This is that time of year when the little demon of self-criticism and self-denigration wakes up and starts nagging you for letting your new year’s resolutions slip a little. Or maybe you’re not there yet. You’re powering through, waking up early, working out hard, eating right, reading more, living your best life. Hey. Good on you. Go get it.
But regardless, whether you find yourself nailing it or failing it, do you have the patience and the necessary courage to accept yourself at every moment you try to improve?
This week, Ryan McAnnally-Linz and Miroslav Volf discuss an obscure but incredibly timely passage from an old lecture given by the great Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit priest and one of the most notable Catholic theologians of the 20th century—he was instrumental, for instance, in the theological developments of the Second Vatican Council.
Miroslav once heard Rahner give a talk about patience, and has passed along the wisdom of that lecture, and now we’re passing it on to you. Miroslav even translated a passage from the German text, and reads it here (you can also find it in our show notes).
In this episode, Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz reflect on Karl Rahner's admonition to be patient with oneself. The discussion begins by recognizing the gap between who you are now and who you aspire to be, and proceeds with the need to keep the tension alive, working and bearing with your limitations, and exploring the freedom of a serene patience with oneself. Serenity is not acquiescence to vice or bad habits. But it represents a courageous long-term peace with your imperfections—an effort to recognize oneself as rooted in divine love and grace and acceptance, even as you pursue a vision of a better self.
- New Year’s Resolutions and the need to be patient
- Karl Rahner’s “Intellectual Patience with Oneself” (translated from German to English by Miroslav Volf)
- Minding the gap between who you are and who you aspire to be
- Narcissism, complacency, and resignation
- Miroslav’s friend’s motto for graduate school: “Courage to Imperfection!"
- Patience is not merely a private interior thing—there is a public effect of bearing with oneself that leads to bearing with others.
- The courage to public imperfection
- Cultivating a secure sense of self grounded in God’s love
- We can live with imperfection knowing that we are accepted as we are
- Release yourself from the grip of the performed, curated self
- How patience with oneself applies to the struggle to improve through New Year’s Resolutions
- Reflect on which self you want to nurture and don’t give up on the tension between who you are and who you aspire to be.
- Constant pressure to improve quickly, as opposed to acceptance of limitations and imperfections
- Keep the tension alive, work with your limitations, and explore the freedom of a serene patience with oneself.
- You cannot do whatever you want, and the lie that you can leaves you exposed to the deep pain of failure and limitation.
- “You are not at stake.” Limits are there. They are to be worked with rather than hated or abhorred.
- "I’m not divine. I’m human."
Karl Rahner, “On Intellectual Patience with Oneself”
in Schriften zur Theologie, 15, 303ff.
(Abridged version of the first few paragraphs that deal with patience with oneself in general, of which intellectual patience with oneself is one dimension)
Translated by Miroslav Volf
That we need … patience with ourselves, seems to me a self-evident thing, in fact one of those self-evident things which in reality turn out to be difficult to achieve. Perhaps there are people who don’t think they need patience with themselves because they are in full agreement with who they are and with what they do. But I hope that we will not envy the “good fortune” of such simple-minded people. If we are honest with ourselves, we are [all] the kind of people who, rightly, are not fully finished with ourselves, and also the kind of people who cannot establish the state of their full agreement with ourselves on command or through some psychological trick. Because a full agreement with ourselves is neither given nor within our power to achieve, we need to have patience with ourselves. The person in us, who we actually are, greets with pain, the person in us who we want to become… We are now on the way, we live between a past and a future, and both, each in its own way, are out of our full control. We never have all things together which we need to live; we are always historically conditioned, socially manipulated, biologically threatened—and we are aware of this. We can try to suppress the knowledge of this state of existence; we can try to let things that we cannot change just be there as surd elements of our lives; or we can misuse joyous experiences of life as analgesics against the uncanny tensions between who we are and who we should be; or we can interpret these dissatisfactions as depression which we either have simply to suffer or which we can medicalize ourselves against.
But when we muster the courage to face these tensions [between who we are and who we aspire to become], when we acknowledge them and accept them … then we have come to have patience with ourselves, to accept that we are not in pure agreement with ourselves… Many believe that they have patience with themselves and that this patience is the most ordinary of things. But if we were to look at such people more carefully, we would see that they do not take on patiently the pain of their tensions, that they don’t face them without ether embellishing or hating them, but that they flee from them into the banality of everyday life … that what has triumphed in them [over these tensions] is an unrecognized despair or despairing resignation, that they, in the end, believe that life has no meaning. We would also see that they do not actually have patience as they behold the questionableness of their existence, but are seeking ways to look away and find surrogates for patience, which, they believe, make it possible for them to live.
Those who are truly patient endure in reality their existential tensions, take them on, accept the pain they cause… Those who are patient are patient with their impatience; serenely, they let go of the final “agreement” between who they are and what they aspire to become. They do not know where this serenity, in which they let themselves be, comes from… Those who are patient are serene and therefore free.
We will not further explore the question about what it is that we ultimately fall upon when practicing such serene patience. Some people will think that the stance rests on “Nothing”; resting on “Nothing,” they can be victorious over tense conflicts of finite realities in their own lives. Others are persuaded, that “Nothing,” when one gives it its proper sense, is of no use, that it can have no power to give peace. Instead, they believe that when we serenely accept our tensions [between who we are and what we aspire to become], then, whether we are aware or not, we have come to rest on what in everyday use of the word we call God.And when we really understand that word [God], the we see that the letting oneself “fall” into the silent incomprehensibility which is God “succeeds” because God receives in grace those who let themselves fall into serene patience with themselves.