I’ve been discussing some of the ways in which suppressed moral knowledge can be brought back to the surface. In my last post I described conversational turns which I called turning back the question, dissipating smoke, and connecting the dots.
As you can guess from those examples, I like to give things names. Since people so often lock up their pain and guilt, as though in a jewelry box, so let’s call the next one releasing the catch. A certain crisis pregnancy counselor whom I know is deft at doing that. It helps that she isn’t afraid to ask seeminly silly questions, nor is she afraid of silence; she isn’t one of those people who think that every pause in conversation has to be mortared over with empty sound. The intake form given to clients at her crisis pregnancy center asked a variety of questions: Have you ever had an abortion? If so, how many have you had? Have you ever experienced any emotional side effects? Even though the women she spoke with had already written answers, she always asked the same questions in the face to face interview.
Have ever had an abortion? A woman who had written “No” might answer face to face, “Yes.” How many have you had? A woman who had written that she had had just one might answer face to face, “Three.” Have you ever experienced any emotional side effects from an abortion? Almost every woman had written “No” -- and almost every woman said the same thing when asked face to face. My counselor friend, who doesn’t trust appearances, would say nothing for a few seconds. It was a way to give permission to say more, and into the silence, women often did speak differently. It might go like this.
My friend: Have you ever experienced any emotional side effects from an abortion?
Woman: No … [pause] [pause][pause] … other than the usual.
My counselor friend would then simply ask, “What’s the usual?” That released the catch on the jewelry box, and all sorts of things would come out.
Still another approach is playing back the tape. I am not speaking literally of voice recorders; I mean merely that many people spontaneously recognize their self-deceptions, if only they are given a chance to realize what they have been saying. I gently pointed out to one challenger that he had interrupted each one of my answers by asking another question from a different direction. Ordinarily a courteous fellow, he was abashed. "I guess I do," he said; "Why do I do that?" I replied, “Why do you think you do that?” He had already figured it out: "I must not want to hear your answers." I suggested "Then let's talk about why you don't." It was a turning point. Soon he was discussing with me all of the things he didn’t want to think about, but really knew.
Yet another is calling attention to the obvious. The counselor friend whom I mentioned above used well-directed questions. Most abortion-minded women pretend to themselves that they are boxed in by circumstances; they say things like "I know abortion is wrong, but I just can't have a baby right now." My friend would ask, "What do you call what's in you?" No matter what she thinks she believes about abortion, almost every pregnant woman replies, as though by instinct, "I call it a baby." That made it possible for my friend to say, without any trace of browbeating or presumption, "Then it sounds like you already have a baby. The question isn't whether to have one, but what you're going to do with the one you've got."
The last way I’ll discuss might be called tightening the noose. By this I mean helping people to recognize the implications of their own tacit choices. That is more difficult than it used to be, for a great many people cling to the protection of views which are not merely false but incoherent; for instance, they dogmatically insist that truth cannot be known, all the while supposing that what they say is completely true. Once upon a time, when people were still taught practical logic in the schools, it might have been enough to point out the incoherency. Go ahead, try it. It no longer works. You are likely to hear answers like, "Yeah – I see that. I guess you’re right. I am being incoherent. But so what? I don't need coherency, and I can do without meaning."
I used to drop the ball terribly when people said things like that, because I thought I had to convince them that they needed meaning and coherency. You can’t convince people that they need meaning and coherency, because you can’t convince people of what they already know, and they already know that they need meaning and coherency. They are merely in denial. The only thing you can do is rely on the fact that that they do know it. So now I answer, "I don't believe you, because we both know that the longing for meaning and coherency is deep-set in every mind, including yours.” You would think they would answer, “But I don’t know that.” Au contraire. Suddenly they get that cornered look on their faces; they have been caught out in a lie. So I follow through, remarking, “The real question, then, is this: What is so important to you that you are willing to give up even meaning, even coherency, to have it?"
In old fashioned language, this amounts to asking, “What is your idol?” And they more or less understand the question. Sometimes, after goggling for a few seconds, they even try to answer. If they do, then they’ve reached that turning point I’ve mentioned. But sometimes, instead of answering, they merely retreat into babble. For a moment the shutter was open, but they’ve closed it again. That’s all right. Why is it all right? Because they’ll remember that the shutter was open. The memory will irritate them, so they will try not to think about it. But if the shutter opens often enough, not thinking about it will may become more and more difficult. They the shutter may stay open a little longer before they close it. Perhaps it will even stay open long enough for a bit of the truth to get through. There may even come a day when they don’t close the shutter. You may not be the one to see that day. That doesn’t matter -- so long as it comes, and someone is there who knows what to do.
These are merely illustrations. They aren’t magic tricks to be played on every audience. They aren’t use-on-all-occasions conversational stratagems. Sometimes the only thing to do is nothing – or what looks, from the outside, like doing nothing. One must wait for an opportunity from God. One may have to wait a long time, and one had better keep his eyes open, because the opportunity may come and go by in a flash.
More about that next week.