Our secular culture teaches us to be obsessed with self. We worry about ourselves constantly. We fret over our personal problems. We search relentlessly for relief from the burdens of our disappointments and sorrows. All the while, the problems we lament are the direct results of our constant obsession with self.
I use the word “obsessed” in a very specific way here. When Catholicism talks about demonic powers having influence over a person, we use the word “possessed.” When Catholicism talks about demonic powers having influence over a place or thing, we use the word “obsessed.”
I must add, quickly, that the above statements aren’t a reference to the kinds of entertainment provided by movies and television. Portrayals of demonic power in popular entertainment serve the purpose of frightening an audience just enough to be entertaining. The entertainment industry’s portrayals of evil people and haunted houses are unrelated to Catholicism’s understanding of evil.
I am not, therefore, advocating belief in demons. Occasionally I’ve been asked, “Do you believe in demons?” In each case, my response has been, “I believe in God.”
It just so happens that the word “obsessed” (as a reference to demonic influence over an inanimate object), is a perfect metaphor to describe the pathological degree of self-concern that Americans cultivate in their lives.
We obsess over self. We obsess over happiness and unhappiness. We obsess over our past and our future. In doing so, we reduce ourselves to the level of inanimate objects, and we direct our lives away from God. One of the unavoidable consequences of this choice is that we reduce other people to the level of inanimate objects, as well.
Our cultural sin of self-obsession is nothing new; it is not restricted only to our society. Both the prophet Isaiah and Jesus described the same phenomenon occurring during their respective lifetimes.
Isaiah saw the warning signs of faithlessness that would lead to Jerusalem’s fall and the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. He proposed a metaphor to his contemporaries. He compared God’s People to a vineyard planted with fine grape vines. Wild grapes, an inedible fruit, grew instead of cultivated grapes. (Isaiah 5:4) The People’s self-reliance and self-concern had cut them off from God, and made them into something bitter, stingy and unpalatable.
Jesus’ parable of the wicked vineyard workers paints a similar picture. The workers’ self-interests led them to deny the fruits of the harvest to the landowner. (Matthew 21:33-39) Many of the religious leaders at the time had cut themselves off from God by their self-righteousness. As a consequence, they were unable to perceive God’s power at work in Jesus’ ministry.
In addition to describing the lamentable situation of human faithlessness, the Scriptures also describe the remedy for faithlessness. In his Letter to the Philippians St. Paul wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
To seek after truth (beyond our ‘personal truth’), is to seek wisdom in other people; this leads eventually to an encounter with God. To be an honorable person is to respect the personhood of others; this opens our hearts to God’s presence in fellow believers. To live justly, and to promote justice for others, is do God’s will. To seek purity, love, graciousness, excellence and high ideals (beyond our individual lives), is to follow the path that leads to knowledge of God’s will.
Here’s an exercise to try: at the end of each day identify one person or experience that led you away from your self-concern and toward empathy for other people. At the beginning of the next day, follow the direction indicated by that person or event. Within a very short time you will notice that you have lost some of your obsessiveness, and gained some new-found freedom. The freedom from self-concern that makes you more aware of others, is the same freedom that makes you more aware of God.