Friday, December 4, 2015

the courage of "just say no" vs. the platitudes and cowardice of a yes you can't/won't do

My devotional reading these days is working through this set of excerpts by Soren Kierkegaard. Good stuff! 

Today's blurb was about the temptation of emphasizing "good intentions" and lacking the courage to "just say no".

SK's comments spring from the parable in Mt 21:28-31 which compares one son who promises to do something and doesn't-- with another son who says no but ends up doing it. (Of course, there are many acceptable special-case reasons/exceptions for why a commitment might not be fulfilled. And there are many bothersome reasons why one might say no but still do something-- e.g., out of an over-riding sense of inappropriate guilt. But this is a parable, not a dissertation!)

Nuggets from the excerpt... 

The parable is "meant to show us the danger of saying 'Yes' in too great a hurry, even if it is well meant...the yes-brother was not a deceiver when he said 'Yes,' [but he] became a deceiver when he failed to keep his promise...It is easy to think that by making a promise you have at least done part of what you promised to do, as if the promise itself were something of value. Not at all! In fact, when you do not do what you promise, it is a long way back to the truth."

This reminds me of Lewis on getting married falsely when one does not strongly intend to hold to the commitment. Why is better to pile sin upon sin? Here, if you're not going to follow through, the no is actually far better than the yes. 

Beware! The “Yes” of promise keeping is sleep-inducing. An honest “No” possesses much more promise. It can stimulate; repentance may not be far away...A “no” does not hide anything, but a yes can very easily become a deception, a self-deception...

My favorite part of this. The yeses are so easy; saying no almost always requires courage. For that reason alone, the no has under-estimated value. 

The good intention, the “Yes,” taken in vain, the unfulfilled promise leaves a residue of despair, of dejection.

This has many personal and public policy applications. First, at a personal level, if I fail to follow through on a commitment, I create damage in that moment. But I also reduce my character and undermine perceptions of my character. Beyond that, I do damage to the institution of promises and commitments. Along the same lines, divorce is both a sin on the part of at least one party-- and it does sinful damage to the institution of marriage. 

In terms of public policy, one routinely sees the triumph of self-satisfied but damaging "good intentions" from advocates of government activism-- e.g., on the Left, with health care, gun control, welfare policies, "climate change", etc.; and on the Right, with foreign policy, immigration, and a handful of social policies. But the failures leave "a residue of despair"-- at least for the objective outsider. 

Finally, this warning: "As an alcoholic constantly requires stronger and stronger drink, so the one who has fallen under the spell of good intentions and smooth-sounding declaration constantly requires more and more good intentions. And so he keeps himself from seeing that he is walking backwards."

For those who are dominated by ideology, the "residues of despair" are downplayed or ignored if at all possible. The Good-Intenders still sleep well at night, imagining that next time will be better or if only this hadn't happened or if... As such, they're in danger of reaching a point of no or unlikely return-- unable to even imagine that one can drift into this sort of error. From there, how can one recover from the ensuing blindness? 

SK warns us to be really careful of our yes's and no's-- personally and by extension, in terms of public policy. Take heed, lest you fall. 


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