The Virtue & Vice of Deadlines

The last 900 words

Hail and farewell, fellow readers. I am quitting the column business-cold turkey. Total abstinence is the only way. As in other addictions, the build-up of tension followed by the release of handing in 900 words on deadline produces a dangerous high.

Manic euphoria is increased if I get praise and reinforcements from loyal Commonweal readers. Criticism counts as reinforcement too, since it proves someone out there has actually read you. One of my proudest moments was to have Walker Percy send a letter taking me to task for some criticism I made of the pope.

But alas, frequent highs have the baneful effect of immunizing me from working harder on longer writing projects that I have taken on. To do what I want in the long run, I have to give up satisfying bursts of steam.

No more excuses allowed now. I must finish my book on suffering. Then on to the book on the challenge of religious experience, to be followed by a rewrite of my 1991 book on conscience. When I wrote it I did not include theological considerations of conscience because I was too ignorant and had enough problems getting the psychological and ethical dimensions integrated.

I recently read an article in Theological Studies (September 2002) by Charles E. Bouchard, O.P., on "Recovering the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Moral Theology." In it he argues that Catholics must do a better job of integrating spirituality and morality. He is exactly right. I am taking this as a call to buckle down and learn to differentiate among the gifts of wisdom, counsel, understanding, and knowledge. I think I have more of a clue when it comes to the remaining gifts of the Holy Spirit, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord.

Part of the stimulation of this new project on conscience will be to extend the inquiry into the fruits of the Spirit, such as charity, joy, kindness, goodness and so on-never forgetting the un-American characteristics of patience and self-control. Perhaps I can at last overcome my puzzlement about what is meant by talk of "infused virtues." And those descriptions of the "promptings" and "impulses" of the Holy Spirit must also be confronted. How do these hypothesized moral-spiritual events take place in the experiential stream of consciousness? Maybe they involve the preconscious information processing that is so much talked about in psychology today.

The overblown Freudian unconscious is no longer accepted by most psychologists. Instead, they explore "implicit memories," "implicit attributions," and "implicit stereotypes" that affect behavior from below the threshold of self-awareness. The thought arises that these less-than-fully-voluntary operations of the mind contribute to both humankind’s bondage to sin and to the spiritual rebirth and transformations given through the power of the Spirit.

Obviously I have enough tasks to keep me busy until my own explicit memory and thinking capacities become totally implicit, that is, vanish into senility. Old intellectuals never die, they just fade away-into the fog of dementia. Given the danger of mental decline, nothing can be done but carpe diem, and gather ye rosebuds while ye may. As long as a writer can toddle to the computer, no one can fire her.

I hope no external obstacles will keep me from fulfilling my ten-year plan, but internal problems could emerge from insufficient drive, failing desire, or family illness. Even if good health holds up, I may still have trouble focusing my efforts.

I am afraid that without frequent deadlines and the galvanizing fear of shame they bring, I may open Pandora’s box to too many competing desires. How grand to go to Mexico to master Spanish, France to learn French, Rome to learn Latin and read Aquinas at last...., but if it is really too late to make up for scholarly deficits, I could concentrate on physical flabbiness, take more advanced yoga classes, and enroll in tougher exercise regimes. (Forget any dreadful activities that involve speed, height, and risk-taking, such as skiing, horseback riding, hang-gliding, rock climbing, or bungee jumping.)

Then there is the greatest temptation of all. I can imagine giving up on striving and simply going with the flow of leisure, culture, and more time with friends and far-flung family members. My ninety-plus mother and my stepmother live in D.C., my sister and my cousins are in Alabama and Texas, and my six adult children and four adorable grandchildren are spread between here (New York) and Boston. Padre Pio may have been granted bilocation, but I need trilocation. Then I could go to the ballet, baby-sit, talk, and read theology all at the same time....

On a more somber note, I am afraid of the upheavals that will come if we go to war. Then Catholic intellectuals will be called to war resistance and peacemaking efforts. I am not an activist but would trudge back into the frustrating political fray if duty calls. Duty may also call to engage in more time-consuming efforts at church reform, especially if the present self-destructive course continues.

Please Lord, let the clouds looming on the horizon not portend more disasters. Let me stay home with my books, my intellectual projects, and my family, but whatever happens, give me enough energy for the long haul. To date I have had a wonderful life, overflowing with incredible joys and gifts; but it has also been rather frantic. How I long for calm and deep waters. If there are more crises coming, I’d rather read about them in someone else’s column.

Published in the 2002-12-06 issue: 
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Sidney Callahan is a psychologist and the author of Created for Joy: A Christian View of Suffering.

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