An anatomy of marital infidelity
It is puzzling to some people how there are celebrities who, after having reached the peak of excellence in their respective professions or avocations, damage their reputation by some acts of sexual indiscretion. Two well-known cases are those of a sports icon and the former CEO of a global financial institution. I am sure all of us can cite examples from our personal experiences of corporate executives and public figures who have fallen into disgrace for the same reason: having an adulterous affair. These individuals, like other famous or less famous personalities, must have built their careers on the basis of persevering hard work, discipline and patience, which required a great deal of self control and sacrifice. You don’t become a superb athlete or a topnotch executive by eating, drinking and merry making the whole day. They must have developed at least some of the human virtues that any person can cultivate by constant repetition of good acts, such as the virtues of fortitude, industry, patience and optimism. How do we explain the seeming lack of consistency in their behavior? In spiritual parlance, they lack “unity of life.”
A recent book entitled “Will Power: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, gives at least part of the answer. In a book review that appeared in the International Herald Tribune (Sept. 8, 2011), Steven Pinker explains the human phenomenon called self-control: “In experiments first reported in 1998, Mr. Baumeister and his collaborators discovered that the will, like a muscle, can be fatigued. Immediately after students engage in a task that requires them to control their impulses—resisting cookies while hungry, tracking a boring display while ignoring a comedy video or writing down their thoughts without thinking about a polar bear—they show lapses in a subsequent task that also requires an exercise of willpower, like solving difficult puzzles or stifling sexual or violent thoughts. Mr. Baumeister tagged the effect ‘ego depletion,’ using Freud’s sense of ‘ego’ as the mental entity that controls passions.”
Here we have some neurobiological insights into the cultivation of what we can call “human virtues,” good habits that can be built by dint of will power. These virtues can be developed by anyone, whatever his religious faith may be. These were the virtues that the Greek philosophers Plato, Socrates, and Plato taught their disciples to cultivate. These are the virtues that are nurtured in many Oriental cultures linked to Confucianism, Taoism or Buddhism. To a Christian, these are also the virtues that are the necessary foundation for the supernatural (beyond the natural) ones. As theologians emphasize, grace does not destroy nature. Grace is founded on nature. You cannot have a truly good Christian who is not first of all a good human being.
The quality of self-control is obviously related to the virtue of temperance, which is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 1,809) as the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good, and maintains a healthy discretion. Like all virtues, temperance is developed through repetition of temperate acts. In the language of Mr. Baumeister, self-control can be toned up by exercising it. As Mr. Pinker reports in his commentary, Mr. Baumeister enrolled students in regimens that required them to keep track of their eating, exercise regularly or (one that really gave them a workout) speak in complete sentences and without swearing. After several weeks, the students were more resistant to ego depletion in the lab and showed greater self-control in their lives. They smoked, drank and snacked less, watched less television, studied more and washed more dishes.
It is clear from this theory about self-control that will power alone is not enough to make a saint, in the Christian sense of the word. An ordinary Christian struggling to be a saint—which is the obligation of every baptized person—must live to a heroic degree all the virtues, both human and supernatural. He cannot be contented with, say being a brave and hardworking professional but unfaithful to his wife. How then is sanctity attainable? The answer is found in paragraphs 1,810 and 1,811 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them. It is not easy for man, wounded by sin, to maintain moral balance. Christ’s gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues. Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evil.”
And as we read in par. 1,996, “our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life. Those of us who have had the fortune of being baptized must supplement our exercising our will power to gain self-control with another series of repetitive acts: frequent recourse to the Sacraments, which are the sources of grace. Frequent confessions (at least once a month) and frequent Communions (at least once a week) will help us overcome the effects of the “ego depletion” that Baumeister described in his book. Without the help of supernatural assistance that the grace of God gives us, it is humanly impossible to strive for sanctity, which requires us to struggle to cultivate all the virtues without exception. Please tell this especially to a relative or friend of yours who may be outstanding in his work but is having a hard time being faithful to his wife.
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