Don Wycliff

To move forward, look back

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

“Don’t look back; something might be gaining on you,” the great pitcher and baseball wit Satchel Paige famously said.

Whether he intended to or not, Paige captured in that quip a key facet of the American character: a skepticism about reflection, introspection and self-examination. Americans are, by attitude, an anti-historical lot who have preferred to look ahead — to the next horizon, the next piece of open or cleared territory, the next potential enterprise. Look back and something — an uneasy conscience, an inconvenient memory of an historical wrong — might overtake you.

We have been abetted in this by the fact that the United States is a vast, continental nation where, through much of our history, it has been possible for those so inclined to pull up stakes, move to a new place, even create a new identity — if the opportunity or the need arose.

But if I could import one thing from my 1950s Catholic childhood into our present historical moment, it would be a thing at odds with that attitude: the regular practice — the discipline — of examination of conscience. I’d want it not just for me and not just for Catholics, but for American society as a whole.
We need to learn to look backward; to face unflinchingly our faults, foibles, mistakes, sins. So that we can be reconciled, yes, but also so that we can become mindful of the wake we create as we move through the world.

Examination of conscience forces one to do that, to take stock, to fulfill that obligation spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

I have always admired the hook in that command — if you “recall that your brother has anything against you …” That complicates things. You don’t get to be your own judge and jury. You have to find out whether your brother (or sister) has a grievance against you, and deal with it, and be reconciled. The other’s sense of the matter counts, not just your own.

Especially in our social and political lives, Americans — maybe all humans, but without question Americans — have grown expert at self-justification; at trying ourselves and finding ourselves innocent; at giving ourselves absolution without confession and repentance, indeed, without even a genuine examination of conscience.

How else to explain, for example, holding men at Guantanamo for years without trial and against all the principles of our own legal system? How else to explain the anger and outrage that greeted former president Barack Obama when he dared to offer apologies for some of America’s foreign misadventures that, whatever they may have done for the United States, left other nations and peoples worse off? How else to explain the fondness for “Gone With the Wind” portrayals of the antebellum South as opposed to the gritty, brutal reality? And how else to explain a president, sworn to uphold the Constitution, who, given several opportunities, cannot bring himself to unequivocally condemn racist, white supremacist, Nazi ideology?

Americans insist on our “exceptional” status as a nation. But is obliviousness about the lives of others part of our “exceptionalism”?

In an essay (“Unlearning the myth of American innocence”) published recently in the Guardian newspaper, Suzy Hansen, a young American journalist, described her coming to consciousness about the outside world after a middle-class upbringing in a sheltered white town (ironically named “Wall”) by the New Jersey Shore.

She described living and working for a time in Turkey, where, she says, “I would go, as a journalist, to write a story about Turkey or Greece or Egypt or Afghanistan, and inevitably someone would tell me some part of our shared history — theirs with America — of which I knew nothing. If I didn’t know this history, then what kind of story did I plan to tell?”

She described a similar kind of eye-opening experience in college when she encountered the writings of the late James Baldwin, the black novelist and essayist.

It is, she wrote, “very, very rare that young white Americans come across someone who tells them in harsh, unforgiving terms that they might be merely the easy winners of an ugly game, and indeed because of their ignorance and misused power, they might be the losers within a greater moral universe.”

Suzy Hansen discovered that her brothers and sisters had something against her as an American that needed to be confronted. She didn’t cause the offenses; she wasn’t guilty. But she did grow mindful of realities of which she previously had been ignorant. And mindfulness is good.

In my youth, examination of conscience often seemed a mathematical exercise. How many times did I disobey mom and dad? How many times did I hit my brother? And most important, how many “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” will the priest give me as a penance?

What we need now is something far different, far more mature. We need a discipline for looking backward, so that we can go forward mindfully, and in grace.


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