Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Philippians 4 v8
We choose who we shall become. I don’t say that unavoidable outside influences don’t have any effect on who we become – of course they do. I say merely that many outside influences are not unavoidable: we place ourselves in the way of them. The sometimes uncomfortable truth is that to a considerable extent we are who we have chosen to become, even if we weren’t always conscious of what we were choosing. And more comfortingly but also more challengingly we still have choices about who we shall be in the future. So: who do we want to be like? Which of the people you know have a disposition that you find admirable? This is part of the challenge of Jesus’s Beatitudes: notice, he says, how blessed, how makarios, are people of various dispositions. It’s not a question of imitating their behaviour; that would be to try to find a short cut to being makarios, and there is no such short cut. It is rather a matter of asking ourselves what influences and experiences we might expose ourselves to that might help to develop in us the kind of disposition we find admirable – and just as importantly, of avoiding those influences and experiences that would tend to make acquiring the disposition we desire less likely.
The greatest sin – the sin against Holy Spirit (your spirit, which is holy because it is the most precious thing you possess) – is to allow yourself to become someone you can’t respect, someone you don’t want to be, by exposing yourself to damaging or misleading influences and experiences, or, having found you can’t respect the self you have become, to fail to take the necessary steps to change your dispositions. This latter is what repentance is really about; it’s not (just) a matter of stopping doing some bad things: it is to take steps to change who you are becoming. So the matter of which friends we choose, what leisure activities we take part in, what entertainment we watch, what organisations we join, what work we undertake, what intimate relationships we enjoy, what books we read, which thinkers we allow to influence our approach to life – all these are questions of the utmost importance to us: to a large extent, they decide who we are going to become. This is necessarily an exercise in autonomy. Similar experiences do not affect everyone in the same way; it depends on who they have already become. Consequently as an adult you have to judge for yourself what influences and experiences you need at any particular time in your life. You might take advice, but in the end you must make your own decisions, because it’s your soul we’re talking about. These decisions won’t always meet with the approval of others; as Jesus observes, you may sometimes have to turn your back on home and family – as indeed he did.
This is not a plea for a caution that amounts to being so afraid of possibly damaging or misleading experiences and influences that one tries simply to avoid them completely. That is too negative an approach, and in any case some possibly damaging experiences are unavoidable and probably necessary in life because, like the prodigal son, we grow through them. Moreover, growing up necessarily involves encountering and dealing with experiences that a few years or even just a few months earlier might really have been potentially damaging; it’s no use being afraid of growing up – however old we are. No: like
’s advice in our text, it’s a plea rather to make sure that there are sufficient countervailing helpful influences to shape us as we want to be shaped. And if the influences that we have already taken to heart have largely settled who we are becoming and have been positive, then we shall be the more able to expose ourselves without fear of damage to situations which might in other circumstances have drawn us in a less helpful direction. St Paul
Propagandists and advertisers understand all this very well of course; their task is to make sure that the influences that we are likely to come across most easily are ones that will shape us as they want us to be shaped. They are thieves of our autonomy and therefore of our souls. Sometimes propagandists appear to have benign intentions: they may seek to protect us from unhelpful influences. There is no doubt a place for that when bringing up a child, though it’s probably not as important as setting before that child examples of admirable lives. But we need to be very cautious about using that approach with adults, which is one reason why we are rightly suspicious of censorship.
There is of course an infinite number of very different potential selves that we have not turned out to be because of the choices made long ago by ourselves or others, consciously or unconsciously. It is sometimes tempting to wonder who we might have become, if … whatever. But the range of missed possibilities is in truth too vast for such wonderings to have much meaning. Even as we recognise that there is still a considerable range of possibilities for our future, we have to accept that we are, now, who we are, now; like any journey, where you go in the future has to start from where you are, not from somewhere else. The wonderful thing is that, whatever has happened in the past, there are always still choices to be made about who you want to be tomorrow and the days after. They may be tightly constrained, there may not be much time left; but there are choices. This understanding that the future is not mapped out, not absolutely dictated by the past, is an important part of what we mean by hope. We do not need to be hope-less. But being hope-full is not a matter of just passively hoping for the best; being truly hope-full involves action, yes, but more essentially it involves putting ourselves in the way of those experiences and influences that will make us who we still want to become.