Actions, Words and Colored Collars

Daily ReadingsMemorial of St. John of God
1 Jn 3:14-18 / Mt 25:31-40

Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth. [1 Jn 3:18]

There’s been chatter in recent years about the concept of class straddlers, who are people who don’t quite fit in with either the blue-collar or white-collar worlds. Long before the concept was named and developed, I knew I was one of those people: one of my parents was a blue-collar worker raised in a white-collar family; the other was a white-collar worker raised in a blue-collar family; and I myself grew up in a blue-collar environment with white-collar attitudes and expectations. As an adult, I’m arguably pink-collar but the majority of my friends and acquaintances are white-collar.

I feel the class dichotomy a lot, to the point where I’ve been known to express the opinion that the strongest stratifications in modern American society are based on socioeconomic class as opposed to traditional demographic categories such as race and sex. One place where I notice it the most is whether I give more credence to people’s words or their actions.

For me, there’s no question: I put a lot more trust in people’s actions than in their words. Talk, I learned very early on, is cheap; this lesson was repeated and reinforced as I grew up, and my adult experiences haven’t given me much reason to question that belief. Actions, on the other hand, will always show who a person really is and what they most value. This is particularly true of actions that are taken when the risk of consequences is relatively low. Thus, I pay a lot more attention to those, sometimes so much so that I actually ignore what people say.

In the latter situation, West accuses me of setting up a no-win situation for people who want to communicate with me. My counter-argument is simple and straightforward: if someone wants me to believe their words, their actions should back those words up.

Many of the other people in my daily life agree with West, which clearly shows that this particular attitude of mine is coming straight out of my blue-collar background. I’ve tried mitigating my viewpoint a bit by trying to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but to be honest, it hasn’t worked all that well. The farthest I’ve gotten is to a belief that most people lie to themselves first, which is what leads to them lying to others.

As for me? I try to root out the lies I tell myself, though I’ll admit that my success in that area is questionable. About the best I can do is to make a commitment to keep trying.

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Today’s optional memorial honors St. John of God, whose biography describes an internal battle between what today would be called “virtue signaling” and sincere humility. It took him years and, at first, he primarily ended up on the virtue signaling side (when he bothered to be observant at all). It was only when he shifted his focus outward, to tending the needs of others, that he began to find the humility and selflessness that God actually wants from us.

This idea of seeking peace through outward action seems to fly in the face of the nature of Lent, and it’s worth noting that March 8th is a day that can theoretically fall outside of Lent although it doesn’t in most years. At the same time, though, the story of St. John can serve as a model of why we take part in the internal reflection and renewal that’s the theme of this season.

He didn’t figure out what he was supposed to do until after being thrown into a mental hospital as a result of his excessive self-harm, which was virtue signaling despite the fact that he’d convinced himself otherwise. It wasn’t until Blessed John of Avila took a second look at St. John of God, that anyone figured out what was really going on.

He went to the hospital, and asked to see John alone. Then he gave him a sound scolding. He pointed out to John that he was untruthful, he was pretending to be mad whereas he was quite sane. He was unjust; he was living on the alms intended for lunatics, while he was quite able to look after himself. He was wanting in charity; for he was giving endless trouble to everyone about him, though he had resolved to spend himself in their service. [Source]

John of Avila’s clue-by-four worked, but it wouldn’t have without self-reflection on the part of St. John of God. If he hadn’t taken a brutally honest look at himself in order to root out the lies he was living by, the scolding would have fallen on deaf ears.

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This leads back to my own thoughts on the matter, and a potential question for Lenten self-reflection. What other lies am I still telling myself? If I’m going to hold other responsible for their actions matching their words, shouldn’t I hold myself to the same standard? Or is it my personal standard itself — the idea that I don’t believe words unless actions follow — that I need to re-evaluate? Where should I draw the line between the importance of a person’s words and the importance of their actions?

Maybe what I really need to do is simply start believing people more. Suspicion is never an easy thing to live with, and perhaps that’s the “deed” I should focus on improving. We’ll have to see.

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