Act the part, and the feeling will follow

 |  Young Voices

If there is anyone on the planet who if given the opportunity would not change something about him- or herself, I would love to meet them.

The reality, of course, is that we all have characteristics and circumstances we care to hide or wish we could transform. Some of these are relatively superficial, e.g., our personal appearance, athletic ability or lack thereof. Others are crosses beyond our control but that we nevertheless must carry, such as prolonged illnesses or debilitating disabilities.

There are some imperfections, however, that get down to the most fundamental yet intangible aspects of our personality and the entire human experience. We desire to be patient when we feel anything but. We long to be pleasant when all we see within ourselves is spiteful, bitter pettiness. Surely, all of us have encountered that person who seems to breathe goodwill and joy and found ourselves simultaneously wanting what they have and resenting them for having it.

"I wish I was like you," Kurt Cobain sang. "Easily amused."

"Am I hard enough? Am I rough enough? Am I rich enough?" the Rolling Stones asked.

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All these emotions, doubts and questions are branches on the same tree: feeling inadequate. Experiencing a sense that we are lacking on a most elemental level. Worrying that we alone are missing something without which we cannot sufficiently live.

The Christian response to this impression is that we are, in fact, deficient, that each of us is weak and sinful in our own way and that God alone can satisfy our deprivation. Whether it is St. Augustine's famous assertion that "our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee" or Fr. Robert Barron's claim that "we have all been wired for God," the Christian answer, at face value, seems to be that yes, we are full of foibles, and God is the one who can truly fix us.

While I think there is much truth to this, I also think it is far too simplistic. Recognizing we are flawed by nature does not give us a free pass to ignore our call to goodness or let us off the hook for blemishes in the virtue department. Like President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, while we ought to ask "His blessing and His help ... here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."

As much as we may feel we are unable to cultivate kindness, forge forgiveness or manifest mercy, I cannot imagine God would accept "Sorry, but I'm not cut out for this whole 'being a good person' thing" or "All right, God: It's up to you to make me better" as satisfactory excuses.

What to do, then?

Fake it. Pretend to embody the highest traits even when you fear you are in short supply.

This may sound counterintuitive, even two-faced and dishonest. Just as we all know the person who brims with boundless joy, we have also all met the person who grins through clenched teeth, masking scorn that will one day inevitably creep out.

Just hear me out.

In Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, he writes about Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen, psychologists who studied the relationship between emotions and facial expressions. The two worked on the Facial Action Coding System, which classifies and documents facial expressions. The two spent an absurd amount of time practicing various combinations of expressions with remarkably specific names. In laypeople's terms, the looks represented anger, confusion, shock, jubilation and a host of other feelings.

Their research led to a number of fascinating conclusions laid out in Blink, but the one that stuck with me most was that sometimes, the expression precedes the emotion. If, for example, Ekman spent considerable time contorting his face to demonstrate disgust, he began to actually feel disgusted, despite our general assumption that it is the other way around; we feel something and respond accordingly.

But what does this have to do with living a virtuous life?

We often presume we must be a polite person to act courteously, that we must be compassionate to show sympathy. There is some hidden quality we must hold before we can actually carry out the behaviors most frequently associated with that quality.

What I take from Ekman and Friesen is that the physical action leads to the corresponding emotion. Whether it is refraining from yelling at a rude and unhelpful customer service representative or complimenting someone we do not like, doing the right thing allows us to actually be good before we feel good.

In his enormously helpful article "12 Things I Wish I Knew at 25: Spiritual Learnings on My 50th Birthday," Jesuit Fr. James Martin wrote: "Within you is the idea of your best self. Act as if you were that person and you will become that person, with God's grace."

No one is perfect, and no one is exactly as they would like to be. But in many scenarios, most of us can determine how we would act in an ideal world. Maybe functioning with that in mind, even if we feel phony and disingenuous while doing so, will slowly bring us to the holiness and love we so want to exemplify.

There is no question that the attempt will be imperfect. But I also must believe God sees the effort and stands ready to help us with the rest.

[Brian Harper is a communications specialist for the Midwest Jesuits. You can read his work and listen to his music at brianharper.net.]

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July 14-27, 2017

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