I’ve been doing a frenzied amount of work on Augustine lately (surprise!). Specifically, I’ve been examining what he has to contribute to the issue of cultivating proper self-love. Despite his caricature, one in which he joyfully condemns people to hell for the sin of pride (with “pride” being defined quite expansively to include any positive self-evaluation), he actually brings a certain sophistication to this topic. He parses self-love not only as a pernicious kind of selfishness, but also as a basic tendency to work for one’s own self-preservation, and, most importantly for my purposes, a positive activity that rises in tandem with the cultivation of true love for God and neighbor. (I have written on this before.) At the same time, as he works these distinctions out he sometimes lets fly certain ideas that are deeply problematic. (For example, though he discourages suicide, he tends to frame it as an act of prideful disobedience against God, rather than as an act of desperate self-hatred and/or despair.) So overall, I find him to be more frustrating in places than I feared and more fruitful in other places than I hoped.
Simultaneously, as I work on Augustine, I try to keep up with some of the main movies receiving attention these days. Recently I watched Silver Linings Playbook in the theater, and I left feeling profoundly frustrated by the direction that the movie went (namely, toward something more conventional and ultimately more comforting than what the beginning seemed to promise). However, the first hour of the film seemed to be an authentic representation of the pain of mental illness and a shameful inability to accept one’s past. So like Augustine, the film struck me as deeply frustrating in certain respects and deeply rewarding, beyond expectation, in others.
This thinker and this film, Augustine and Silver Linings Playbook, are connected in my head when it comes to the topic of how we relate to ourselves when we reflect back on times in our lives in which we are…less than we could be. You know, those times (perhaps still ongoing for some, depending) when we feel in various ways like our lives are a mess, like we are a mess. We may be grieving, or feeling insecure about major life upheavals or even major life stagnations, or simply growing up and trying to deal with various levels of intellectual and social insecurity. Importantly, it may be at these times in particular that we act out grievously against others, even and perhaps especially those we love. We are in pain and we sin against our neighbor. We may even know it at the time but it seems impossible to do better. We are not our best selves. I am guessing anybody who has, for example, been a teenager or in her early twenties will recognize some truth in what I am saying.
Augustine first. Augustine says a lot of things, so it is actually quite to difficult to generalize about him, but I would venture to say that he does have a typical kind of response for this kind of morally-centered, honest self-reflection: he calls for a spiritual self-castigation, a kind of theological self-hatred. He writes, “For anyone who loves himself as a fool will not progress to wisdom; nor will one become what he desires to be, unless he hates himself as he is.“; “Fear the evil in yourself, that is, your cupidity; not what God made within you, but what you made for yourself. God made you a good servant, you made for yourself a bad master in your heart.”; “You should hate your own workmanship within yourself, and love the work of God within you.”; “Love that which God made, hate that which you made.” (These ideas are scattered all throughout his corpus, but for these references in particular, see Oliver O’Donovan, The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine, pp. 60-92.)
To be clear, Augustine does think the human person has an irrevocable God-given value which sin cannot eradicate: we are given life, and then the promise of redemption, by God. This grace anchors our value and makes each of us precious. You can see these theological loci (creation and redemption) emerging: God made us good and destines us for good. And, concomitantly, we are only to “hate” the parts of ourselves that we have allowed to become marred by sin. It is important to keep this distinction in mind when reading these excerpts.
At the same time, particularly in his preaching, Augustine still does readily promote the language of self-hatred (it’s there in the original Latin as well, with the use of a reflexive pronoun, of course) as a good spiritual practice, and I have ongoing questions about this discursive framing. On the one hand, I get it, and I think it’s important to counsel people to look at themselves with painful honesty and to admit their failings, even as they may be in the kind of pain that leads to carelessness or even cruelty toward others. On the other hand, I wonder if promoting any kind of “self-hatred” language may ultimately reinforce ongoing shame which people may have and which caused them to act poorly in the first place. If one is trying to undergo a kind of metanoia, a conversion away from the sins of one’s past, I wonder if retaining the language of self-hatred ultimately stunts that process. I would think there is room for honest disgust with oneself, for regret, for sorrow, for making things right with other people…but “self-hatred,” even of the semi-selective brand to which Augustine subscribes, strikes me as perhaps too strong of a word choice. I don’t know. This is really an open question for me, and I suppose that how we go about addressing it does hugely depend on the kind of person and the kind of shameful actions we’re discussing.
With that open question hanging, I turn to Silver Linings Playbook. A very quick summary of part of the film (**MID-MOVIE SPOILERS**). The film centers around Pat (Bradley Cooper), who at the beginning of the film is released from a mental institution by his mother and comes to live with her and his father in Philadelphia. He seems to be trying to recover psychologically from something, and he comes across as a bit manic and unhinged. We soon learn that he is separated from his wife, who cheated on him in the not-so-distant past and who will not see him after he caught her cheating and almost killed the other man in a blind rage (hence the inpatient care). We also learn that he is bipolar and does not seem particularly invested in his treatment for that. He seems much more focused, in a delusionally positive way, on getting in shape and winning his wife back. It’s as if he never stops thinking about the day he found her cheating on him, but, at the same time, he is also desperately trying to overcome his past self and become a different person who will be worthy of his wife’s love.
At the same time, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who has recently lost her job. We eventually learn that, after her husband died, she began compulsively sleeping with many of her office mates, which led to her firing. (We also learn that she and her husband had been having problems in the bedroom, and he died in a car accident while buying her some lingerie.)
Tiffany takes an interest in Pat and starts following him on his daily runs. At first he resents the pestering, and in the following clip, he becomes so frustrated with her that he calls her a slut. He then apologizes. And here is the exchange that follows upon that.
“I was a big slut, but I’m not any more. There’s always going to be a part of me that’s sloppy and dirty, but I like that. With all the other parts of myself. Can you say the same about yourself, fucker? Can you forgive? Are you any good at that?”
When I watched this part in the theater, I sat up and paid attention. It’s assumed at this point in the film that Tiffany regrets sleeping around with her coworkers, and as she retorts, she has stopped acting out in that way. She has some distance from this past, as well as a bit of perspective on it. At the same time, when somebody (a man…) wants to use this past to hurl a sexist slur at her, to shame her and deflate her, she won’t stand for it. And she offers a brief glimpse into how she is making peace with her pain and her past sins: she owns her past behavior, distances herself from that behavior, but then she also accepts her past self as an enduring part of who she is, and she seems to be at peace, or at least headed there.
Since I really don’t think her words are about condoning careless and destructive promiscuity, I found something striking and truthful in them. They seemed to me to signal her desire to forgive herself for her past (after honest self-acknowledgement and in the midst of intense grieving), and the implication seems to be that Pat needs to start looking at himself in the same way.
Ultimately, her words suggest that at least a part of healing from sin, from destruction, isn’t about self-flagellation. It’s about self-acceptance. But don’t mistake that for something trite and superficial. I’m talking about real self-acceptance.
I find this idea particularly meaningful given that the entire community in the film seems to know about her meltdown and her sleeping around. Everybody is gossiping about her, and some men (like the cop) still make overtures to sleep with her when she is particular distressed. She is widowed, has unresolved grief in relation to her former husband, and she has no job. She has been stripped of any icon of status. Everybody in the town wants to other her as a whore. And yet, after renouncing that way of life, she refuses to allow others to demean her and crush her into nothingness. She doesn’t sink into a self-paralyzing shame. And significantly, she doesn’t deny her past behavior. She owns it as a part of herself; she identifies in part with the “sloppiness” and “dirtiness” that her society deems so disgusting. She owns herself as the “gross,” “slutty” woman, the kind of woman at whom we love casting stones.
I wonder if this slight reframing of moral self-examination can help texture a more Augustinian account. What does it mean to claim yourself in this way? I can think of plenty of ways in which the Silver Linings Playbook scene may not work, depending on the kind of sin, the kind of person, and the kind of repentance we’re talking about, but it’s an intriguing idea with which to sit when we think about conversion and healing.
And if you’re tempted to dismiss this as a trite idea, perhaps look at the times in your life when you may have been “sloppy” or “dirty” or “dumb” or “messy” or “undesirable” and ask: can you forgive?