You may feel undeserving of any happy destiny because you are fundamentally not okay with yourself. Well, for all I know you might well be consumed by a huge ego, be selfish, vain, bitchy, resentful, etc. But I would like to ask how do we really know when we are basically bad? That would be quite a big conclusion to carry around on one’s shoulders. Here are four questions that might help your spiritual self-assessment.
1. How judgmental are you about yourself?
You may not be as bad as you think if you have been focusing on or exaggerating the negative side and ignoring or minimising the positive.
“For all right judgment of any man or things it is useful, nay, essential, to see his good qualities before pronouncing on his bad.” (Thomas Carlyle)
We may be quick to pin labels on people. That’s why the tabloid newspapers sell so well. But being judgmental about oneself is a similar attitude. One can search out for and exaggerate one’s own defects just as easily as finding fault in others. Seeing oneself just in terms of one’s negative characteristics means forgetting such positives as one’s generosity of spirit or one’s desire to better understand the deeper side of life.
2. Are you biased by an illusion of condemnation?
In many mythological, folklore and religious traditions, hell is a place of damnation i.e. eternal torture and punishment for bad conduct during life on earth. Even today we are influenced by this tradition. Condemnation of others can be paralleled by self-condemnation. The persecutory notion that bad people deserve to suffer is mirrored by the guilty idea that I, who am bad, deserve to suffer.
A very different view of hell however shows up the illusion of self-condemnation. It is Emanuel Swedenborg’s teaching that in the next life no-one suffers punishment for any past misdeeds however wicked the person committed in the world. According to this view, what punishments do occur do not go on continually for ever because they are not retributions for wrongdoing committed on earth, but rather disciplinary reactions to minimise and deter criminal acts that selfish and cruel people commit in hell. Thus punishments in hell cease when external order has been restored.
From a similar spiritual perspective, it could be said that a loving attitude towards oneself would means cutting out all on-going guilt or self-punishment for any past bad conduct. In evaluating our character we shouldn’t be biased by any desire to condemn ourselves for past conduct however bad it was. A sense of self-acceptance is part of the healing process.
Easier said than done you might think. And so those drawn to religion hope they can find a sense of divine forgiveness to compensate for their difficulty in self-acceptance.
3. Are you being premature in trying to reach any firm conclusions about yourself?
I guess we are all a bit of a mixture of good and bad.
“There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Sometimes we obey the law and behave ethically out of love for doing what is good and right for its own sake. Other times we only do what is good out of self-interest and would behave badly if we thought we could get away with it.
Psychological theories of personal development tend to focus on the notion of integration. Disparate personal fragments in our make up slowly begin to harmonise as our character is formed. My take on this is to say that the process is either one of regeneration or degeneration; spiritual growth or spiritual decline. I believe that over a life-time we gradually are forming for ourselves an all-pervading motivation for something good or something bad and are integrating all subsidiary compatible desires and discarding all incompatible ones.
However, according to spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, this process of integration is not complete in this life: the values that deep down influence our hearts do not always come to the surface and unrelated feeling, pretentiousness and difficulty co-exist and are manifest in different situations.
He says it is only at some point in the next life that we do eventually fully get in touch with our true self (what he calls our ruling love) when the spirit of who we are slowly begins to really show and the process of separating disparate elements can be accomplished.
“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.” (Luke 12:2)
Swedenborg’s evidence for his position was his own experience. Subjectively he was able to become conscious of an invisible realm in which his spirit existed and that as part of his journey within a spirit world he encountered both angelic people and also some very unpleasant individuals. Many of the self-centred spirit people wanted to be obeyed and praised and were quick to feel slighted feeling various shades of contempt, vengefulness, nastiness and cruelty. The caring unselfish ones however had the opposite feelings.
4. To what extent does your bad side now rule your life?
Does your greed, vengefulness, or being unfaithful to your partner, amount to a spontaneous unconsidered urge? One view these days is that behaving badly is nothing much more than making an impulsive mistake through ignorance of what being good involves; not realising the consequences. On the other hand mistakes can somehow get intentionally repeated.
“To make a mistake is only an error in judgment, but to adhere to it when it is discovered shows infirmity of character.” (Dale Turner)
I would suggest giving in to some bad impulse is one thing. Worse than this is deliberately intending to do something bad when knowing it is wrong in one’s heart such as using trickery and deceit, having contempt for others, etc Worst still is habitually delighting in such wrong-doing and looking for reasons to justify such behaviour. Worst of all is fully convincing oneself that such things are allowable and smart.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems