Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
“You can’t handle the truth!” If you’ve seen the movie, “A Few Good Men” (1992), you may recall those explosive words by which the self-important Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson) attempts on the witness stand to dismiss the brash Navy prosecutor Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise). Claiming a kind of moral superiority to protect people from themselves, even at the expense of violating the law, he almost makes his case. Jessep had forged a signature, covered up a murder, and tried to pin the blame on two Marines, ultimately committing perjury to escape prosecution. When pressed to tell the truth, he tries to make Kaffee look like a naive, bleeding-heart hypocrite while excusing himself by touting the hardship of commanders and what they must go through to protect the country, in his view.

If this sounds familiar, you may be sure. It is as old as the narrative in the Garden of Eden where the serpent convinces Adam and Eve that he has their best interests at heart when he tempts them to trust him over God. Falling for the Ancient Lie, they bring us all down. The tempter, appealing to their egos, offers them illusions of power so they can control the mystery of God.

Satan’s relentless deceit is rooted in his pride: resenting that he is not God, he seizes what belongs to God alone, preying on the naivete of his human subjects to feed it. The core of Col. Jessep’s defense is that he knows better than those to whom he is now being held accountable — what is in their “best interests” — for without him they could not survive.

This is the closing argument of all tyrants throughout history, when the truth begins to emerge and the mask falls. Other scripts have exposed the biblical archetype, even humorously. Remember the pathetic revelation at the end of the “Wizard of Oz” (1939), when Dorothy’s little dog (Toto) draws the curtain on “the Great Oz,” now exposed as a little man attempting to rule his adoring minions by big fear — smoke and mirrors — when he really controls nothing.

Time and again, the trusting have been promised cures and sinecures, remedies and potions purported to improve their lot without having to read the label. “Just take this and you will feel better.” Even death itself has been prescribed as a remedy for pain. Some would place this in the hands of physicians to assist their charges into a better state than they are living in. You might remember the “death therapy” prescribed by an ego-centric psychiatrist (Richard Dreyfuss) driven to insanity by the intrusion of an overly social patient (Bill Murray) in the comedy, “What About Bob?” (1991). Some of these movies are worth watching again!

We are offered “solutions” to life’s dilemmas at times that, given further thought and experience, are discovered not to be curative in the long run. Having participated recently in “The March for Life” in Washington, D.C., I returned with a renewed sense of hope in the future well-being of our country, seeing so many young people who understand that the meaning of human dignity cannot rest on what may seem convenient now or what is done out of desperation for an apparent lack of other alternatives.

Many of these young people have friends and family who came to dire straits when they saw no way out but to do something bad to avoid what seemed worse. Where an unplanned, unsought life arrives in the form of a pregnancy that now places an insurmountable burden on the life of a person without the support of family, friends or the one who enabled the pregnancy. The “post-Roe generation,” as many signs bore witness to, has resolved never to leave women or their children alone, but to accompany them both, walking the walk and welcoming them fully into a future where neither must be sacrificed to live their lives fully. It is an ideal that our laws and customs have yet to catch up with, but in which so many of our young people not only believe but pledge to be a part of: a world in which equality begins in the womb and no human being loses their dignity because of their state at the start of life or any stage along the pilgrimage through natural death to our eternal home.

“Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge,” Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once wrote and I like to reference. It is easy to dismiss people with hopes and ideals who seek to tell and be told the truth and wish to live by and then judge them as ill-informed, naive or insensitive. The desire for comfort, to avoid pain, or the fear of pain, is an alluring charm by which some are seduced again and again into believing they or the world will be better off without them. Those most vulnerable to the promise of a “death with dignity,” which is a way of saying death without any pain, are often those who have lost belief in their own worth as human beings to others or even to God. They feel or have been induced to feel themselves a burden. It may be difficult for them to realize what they mean to others because they do not have anyone to remind them. They suffer alone.
Most painful among pandemic experiences has been the separation of the sick and aging from loved ones, distancing and isolation not easily overcome even by the best efforts of technology and medical care. Unfortunately, the depressive effect of separation also affects many who are not physically ailing, but simply separated from friends at work or school or recreation.
In a recent column, I had mentioned concerns I and many others share about the collateral damage of the pandemic by some of the means that have been deployed to control it, limiting the severity of its threat. We all know adages about “out of the frying pan, into the fire” and “may the cure not be worse than they disease.” Every day we learn more about both the promises and limitations of the many means we have experimented with throughout this public health crisis. Vaccines, masks, social distancing, lockdowns, assorted therapies, Vitamin D levels, comorbidities, acquired immunities, T-cells, even blood types — all of these have been advanced and critiqued as factors in coping (or not) with the virus. Depending on what one reads or experiences, one will likely form one’s own judgment. If we find Dr. Jung’s admonition prescient, we might do better to do more thinking than judging. 

The truth is we do not know all there is to be learned and may still be in for some surprises. We might even learn that we did some things wrong even though our intentions were to help. Going forward, what is most important is that we do not fear to discover the truth and learn from it. Not different from our experience with the pandemic, surviving abuse and domestic violence, and coming to terms with decisions we may have come to regret on life choices, we can also learn from the most desperate and regrettable episodes in our lives. Peter would own his error and live. Judas did not and destroyed himself. Why? In the end, saints survive and thrive not so much because they know more, but because they trust God knows better. In their sins and struggles, they turn back to God. And this is the truth that sets them free.