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How to break our habit of contempt

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On Christmas Eve, my parish had to lock all of the doors 15 minutes prior to the beginning of the first vigil Mass. We might consider this is an enviable situation — when our sanctuaries are so jammed with people desiring to be close to God that we hit our fire-code capacity.

And yet I was not a happy camper as I parked three blocks away and then jostled with nearly 2,000 well-heeled strangers to squeeze through the doors. In fact, as I finally found a few inches of space on the floor of a side chapel next to a family that came equipped with multiple screens to occupy their kids, I sighed and rolled my eyes.

That little moment, according to a recent talk at Google by American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, ought to clue me in to something important — and deeply disconcerting.

Eye-rolling, Brooks explains, is among the telltale signs of “contempt” — of a dismissive stance toward others that he goes so far to define as the “conviction of the utter worthlessness of another human being.” Brooks shares how social psychologists and marriage therapists can spot contempt in seconds: if one spouse rolls his or her eyes during an argument, well, let’s just say it’s not a sign that the marriage is going in a good direction.

As he surveys our “deeply suboptimal” and dysfunctional political arena, Brooks sees less of an “anger” problem — after all, we are grateful for both our two-party (at least) system and the competition of ideas in our pluralistic society — and more of a “contempt” problem.  

While “simple anger … resolves in reconciliation” and “naturally dissipates,” contempt simmers, burns, “blows others up,” and “never resolves.” “Contempt,” Brooks explains, “is for people with no discipline, for people who have bad habits, people who have mental ticks, and people who can’t control themselves.” Contempt thrives in settings of anonymity and unaccountability. When we are treated with contempt, we “never forget it.”

To quit our bad habits we need to replace them with positive practices and virtues — like deciding to take a walk around the block when you would have smoked a cigarette — so what to put in place of contempt? Instead of smugly avoiding and judging the “Easter-Christmas” Catholics on Christmas Eve, what should I have done? Brooks sought answers from social scientists, neuroscientists and others.

He even approached the Dalai Lama with his question, “When I feel contempt, what should I do?” The Tibetan leader answered, “Practice warm-heartedness.”

Brooks smiled and said, “That sounds sort of soft,” before he asked, “Have you got anything better?” But Brooks listened, and went on to learn of the Dalai Lama’s decision to begin each day by praying for the health and happiness of the Chinese leaders who exiled him. (If this sounds familiar, recall: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44).

“Tough, strong, disciplined people,” Brooks concluded, are the ones who practice warm-heartedness. They are good at “remembering and exercising gratitude,” which he calls the “contempt killer.”

What would happen if every day we each got a little bit better at the craft of catching ourselves just in time to not step down one of our favorite little paths of contempt: in our marriages, homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and parishes?

On my suboptimal Christmas Eve, I really didn’t need to label anyone. I could have “caught myself” starting to form that judgment and instead immediately decided to exercise gratitude. A tougher, more courageous, more disciplined moment would have been to walk over, smile, learn the family’s names, wish them a Merry Christmas, and then renew a commitment to pray for all who are away from the church.

We owe it to all of these beautiful people in our lives to break our contempt habit, to decisively kill off whatever contempt may be prowling the precincts of our hearts. With God’s grace, a little discipline, and a lot of gratitude, tomorrow can be different.

Johnson is associate director of the St. Thomas More Institute. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018