Playing Defensive

by Brian Harper

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The virtues we ought to pursue and the vices we should avoid are usually too stealthy to notice. Efforts to foster love, for instance, might convince us to stamp out hatred, when fear or apathy are the real culprits.

It is this insight, as well as a deeper commitment to Saint Ignatius’s Daily Examen, that has helped me discover my go-to secret sin: defensiveness.

Pride may seem like the natural opposite of humility, but I think defensiveness is just as worthy a contender. On the surface, they may seem the same, but I have found there are real differences. While pride is the misplaced belief that I am superior, defensiveness is my panicked reaction when I realize I am not and refuse to accept it.

Defensiveness wears many disguises, but for me, it shows itself when I am facing or anticipating criticism. I find myself preparing retorts for an argument that will never occur or compiling counterexamples for criticism that will end up being constructive. 

My reckoning with defensiveness came to a head over the summer. Pope Francis was returning to Rome after an international trip to South America and, per his custom, held an impromptu press conference aboard the plane. During the proceedings, a journalist asked why he frequently speaks of the rich and poor but scarcely of  the “working, tax-paying" middle class.

My blood begin to boil before I even read the pope’s response. I pictured myself in his place, confronted with yet another question through the distinctively North American lens of another North American reporter. 

‘Do they ever ask about anything that isn’t expressly about the United States?’ Pope Brian asked himself, ignoring that the question came from a German journalist.

Setting my gut reaction aside, I read on, expecting Pope Francis to list examples of times he stood in solidarity with the middle class, defended labor unions, or otherwise spoke in support of people who are neither rich nor poor. 

I got something else.

“You’re right,” he responded. “It’s an error of mine not to think about this.”

The pope’s comments were immediately heralded as another example of his modesty. The Atlantic carefully documented his exile after serving as provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina, claiming it was humiliation that led to this humility.

Perhaps it is because humility is such a rare commodity that Pope Francis’ straightforward admission of his imperfection has remained with me as much as anything else he has said or done. My imagined but nevertheless visceral reaction to the German reporter’s question suggested I might have something to learn from this encounter.

First, the pope’s response reveals that the spirit in which a critique is offered need not determine the spirit in which it is received. Saint Ignatius’s Presupposition states, "[I]t is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false." In other words, we need to give people the benefit of the doubt.

There are unquestionably journalists who approach the pope combatively, hoping to catch him off guard. I have no idea what this German reporter’s modus operandi was, but in focusing on what he said and not whether what he said was meant as an affront, the pope was able to accomplish something few other leaders do: get to the heart of a relevant question.

This presents another problem with defensiveness: it is concerned with self-preservation, rather than truth, love or anything else that is good, right and just. Admitting we are wrong is painful; it publicizes a flaw. This is hard for any of us, but I would venture it is especially so for someone who can infallibly speak ex cathedra. If holiness is our pursuit, though, we must dismiss vanity and the instinct to protect our self-images.  

Finally, Pope Francis’ approach demonstrates the paradoxical benefits of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s "little way." While our society not-so-subtly promotes fostering a healthy ego and sticking to one’s guns, Pope Francis’ simple acknowledgment of oversight reverberated far more than any politician’s promise to never apologize. "Power," as Saint Paul said, "is perfected in weakness."

The world offers all of us many opportunities to practice defeating our defensiveness, both individually and collectively. As a white male, for example, I might feel uncomfortable with a national conversation about the insidious racism and sexism that exist in our schools, work places, and cities, because that dialogue lays bare the extent of my privilege. Nevertheless, how can I do a better job making the embarrassing concession that I experience an unbelievable degree of privilege every day? How can I do better listening to and working beside people who suffer discrimination I do not?

Choosing not to play defense and asking these sorts of questions is challenging. If we are to believe Pope Francis, Saint Thérèse, and Jesus, however, the path of the meek, weary, burdened and heavy-laden, while not the way of the world, is the way that leads to life.

[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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