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Our overstimulated grandiosity, our impoverished symbols

September 17, 2015
Father Ron Rolheiser

There are now more than 7 billion people on this earth and each one of us feels that he or she is the center of the universe. That accounts for most of the problems we have in the world, in our neighborhoods, and in our families.

And no one’s to blame for this, save God perhaps, for making us this way. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God, meaning that, each of us, holds within a divine spark, a piece of infinity, and an ingrained knowledge of that unique dignity. We are infinite souls inside a finite world. To paraphrase St. Augustine, we are made for the divine and our hearts aren’t just dissatisfied until they rest there again, they’re also grandiose along the journey, enflamed by their own uniqueness and dignity. God has made everything beautiful in its own season, Ecclesiastes tells us, but God has put timelessness into the human heart so that we are out of sync with the seasons from beginning to end. We’re overcharged for this planet, and we know it.

Moreover that sense of specialness lies at the center of our awareness: I think, therefore I am! Descartes was right: The only thing we can be absolutely sure of is that we exist and that our own thoughts and feelings are real. We may be dreaming everything else. We awake to self-consciousness aware of our specialness, frustrated by the fact that the world cannot give us what we crave, and insufficiently aware of the fact that everyone else on this earth is also equally unique and special. That’s human nature and it’s always been this way.

Today however a number of things are conspiring together to exacerbate both our grandiosity and our restlessness. In brief, today we are mostly overstimulated in our grandiosity and are not generally given the tools to handle that inflammation of soul.

How are we overstimulated in our grandiosity today? Various factors play together here, but contemporary media and information technology need to be highlighted. Through them, in effect, the whole world is being made available to us during every waking minute of our lives. We are not easily equipped to handle that. While information alone is mostly neutral, and at times even morally inspiring, the downside is that contemporary media overstimulates our grandiosity and restlessness by inundating us with the intimate details of the lives of the rich, the famous, the beautiful, the talented, the powerful, the super-intelligent, the mega-achievers, and the perverted in a way that titillates, seduces, and at times assaults our interior balance so as to leave us cultivating private fantasies of grandiosity, of standing out in a way that makes the world take notice. We see this in an extreme and perverted form in some of the mass shootings that occur in our society, where a lonely, deranged person randomly kills others out of sick vision of grandiosity. We see it too in the growing phenomenon of anorexia. These examples may be atypical, but we’re becoming a society within which most everyone is perilously overstimulated in his or her grandiosity.

And today we are generally without sufficient personal tools to handle this. Human beings have always been restless and grandiose, but in previous generations they had more tools – religious and societal – to handle restlessness, grandiosity, and frustration. For example, in previous generations the cultural ethos gave people much less permission to cultivate ego than it does today. Previous to our own generation, one had to be more apologetic about self-promotion, self-canonization, overt greed, and crass self-centeredness. Humility was espoused as a virtue and no one was supposed to get too big for his or her britches. That threw a lot of cold water on ego, crass self-assertion and greed, in effect dampening grandiosity. The message back then was clear: You’re not the center of the universe!

By and large, that’s no longer the case today. Society, more and more, gives us license to be grandiose, to set ourselves up as the center and proudly announce that publicly. Not only are we allowed today to get too big for our britches, we aren’t culturally admired unless we do assert ourselves in that way. And that’s a formula for jealousy, bitterness and violence. Grandiosity and restlessness need healthy guidance both from the culture and from religion. Today, we generally do not see that guidance.

We are dangerously weak in inculcating into the consciousness of society, especially into the consciousness of the young, a number of vital human and religious truths: To God alone belongs the glory! In this life ultimately all symphonies remain unfinished. You are not the center of the earth. There is real sin! Selfishness is not a virtue! Humility is a virtue! You will only find life by giving it away! Other lives are as real as your own!

We have failed our youth by giving them unrealistic expectations, even as we are depriving them of the tools with which to handle those expectations.

Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas; www.ronrolheiser.com.

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