The Danger of Becoming Morally Blunted

9:45:00 AMUnknown

        We've all heard it a thousand times: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not a virtue, but a habit.” Habits give structure to our goals and determine how we go about achieving them in our daily routines. One could scarcely believe that an Olympian was able to win a gold medal based on sheer talent alone. Countless hours of preparation and careful discipline are behind every great athletic achievement. Being excellent is often inextricably tied up in and connected to personal habits.

         While it’s easy to think of countless other examples of great habits people are able to cultivate, Hildebrand’s essay on the dangers of becoming morally blunted deals with the other side of the issue of habit. He writes: “Habit is a sort of beneficial adaptability in human beings that can make their lives more bearable, yet it is also a force that can diminish the spiritual alertness of a person, which is the foundation of all true moral and spiritual life.” Spiritual alertness? Isn’t the moral life all about action and the will? At first glance, it seems pretty sweeping to say that an “alertness” is the foundation to all true moral and spiritual life.

       Hildebrand, however, is not talking about an external, physical readiness to simply be present to the world around us. Alertness, in this sense, refers to an interior attitude which directs all of our moral choices and enables us to see good and evil. It is being rightly ordered within ourselves to the truth of reality: being overjoyed by the beauty of the good and struck by evil in all its forms. Alertness is the way of our heart.

         Habits must never dim our ability to see the glory of the goodness of life or the great beauty that we experience. Habits should increase our gratitude for the glorious world around us. Hildebrand writes: “Human beings must never grow accustomed to any gift from the ‘Father of Lights’, the sun shining for us, every drink of water that refreshes us…In such cases, habit has an exclusively negative effect, for the grateful appreciation of all things that are good should never diminish; nothing should ever be simply taken for granted.” When reading this, I thought back to my semester experience in Gaming, Austria. I was able to go to Mass every day, and many times, it just became a part of my routine, a habit. When I went back to Michigan at the end of the year, one of our foreign exchange students returned to his native China. Later this summer, he shared with us that he was only able to go to Mass once a month. How much more grateful I could have been for daily Mass! I had lost my alertness to the reality of gift; plain old habit had skewed my appreciation of this profound gift.

Habit must especially not get us accustomed to sin. Our consciences must never become numbed all too easily, not only when we ourselves sin repeatedly without truly repenting of the sin each time, but also when we put up with the injustices of others and so accustom ourselves to a morally poisoned atmosphere. Even if we initially reject sin with indignation, when we allow ourselves to regularly come into contact with sin, or persons who continually sin, that initial indignation becomes tolerance it can becomes. We allow ourselves to “put up with it.”. I can think of a time over the summer when I was discussing a recent movie with a friend. I was saying to her: “I just couldn’t get over all of the inappropriate sexual content. It was saturating almost every scene.” To which my friend replied, “Oh well, I meant besides all that!” I believe that this is one of the easiest ways in which our consciences can grow accustomed to sin. We justify movies, songs, and other entertainment in our modern culture because we can just forget about the moral problems in them and instead concentrate on their “redeeming qualities.” Seeing sin in this sense has become a habit: we cannot get away from the relativistic values which our cultures promotes. We are willing to excuse behavior because, frankly, we are just so used to seeing it everywhere.

           Hildebrand thinks that this is a great moral problem. But, one may ask, what if I am not actually doing anything sinful?

          If we do not immediately break out of this passive attitude towards good and evil, this alertness to true reality will eventually waste away, rendering us morally and spiritually asleep.  This is the danger of demoralization. In Hildebrand’s time, he saw people everywhere taking up a similar, passive attitude towards Nazism as the party came to power in Europe. We must look past the wrongs, they said, and start focusing on the good aspects of Nazism. Nothing could have enraged Hildebrand more. Evil must be rightly recognized for what is it, never “gotten used to” or “looked past”. We are called, as Christians, to vehemently and constantly combat it.

        Even if we are not able to actively fight evil every time we encounter it, we must remain alert, especially in our mental habits. “Nothing should diminish our inner judgment, our unconditional rejection, our conscious of the horrific immorality of it all, and our determination to fight it with every means available”. We are to always be sober and watchful: quick to reject evil in every circumstance and to accept with active gratitude the good gifts from God.
      So, if this means staying five minutes after Mass in a prayer of thanksgiving, say thank you with a sincere heart. If it means shutting off the phone to simply admire nature, do it. Be bold and say no to watching a morally problematic film. It may exciting and entertaining, but if it causes our hearts to become less morally sharp, it’s simply not worth it. Let’s not allow ourselves to sink into spiritually stagnant attitudes. 

True faith is found in having the courage to purposefully align ourselves to the good and beautiful, and true saints are made in the active, interior rejection of anything and everything which is contrary to that goodness. So, cultivate good and truthful habits. Fight the good fight. Be alert!

Source: Dietrich Von Hildebrand. The Danger of Becoming Morally Blunted. My Battle Against Hitler. November 10, 1935.

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