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When the scales of morality are thrown out of balance

Sometimes I wonder if people are interested in making things better or if they are just playing to the street for political gain. Recently, in the United States, veterans died while sitting on waiting lists created by bureaucrats who were more interested in saving their jobs and making bigger bonuses than they were in helping people who had served the country in combat. The politicians have been kicking that situation around, but how many people have they helped in the process?

In every political context one can find people like those involved in all aspects of the VA scandal. They like stirring the pot in order to gain advantage. They are more interested in scoring points at the expense of the political opposition than they are in helping the people who elected them. It might as well be a game, because most of the time such people seem singularly focused on winning, and winning does not mean turning bad things to the good for the country or the people who live there; it means gaining an edge.

Such political gamesmanship does not seem just. It's not fair, because politicians usually benefit themselves by using their power and office, but fairness is not the right concept. When politicians play politics at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve, it is not just. Justice suffers. It throws the scales of morality out of balance. They might as well be members of a good ol' boy network, crushing people where they can and lying when they need.

But go ahead. Score your points. Take advantage of the weak. Make yourselves feel big, important, intelligent, and powerful by accusing your opposition and pointing out all of their supposed flaws. I'd have more respect for the person who actually believed what he or she were saying, even though all he or she could say was to point out where others were wrong, defective, or sinful.

In the face of such things I realised again today that life is more complex than we would usually like to admit. Today two of our closest friends are celebrating 40 years together in a committed and faithful relationship. They are two gay men living in New York.

The Bible says that God so loved the world that He sent His Son as a propitiation — a vicarious and atoning sacrifice — for the sins of the world. So, when Jesus came into the world, there was only one class of people that He condemned. It wasn't the prostitute. It wasn't the adulteress. It wasn't the tax collector, nor the people who didn't observe the Sabbath in quite the right way. All these people were sinners; what they were doing was wrong, but the point that Jesus came to make was not that they were wrong. He did not build a religious empire on the backs of people burdened by their imperfection by simply pointing out their failures. He excoriated the religious leaders, who, like politicians, played games with justice, took advantage of the weak, and built empires for themselves, profiting from telling the people all the minute ways in which they were wrong and then selling sacrifices to them in the hopes that they might find some forgiveness. He described them as hypocrites and as whitewashed sepulchres that looked clean and stylish on the outside but within which the rotting decay of humanity had been discarded. Rather, Jesus established the foundation of what became a spiritual empire by loving the wrongdoer and providing a way by which that person could, in fact, receive forgiveness. He did not profit from the problem; He profited in the solution.

In my practice of psychotherapy I see imperfection, suffering, injustice, and tragedy on a regular basis. I do not need to make explicit here what kinds of things I mean. In these encounters I attempt to practice what my colleagues call “inclusion.” That is more than mere acceptance. It is the bringing of the experience of the client as fully into the room, into my life and my experience, as possible. You cannot do that if you are attending first to whether or not somebody passes muster or proves to be okay. You cannot practice inclusion by keeping “the unclean” at a distance. So, you cannot practice inclusion if you are foremost concerned with pointing out how others are wrong.

Identifying wrongdoing, failure, imperfection, and sin takes hardly any imagination or effort. It is a cheap tactic. Inclusion, on the other hand, is integral to finding solutions with people. If, for instance, a politician aspires to being a statesman, he or she must establish commonality with opponents in order to bridge the differences that separate them. Can you imagine what it would be like if we read newspaper reports of rapprochement between political parties in which each took the perspective of the other and then laid down the cudgel to work side by side in ameliorating social problems and economic hardship?

Psychologically, in order to take the perspective of another, a person has got to be able to see him or herself in a certain way. Those who cannot practice inclusion and take the other's perspective have personality flaws. They are often people who are narcissistic and/or anti-social. Extreme cases of these kinds of traits constitute personality disorders. People with such personality flaws relate to others in a fixed and rigid fashion that gets in the way, and they become ineffective as leaders and managers. Executive coaches who work on a routine basis with highly placed executives usually have a high percentage of personality disorders among their clients. The same proportions would hold true for people inhabiting highly powerful public offices.

Having negative or destructive personality flaws is not an excuse. It is merely a description. Furthermore, it is not a life sentence. Practicing inclusion for psychotherapists working with personality-disordered people is the same as for other folks. Personal growth with regards to personality problems is not impossible. It is more slow moving, but people can make progress.

For me, though, that is what makes it even more maddening when I see people in power using it in ways consistent with personality pathology. You could say they do cruel and unjust things to other people because they are sick, but then you'd have to explain why they don't go to the doctor to get well. I suspect it's because they like wielding power, that it makes them feel good to defeat others, and they don't want to get over whatever they have become. For them, it's normal.

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Published June 03, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated June 02, 2014 at 3:32 pm)

When the scales of morality are thrown out of balance

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