out of trouble.

The point is to make the best of what you have. In life we often wish we could exchange the struggle we have with something less burdensome. The swap may mean just taking on new burdens with which we may turn out to be more difficult.

As Pat said at the Erie Pub the other night: “Ya know Quinn, we’re a sorry lot; always looking for something better without appreciating the betters we got.”

“Sure you’re a wise man,” Quinn replied. “Only last week Bridget threw me out saying she didn’t deserve the likes of me. The drink convinced me she was saying she wasn’t good enough for me ‘til Thursday morning when I saw Connor coming out of the house.”

“Sorry to hear that Quinn; let me get you another. It’ll soften the blow of having to come to grips with yourself.”

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law. E-mail