“Receive. Recognize. Respond.”
Being Catholic in the modern world is certainly a challenge. We are reminded on a regular basis, whether in sermons or by what we see in the checkout line at the grocery store, that we are in a battle against the corruption being peddled all around us. And it is certainly true. But there is a more insidious trap than that which the depravity of the world lays for us, and it is to think that we are actually pretty awesome. After all, when we look at most people in the world and in our own communities, we can easily discern a striking contrast between them and ourselves. From here it is only a short step to fall into the mindset, consciously or subconsciously, that we are doing well enough and can stop trying so hard. Herein lies the real enemy that can ruin us—complacency.
The comparison we make between ourselves and those around us often leads to an insincerity in our lives. We give lip service to the fact that we are poor sinners, but we don’t actually believe it. Instead of spurring ourselves on towards improvement, we subtly bask in our goodness and perceived excellence. Our complacency becomes more deeply rooted with each scandal we hear about, especially if it involves someone in the smaller world of our parish or community.
If we consider our lukewarm response to all the gifts we have been given, one thing is clear: many sincere non-Catholics out in the world are leading better lives than us. They are at an inherent disadvantage without the Faith, yet so many run circles around us when it comes to natural virtue (especially kindness and generosity towards others), and the pursuit of excellence. They are, simply put, better than us. The fact that we close our eyes to this reality, hiding behind the ironic excuse that “we have the faith,” only makes us more pathetic.
The battle against complacency requires a regular and honest appraisal of our deficiencies, and an effort to correct them. This is uncomfortable and difficult for sure. There is an unfortunate tendency in most of us to surround ourselves with those who tell us only what we want to hear, and refrain from speaking the hard truths to us about our shortcomings. These friends too often magnify our biases, and prevent us from real self-reflection and growth. The reality is that we must genuinely seek out criticism if we are ever going to improve. We must stop being so sensitive, and realize that we aren’t special, no matter how many times we have been told otherwise. The person who can seek out and receive criticism, while subordinating his ego, will be miles ahead of the man who cannot. This applies not only in secular matters, but also in spiritual ones. The more we indulge our ego, the more blind we become, and the less we grow.
Here are a few things that I have found to be effective in fighting complacency in our lives:
Do a regular examination of faults and deficiencies. Dive deep. A daily examination of conscience is excellent, but a more comprehensive, big-picture look at the areas we need to improve is also vital. If we step back and see patterns in our failures, we will be much more likely to correct them. So often we fail to notice that the specific behaviors we engage in are the common denominators of the troubles we encounter.
Seek out criticism from good friends, and—here’s the hard part—accept it humbly. Too often when we ask for and receive criticism, our first impulse is to dispute it, explaining how we aren’t actually guilty of the thing (ask me how I know…). When we do this, a friend or colleague is less likely to give it criticism next those we ask.
Take the good examples of those around you, and use them as ideals to strive for. Instead of using the examples of the gutter-dwellers around us to bolster our opinion of ourselves, go in the opposite direction. Find people in your life who embody the various traits you want to possess, and learn from their example.
As our initial “New Year’s Resolution” high wears off, hopefully we can all continue to work on ourselves, and do a bit better at striving for excellence in an honest and fruitful way. But in order to do so, we must reject the notion that we are good enough, or somehow better than our neighbor. Because the moment you start thinking you are, you probably aren’t.