Jesus and the Alter Ego Effect

Both Matthew and Luke have their own account of the Beatitudes. In both cases the Beatitudes are the beginning of a longer “sermon” (one on the Mount, the other on the Plain.) The second part of the sermon goes into what sounds like directions. I always thought it was direction about how to be a disciple of Jesus, only to realize there is nothing strictly religious about the advice Jesus gives: it really is about “good living.” Jesus tells us how to live in peace with the universe—it is advice that even people of no faith should follow.

Distilling the gospel, this is what Jesus says:

  1. Love your enemy—and do not take revenge.
  2. Give—without expecting anything in return.
  3. Do to others what you would like them to do to you (treat people with the decency with which you would like to be treated.)
  4. Stop judging/condemning.
  5.  Forgive.

While I believe our salvation is at stake in the area of how we treat others, there is nothing particularly religious in this advice. Even the one which sounds more “churchy,” forgiveness, is really about letting go of negative feelings about those who hurt us. Nothing religious about that. Forgiveness, like the rest of this life-advice, is “good for you.” It may make life better for others around you, but it surely makes life better for you.

Before we go any further, let me say a bit about all of these pieces. When we discuss the “enemy” people often tell me they do not have any. At the very least, I believe that if we take our vocations seriously, it is difficult not to have enemies. If you stand for justice in any issue at all, some will become our enemies. We cannot stand for something and keep all those around us happy and nice. Jesus says, do not let your enemies get to you. Let go of negative feelings that only have a negative effect on you. Like forgiveness: if you do not forgive, it is you who gets the negative effect, not the other person. To hold grudges and not let go is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. And stop judging because really, you often do not know what the other person is going through, and you are spending energies on something about which you have no say. Again, all these pieces of advice are really good for you.

As you may know by now, I like to incorporate into my homilies—my faith life, really—stuff that I find useful from other areas of life. This past week I stumbled upon a book called, “The Alter Ego Effect” by personal coach Todd Herman. The blurb for the book explains the concept pretty well: “A top performance expert reveals the secret behind many top athletes and executives: creating a heroic alter ego to  activate when the chips are down.” According to the author, there is only one person standing in the way of untapping your own potential: You. That person, your alter ego, is already inside us; it is already part of us, and we only need to unlock him/her. We only need to bring that better version of ourselves up to the surface.

Here we are not talking about peak performance for sure, but the idea of an alter ego who is already inside ourselves is extremely attractive to me. What about looking for that alter ego that would live according to the advice Jesus gives us in this gospel? We certainly know that we can choose to be the opposite of what Jesus advises. We all know people who hold grudges forever, who are always complaining, who are always speaking badly about others, who seem to keep track of everything the universe owes them, who require some kind of payment each time they decide to do something good—and it is not about monetary compensation: it could be a thank you note, a public recognition, etc.

But the positive alter ego is also there: a person who forgives, treats others with decency, spends no time in keeping track of everything good he or she does, etc. If I understand the concept well, I believe it is mainly about choosing to be this “alter ego,” making the decision to present ourselves like that person who is a bit more forgiving and kind that we are, and who is already within ourselves. We just need to be intentional about bringing that person out to the surface. Like any other habit, I am pretty sure it gets easier with time.

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Rights and Responsibilities and the Option for the Poor

This past Sunday at Sacred Heart we offered the second installment of the series on the Seven Principles of Catholic Social Teaching. The gospel we proclaimed was the second part of the scene of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth. Very early on his ministry, Jesus upsets those gathered in the synagogue. Why? He has preached about widows, lepers and foreigners. He has reminded his people that God and His prophets showed a preference for the marginalized and the foreigners, that in so many ways the Law declared impure. In modern terms, Jesus is calling the people in the synagogue, and the religious people of all times, to social responsibility. What a great gospel text to continue our series on Catholic Social Teaching.

As we reviewed last week, we believe that any human being is sacred, but also social. We believe the only way to achieve a society where anybody can grow and live up to his or her full human potential is if human rights are protected, realizing that we have a responsibility towards the rights of others. In other words, your rights become my responsibility. Rights meeting responsibilities is the only way to achieve the common good.

Numerous social doctrinal documents have provided lists of human rights. I would like to offer the list Saint John XXIII proposed in Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth, 1963): “Human beings have the right to live. They have the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.” The emphasis on the proper development of life is mine.

The fifth principle is the (preferential) Option for the Poor and Vulnerable. We are responsible for each other, for our families, and for society at large, but we are especially responsible for the poor and the most vulnerable in society. The test of the moral goodness of our society is not how we treat the wealthy, or even the average middle-class person, but how the poor fare in it. While we have to look with optimism at the improvement of the poverty data around the world, these figures are still very somber. As depressing as this can be, we can begin to fight poverty by being aware of its dimension. Let me share some figures:

  • More than 3 billion people in the world live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty— less than $1.25 a day.
  • One billion children worldwide are living in poverty.
  • 22,000 children die each day due to poverty around the world.

Closer to home:

  • 12.3% of Americans live in poverty—and this percentage does not change much, regardless of whether we have a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.
  • About 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold (which is calculated as income depending on number of people in a household. At this point, it is an income of $25,000 for a family of four, for instance.)
  • 32.5% of Racine residents live under poverty level.

Again, learning about these figures feels like a punch in the stomach. We have to be reminded that we do not believe in “social idealism.” We Christians believe that we can really transform society. Jesus exercises prophecy in the synagogue: he denounces the present, but he also offers a vision for a better future. I believe there is a lot we can do to change many things, and we can start by acknowledging our ability to change the world.

the spirit of the lord 16.9