Author’s name withheld by request.
Sometimes it’s about a compulsion to dominate other people that originates in childhood rivalries and persists into adulthood as an unconscious trait. The good news is that a person can readily overcome this trait by understanding its origin, and confessors can play a pivotal role in releasing their penitents from this sin.
(The author is a Catholic layman. As a general rule, Homiletic and Pastoral Review does not accept anonymous submissions, especially if the submitted essay is a critique of another. In this instance, however, we were asked to respect the author’s anonymity for the sake of his family and community.)
For years, I struggled with impure thoughts and desires. I prayed often and confessed sins of impurity many times for many years. I always felt sorry for my confessors because, despite their attempts to be helpful, I sensed that they must have endured thousands of drearily similar confessions over the years, often repeated by the same penitents. I have gone to many different confessors, but have yet to find one that can do more than offer encouragement, and recommend frequent prayer, and reception of the sacraments. And, indeed, I find that regular prayer, daily Mass, and weekly confession are a great help in fighting temptations to commit sins of impurity.
Still the persistence of the temptations was profoundly disturbing to me. I noticed that they became stronger the greater the interval between receptions of the sacraments. I felt a kind of pressure build up in me when I saw an attractive woman, or picture of an attractive woman, and the pressure would increase with each instance. I felt guilty coming home to my wife with this pent-up urge for sexual release, but thought it was probably normal male sexuality. Yet, I knew that it undermined my fight for sexual purity, and threatened my soul. I was trapped in a double life and did not know how to escape.
As I got older, I wondered if the temptations would reduce in frequency or severity. After all, I reasoned, this is the result of the male sex drive and when my virility begins to wane, so will the temptations. Yet this did not happen. I often think of a story told by a friend who spent several years as a young man in a monastery. He asked an elderly monk the age at which his sexual temptations would begin to diminish. The old monk looked surprised and hopeful, “Does that happen?” he playfully asked.
Thus, I gradually learned that I could not expect assistance from my declining hormones; lust is not something one “naturally” grows out of. It seemed that I would live out my days in a pitched battle between the lure of sexual attraction, and my attempts to achieve purity. I was resigned to this, but was also scared that my timing might be imperfect at death’s door, or that I might be subject to the powerful and salacious deathbed temptations one hears about. I yearned for a way to control—even eliminate the temptations—instead of fighting a demoralizing, embarrassing, intractable lifelong campaign.
On another level, I was also confused. After all, I did not want to commit sins of impurity. I am a happily married man who has never been unfaithful to my wife. I am upright and trustworthy with women, girls, and children. The thought of seducing or inappropriately touching someone is anathema to me. Yet, I was living a “Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde” existence, observing a strict moral code in my aspirations, but falling prey to riotous revels in the privacy of my imagination. Many men live this hypocrisy every day. It saps their confidence and distorts their personality.
As I grew increasingly aware of this contradiction, a hunch began to form in my mind that this could not be just about sex. When in the throes of impure thoughts a la “Mr. Hyde,” I retained enough of my “Dr. Jekyll” nature to question myself: “Why are you doing this? To think this way, you must mentally reduce women from real persons to submissive sex objects that you would normally find abhorrent.” If I am attracted to a woman for her true self that is one thing, and a normal thing, but if I feel compelled to mentally morph her into a sex object that is another thing entirely. Even as Mr. Hyde, I recognized that this was not a healthy sexuality, if it was even about sex at all.
This was the dilemma I faced. This was the spiritual struggle I waged. This is also the battle of millions of men in our time – men who live honorable lives and are faithful to their vocations, married, single, or priests – but struggle with lust, pornography, masturbation, and sometimes infidelity. For these men this struggle is bewildering and discouraging. They suffer a secret shame and fear of what their loved ones might think if they knew. Like St. Paul, they can say “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:15). Yet, by the grace of God, I have become unstuck from this unfortunate dynamic that had its origins in my childhood, and does not serve me well in adulthood. I also learned that my hunches were right; this struggle for me was not about sex. I write this in the hope that others like me may be released from similar sins of impurity.
The thing that helped me overcome impurity is a book, although the authors do not mention impurity explicitly. Hold On to Your Kids by (Canadians) Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and Gabor Matè, M.D., a physician and author, is a remarkable and life-changing book in many ways. The subtitle of the book is “Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers.” This book describes how our children have become emotionally attached to their peers, not their parents, or other responsible adults, as God (whom the authors call “nature”) intended. It explains that this is due to parental confusion and uncertainty, and is a disorder that is being passed down through the generations with increasingly disastrous results.
A child instinctively knows that he or she is in need of protection and guidance. To this end, the child’s nature prompts him or her to “attach”—for affection, closeness, belonging, significance, and orientation—to whomever is available, or a mother and a father in the normal course of events. But when a mother, father, adult relative, or other caring adult is not available emotionally, or physically—due to some tragedy, the demands of work, a lack of healthy attachments in their own life, or a lack of models, knowledge, or desire—the child attaches to whomever is available. In our culture, children spend more time with their peers than with anyone else; thus, it is to their peers that they attach.
This dysfunction is pervasive in industrial and post-industrial urban cultures, and is unknown in peasant societies, in which effective parenting practices are passed down through families and villages via example and imitation. But because we are now several generations removed from the traditions of our pre-industrial, pre-urban ancestors, such parenting practices have largely disappeared, and no longer shape our familial intuitions. Our knowledge and instincts can now only be rekindled by intentionally educating ourselves in the wisdom our forebears took for granted. Everyone reading this article has been influenced, some more some less, by this cultural loss.
The result of what the authors call “Peer Orientation” is extremely harmful to children. In Peer Orientation, members of a peer group step into a child’s parental vacuum to become the primary civilizers and shapers of each other. This means that children are being raised by other immature persons. The result of this is “Youth Culture” and children who flee from the adults who are responsible for their well-being in order to be in the presence of the peer group. Peer oriented children slavishly imitate each other in language, dress, attitudes, etc. Their peers command the allegiance due parents, and provide a distorted impression of each other’s significance and place in the world. In extreme cases, communication between children and parents breaks down entirely, and the family and home becomes a battle zone.
These are gang dynamics, although many parents do not recognize it, at times even pushing their children into the arms of their peers. In Peer Orientation, a child’s emotional development becomes stuck at an immature stage. Many children never get unstuck as they age. This influences their entire life, crippling their educational and professional attainments, and even leading to long-term financial dependence on the family they eschew. If they have children, they are usually ineffective in their attempts to connect with them, resulting in youngsters even more peer-oriented than themselves.
When a child has a meager or non-existent attachment to his or her parents, he or she will turn to peers for love and approval. This is where everything breaks down. In the peer group, the child immediately learns that appearing emotionally needy or vulnerable is an invitation to ridicule and rejection. The child must develop tougher, less vulnerable means of interacting, hence the crude and aggressive language, the cult of “coolness” and the frequent contempt expressed for adult values. Aggression gradually becomes a permanent trait that the child, and later the adult, is unaware of, although he or she remains painfully conscious of its existence in others. This is the psychological birthplace of bullying.
Catholics respect authority and hierarchy. It is second nature to us. Consequently we instinctively establish pecking orders in every school, every parish, every workplace, every association, and every group of friends. Our children do likewise. Our families value achievement, and press our children to “get ahead.” We operate highly competitive private schools that reward students who dominate other students academically, socially, and athletically.
Thus, our Catholic culture is, inadvertently, fertile ground for the development of a culture of bullying. Children who are insufficiently attached to parents, or other close adults—such as relatives, teacher, or neighbors—become the favorite targets of bullies. These children are drawn into the peer bullying culture unawares, becoming bullies themselves towards those whom they are able to dominate. Bullying becomes a pervasive way of life in childhood, and an unconscious trait in adulthood. It goes without saying that, from a Catholic perspective, this is a disgrace. It also goes a long way (and this is the point of this article) towards explaining today’s rampant problems with impurity among Catholics and others. Let me explain.
Over the years since my childhood, I have felt an impulse to bully certain men. Some men who appeared vulnerable to me, even on an unconscious level, could spark a desire in me to dominate them, which I indulged, at times, I am ashamed to say, through various kinds of “teasing” —actually ridicule that I excused as harmless fun. “Why do I do that?” I would ask myself later, determined not to do it again. However, as with impurity, my resolve not to bully or ridicule was only as strong as my will power—which varied according to my level of grace, awareness, will power, fatigue and temptation. Actually, I did not know why I did these things or how to stop them.
It was while reading the chapter in Hold Onto Your Kids called “The Making of Bullies and Victims” that my blessed epiphany took place. With a flash of shame, I realized that, yes, I was a bully, and that I had a compulsion to dominate other men stemming from poor attachment to my parents in childhood and adolescence, and consequent Peer Orientation. Simultaneously, I realized that this compulsion was sinful, disgusting, unnecessary, and counter-productive to me as an adult.
“I don’t want to be a bully!” I thought vehemently to myself, and immediately felt the need to bully other men evaporate. I then read the next chapter, “A Sexual Turn”. Encouraged by my earlier insights, I allowed myself to pose the uncomfortable question that led to my liberation from impurity and final healing. I could not help but notice that my epiphany about bullying only related to men. “What about women?” I wondered, “Why don’t I bully them?” “Could it be?” I thought reluctantly. “Could my impure thoughts about women be a kind of bullying fantasy?”
“No! It can’t be about bullying” I reasoned defensively, “I feel sexual impulses toward women, not aggressive impulses like I feel towards men.” I could not accept that my impure thoughts about women were the other side of the coin of my bullying behavior towards men. Could they be equivalent? Could they be part of the same disorder? This was truly a repulsive thought.
It was then that I realized the truth. The wielding of sexual power, whether real or imagined, is exactly the way a man would try to dominate a woman—not through contests of strength or skill, not through posturing, boasting or ridicule, not through any of the methods men commonly employ with each other. These would be as ridiculous for a man to employ against a women, as sexual pressure of another man would be as equally absurd. Thus, my sexual fantasies with women were, indeed, based on the same compulsion to dominate that I had acknowledged as bullying in my attitudes towards men. Impurity truly is the other side of the bullying coin. This was a moment of shame.
After several minutes during which I let the truth sink in I asked myself : “Do you want to bully women?” and responded: “Of course not!” adding: “Then stop bullying them in your imagination, because that is exactly what you are doing when you indulge in these despicable sexual fantasies.” Yes! What liberation! Again I felt the need to dominate vaporize, this time vis-à-vis women.
The irony of this, as explained by Neufeld and Matè, is that the bully is completely unaware that he or she is a bully, and cannot be blamed for this condition (although he or she is responsible for correcting it) because it stems from an attachment disorder formed in early childhood. This was my experience exactly. Although the authors did not address sexual impurity in their book, it was their explanation of bullying and peer orientation that allowed me to identify my problem. Once I made the connection between impurity and bullying, I could no longer tolerate either in myself. And because this is an advance in maturity, I am not even tempted to behave that way.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment. This suggests that if we wish to grow closer to God, we should seek to elevate both the level of God’s grace in our lives and our human nature. We are blessed as Catholics to have the sacraments constantly available to us as conduits of sanctifying grace. Elevating our human nature is a harder nut to crack, requiring our constant effort and collaboration with the Holy Spirit, and openness to whatever means the Holy Spirit may utilize. The epiphanies I received have removed a major stumbling block in my spiritual life. I wish that everyone troubled by impurity could experience the same. This healing has returned to me the sweetness and simplicity of the days of my First Holy Communion.
There are other benefits to overcoming the bullying impulse. I no longer feel as responsible as I did previously for things beyond my control—for other’s errors, or the world’s sinfulness, for example. It is often said that we are most annoyed by faults we have that we also perceive in others. I now feel compassion, not rage, for those enmeshed in impurity. “You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first: then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Mt 7:5). I do not claim that I will never again be troubled by impure thoughts. That is part of the unknown future. But I am convinced that a fundamental change has taken place within me—a change that has freed my maturity process to resume where it left off. If I am tempted by impurity in the future, it will be in a context I cannot now foresee, or due to a disordered will.
I sense that a veil has been removed from between me and other people. I no longer suspect their motives, or question their abilities and intentions. I am better integrated into mankind. Whereas once I felt that I was flying solo in this world amidst a swarm of threatening, sometimes even subhuman, enemies (echoes of the peer group) I now sense a unity and fellowship with others as never before. Men were once rivals; women were once bodies. Now, all are simply people. The difference in my life is wonderful. I am so grateful. God is good and I thank him for healing me.
Finally, confessors need to remember that attacking impurity only as a species of lust may fail because impurity is sometimes built on a foundation of unconscious aggression. Remove the aggression; remove the impurity. Ask a penitent: “What happens if a guy at work/school tries to make you look bad? Or “What would happen if another guy tried to take away your wife or girlfriend? In other words, try to get the penitent to describe how he would respond to a challenge from another man. Ask a question appropriate to their situation. You are trying to open up a discussion and help him realize that dominance is still a reality in his life and mind. Alternatively, ask if he has ever felt a desire to humiliate another man. If you can get him to open up about the normal rivalries that every man dealt with in childhood, you can lead him to understand that remnants of peer rivalry may be the cause of his impurity today. The desire to dominate other men is the source of impurity because it carries over to our relations with women. The reason we miss the connection is because, with women, our behavior is different—it’s sexual. But, it is built on the same desire to dominate that often characterizes our interactions with men.
The human person is a unity. Aggression unleashed or suppressed in one area of life, invariably surfaces elsewhere. We can see the connection between aggression and violence in many places. The soldier in war is more prone to rape than the same man during peacetime. The man living in a violent neighborhood is often sexually aggressive. We see often in the news how athletes on a team, with a particularly violent and arrogant style of play, may become more sexually aggressive towards women. Men who are either socially dominant, or socially submissive among their peers, can unwittingly become preoccupied with sexual behavior or fantasies. Therefore, if a man can be led to see that he is still repeating childhood patterns of vying for dominance, acting defensively, and mentally asserting the need to “stick up for himself,” etc., with men, he can be led to see the source of his impurity with women. When Christ said, “Love your enemies,” he was giving us invaluable counsel with repercussions on many levels. If a man can see how this leftover behavior from his childhood is handicapping his effectiveness today, and leading him into other sins, he can make the internal changes that enable him to overcome both the need to dominate, and his problems with purity. He can “retire,” as it were, from the dominance game, and begin to encounter other people not as rivals (men) or bodies (women), but simply as fellow human beings like himself, who deserve to be treated with respect and love.