Sunday, November 13, 2011

Reason, Boundaries, Truth, and Heroic Virtue

Truth and Love

So seriously: how do these four things come together into one action? I have recently wrestled with the problem and consequently found peace and freedom and deeper love. I’ll start with the fundamental problem I was running into.
I would like to be a saint, as we are all called to be. I would like to practice heroic virtue as that is the way to be transformed into a saint capable of beholding the beatific vision. This is the starting point.
The problem creeps up when I am in a situation where my reason is telling me one thing (“this person is not healthy and you should limit the role that they play in your life”) and my understanding of heroic virtue is telling me another (“this person is not healthy and you should go out of your way to reach out and be a source of healing-reach out and take them into you heart. Yes it is risky but didn’t Jesus risk it all?”).
In a nutshell: Heroic Virtue is loving past all reason.
I have always had that definition in the back of my mind for some unknown reason. But God did not design a fatal flaw into the process of becoming holier. Heroic Virtue is never unreasonable. We all know that faith never contradicts reason, as they have the same Source. “Fides et ratio!” we all chant loudly to the world. If we hold to that then we must also accept that Love never contradicts reason (nor Hope for that matter but that’s a post for a later time and probably from somebody else). Once this is an accepted point what we need to to see is what this looks like in a particular action.
Before my recent tussle with this quandary I would always land on the story of St. Therese where she was SO nice to this mean, crotchety old nun -who she did not (she herself makes clear) like at all- that the mean lady came up to her eventually and said, “My dear sister Therese, tell me what attraction you find in me? Because whenever we meet you greet me with such a sweet smile.” THIS was the example that I was haunted by…thinking that even though my reason told me to protect my dignity against the meanness and brokenness of another person Therese had given us this anecdote to turn us in the opposite direction and tell us to give until it hurts. Until we are wounded by love.
But the whole time my gut knew that something was wrong here…my reason, my common sense, was screaming out to me to not be an idiot and risk my dignity and be vulnerable again to someone who has proven their incapacity to be a true friend (there being no signs of change or interest in changing, of course. Genuine repentance is a completely different scenario). “Do not throw your pearls before swine”. Some people, through their own fault or their brokenness in response to other’s sins, are just not “safe.” It is what it is…a fallen world where some people are so messed up that a healthy relationship is impossible outside of a miracle or years of therapy. In fact that broken person can be toxic and instead of your healthiness spreading and transforming them the tentacles of their unhappiness spread into your healthy world and take over until suddenly you look around realize that you are the one transformed. You have been sucked into their own unhappy brokenness. And NOW whose going to lead you both out? The blind can’t lead the blind. You have to remain healthy for the sake of all concerned.
But then there’s that d*mn St. Therese and her annoying example of Heroic Virtue. That thing that you are shooting for. Not just “healthy” by the worlds standards but heroically good – that’s the action that you “want” to take. Maybe you are just SOOOO far from being heroically virtuous that your reason is mistaken too. So you ask your husband, a Carmelophile and a Moral Theologian, and he takes your dilemma and turns it on it’s head bringing the disparate parts together into an exciting and liberating whole!
St. Therese, he explains, did NOT befriend Mean Nun. She did not open herself up to her and lay bare her true feelings. She was not open and honest with her. There was no sit down for coffee where Therese revealed, “You know Mean Nun, lately I’ve really been struggling with your negativity. It feels like you are pulling me down.” That is something that true friends do – they are open and vulnerable and forgiving and humble. Therefore Therese was surprised that Mean Nun thought they were friends! She wasn’t out to manipulate or trick Mean Nun into thinking that they were friends, she was just being kind.
She smiled at Mean Nun. She was polite and showed concern but she drew the line at exposing her heart to this woman. She knew Mean Nun would not treat her with dignity if she opened up like that and she knew that God doesn’t want us to be treated badly. We are his creations and he doesn’t want us foolishly exposing ourselves to ridicule and scorn – nor does he want us putting other people in the position of being able to do that to us – it’s not good for the perpetrator either! This is not just about protecting our thin skins it’s also about not being a near occasion of sin for the “Mean Nun” in your life.
Being a doormat for someone will eventually trip up the person who is walking all over you – they will fall. If you weren’t lying there then that would be one less fall that they have. For the good of all we must stand up to the unhealthy relationships in our life and that may mean walking away from them to some degree.
That is where truth comes in. Truth is neither mean nor uncharitable. It is simple and accessible. Mean Nun is Mean. For x,y or z reason (though we can never really know). She treats me poorly. She tries to entangle me in her web. She jeopardizes my relationships with others. This is the truth. It may also be true that her mother criticized her. That her boyfriend beat her. That she stubbed her toe on my front step last winter. All are true. Her reasons for her present meanness/brokenness do not change the current state of things. Regardless of her past she is currently a person that I need to take precautions against. And that will mean drawing a boundary. There’s a huge spectrum of levels of boundaries. Facing the truth about the people in our life help us find the right boundary to set.
For Therese the boundary was something like, “I will show genuine kindness and concern for her.” Notice that there’s no obligation to do more then is truthful. Therese was not out to manipulate her into thinking that she was really a bosom buddy. The other side of Therese’ boundary coin is something like, “I will not seek her out to have lunch and dish with her about the new hymnal. I will not throw a party for her with a cake that says ‘BFF!’.” Therese was at the point where she could be genuinely concerned for and kind to Mean Nun. It wasn’t a farce. We should be truthful in our relationships. And sometimes that means not having the confrontation that would “air out” your grievance with someone but instead being polite and kind and recognizing that a full-blown friendship with that person is not a healthy choice. At least for now. Your boundary drawing could even be the impetus they need to get help from someone who can really do something.
Truth gets the raw deal too often when dealing with tricky relationships and conflict. But reason, boundaries, and truth are all tied up together in Heroic Virtue. The path to holiness is not full of contradictions. God is Love, He is also Truth. One without the other is smoke screen. Truth deepens Love and Love makes the Truth shine in the darkness. And being wounded by Love is quite different then being wounded by brokenness and lies.


  1. Awesome. I am (slowly) reading my way through the books "Boundaries" and "Boundaries with Kids". The idea of a healthy boundaries is mind blowing to me. good stuff.

  2. Boundaries (the book and the action)completely changed my life in college (and thereafter) but applying them to new and interesting situations is always a challenge. Great great post Lexi. :)

  3. Thank you for this post. I have 1 such relationship and the struggle you describe is exactly what I've been trying to navigate. I think you've hit the mark with the the question is, how does one backtrack to that healthy boundary without hurting feelings? (surely the other party would notice the change, yes?)

  4. Great post! I'm also slowly working on the Boundaries books, and I love this insight into St. Therese's heroic virtue. Awesome. Dr. and Mrs. Love always have good things to say :)

  5. Betsy, I would say that sometimes these situations hurt feelings for a while. But depending on the scenario it may still be the best thing for both parties. No matter what it's tricky and requires a lot of truth seeking...
    Time eventually heals the feelings too. It's not the ultimate concern. Obviously if there's a way to spare someone's feelings that is better and I think that a lot of the time it's possible but well...if it isn't then it isn't. The truth heals. Good luck. It's a suckee position to be in. I know ;).