Planks in our own eyes

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Brian Harper

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The older I get, the grumpier I become, and the grumpier I become, the more I catch myself engaging in the same behaviors that irritate me most in others ... which, of course, is pretty irritating.

I will be on a train, fuming with righteous indignation about someone shouting into their smart phone, blasting music, or obliviously staying seated when an expectant mother boards the full car. I don't know why I worry so much. Without fail, I will demonstrate my own brand of thoughtlessness and selfishness soon enough.

Experiencing humility because of our hypocrisy is usually a good thing, but I think it is especially important at the end of a presidential campaign approximately zero people have enjoyed. There is no need to cite the polls. Suffice it to say that the number of voters with negative views of the two major party candidates is "unprecedented."

Almost all of us find at least one of these politicians to be completely unacceptable, and with social media available to the masses, we have not exactly kept our opinions a secret.

This, too, can be good. Political engagement matters. Holding our leaders accountable for their words and actions matters. But we should extend the same courtesy to ourselves.

Recently, a quote that is supposedly an excerpt from C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters has circulated around the internet. The passage did not, in fact, come from Lewis's spiritual classic about a demon training his nephew in the art of tempting humans, but it still bears timely advice in the tone and spirit of the novel:

Be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control. Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing. Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is 'out there' in the 'broken system' rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.

Naturally, we often hold presidential candidates to a higher standard than we do ourselves. I should not know more about the Syrian civil war than someone who is asking to command the armed forces.

But many of this year's candidates' shortcomings indicate deeper social problems that extend beyond a presidential election and into our own lives.

How many of us who are troubled by a candidate's racist and xenophobic rhetoric have examined our own prejudices? When we rightly speak out against sexual assault and threats of violence, are we also contending with the subtler but still problematic ways we might be reinforcing gender stereotypes or sexism? If we see one of the candidates as secretive or behaving in a way that suggests he or she is above the law, do we also take time to consider our own duplicity or sense of entitlement? Do our concerns about political dishonesty lead us to be more transparent and candid in our lives? Has a candidate's embarrassing lack of knowledge surrounding basic facts about the world challenged us to better educate ourselves? In the face of our anger about lack of action on gun violence, climate change, or a range of other issues, have we taken responsibility and shifted our own behaviors to reflect how we think our leaders ought to conduct themselves? Does our exasperation about political intransigence on both sides of the aisle compel us to reach out and try to understand people with opposing views?

Again, participating in our political process is important. But there are limits to the impact a single person can have, which also seems to be a source of despair for many. We can vote, attend a rally, sign a petition, or pen an op-ed, but is it worth it? Do any of our small efforts really matter?

Aspiring optimist that I am, I think they do. But even if they do not, even if these efforts are meaningless or too feeble to be felt, civic outrage in the face of our political dysfunction can distract us from the very real work we can do in our own hearts.

Maybe this will not make much of a difference either. But as someone who had his own problems with government once suggested, we will have a better chance removing "the speck" from another's eye if we first take care of the plank in our own.

[Brian Harper is a communications specialist for the Midwest Jesuits. His writing has been featured in America magazine, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the National Catholic Reporter, and various other publications. You can find his work at]

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