There is a philosophical phrase floating around in modern verbage that, it seems to me, is misused in terrible ways. I do not say that those who use—or rather misuse it—do so willfully or with any malice for good philosophy. I only say that they do misuse it, and prove the rule that good intentions can still breed bad actions. What is this phrase I am holding from you, the reader, for effect? Let us say that a certain person—let us call him Thomas—began to chew his fingernails, as some are in the habit of doing. Let us say another slightly fastidious person—let us call her Georgiana—who cared deeply for Thomas and his fingernails spoke to Thomas about his unhealthy habit of chewing them. Their conversation might move along the following lines:
Thomas: “Yes, Georgiana?”
Georgiana: “I have something I would like to discuss with you.”
Georgiana: “I have no weapon.”
Thomas: “Turn of phrase”
Georgiana: “Ah, like ‘go ahead’ or ‘speak on’ or ‘say your piece’?”
Georgiana: “But I’m worried, Thomas.”
Thomas: “About what, Georgiana?”
Georgiana: “I’m worried that what I have to say will not end up a conversation but a confrontation. Do you see the difference?”
Thomas: “I do. While a confrontation is always a conversation (provided both parties speak), a conversation need not be a confrontation.”
Georgiana: “That’s it! You have a talent for fine distinctions and . . .”
Reader of this post: “Get on with it!”
Georgiana: “Right. Thomas?”
Thomas: “Yes, Georgiana?”
Georgiana: “You chew your fingernails too much, and it would be in your best interest and in the best interest of my nerves if you stopped.”
Thomas: “But Georgiana, I’m happy with the person I am.”
Georgiana: “Well then, I’m glad you are so self-actualized. Never mind.”
And there you have it. Thomas refuses to stop chewing his fingernails because he is “happy with the person I am.” If we apply some careful thinking to Thomas’ phrase we will see an extremely large assumption holding it up, namely, that Thomas is a nail-biter. Now, if there is one true thing we can say about Thomas it is that he certainly is not a nail-biter, no matter how much he bites his nails. In reality, Thomas is—and Georgiana is, and I am, and you are—very few things. We are eternal souls moving steadily toward the Day of Judgment. We are sinners either saved by grace or damned by our own sin. We are in bodies and are either male or female. But outside of a few more scientific observations about our biology we are not many things.
While we live on the first version of this Earth, we are becoming many more things than we actually are. If I play the piano I am not a “piano player” but merely becoming one. I can cease becoming a piano player by one simple action: ceasing to play the piano. In other words, we are either moving toward an identity or moving away from it. We are not static creatures; we differ from day to day. To return to our friend Thomas, he is not a nail-biter but becoming more like a nail-biter with every finger he trims with his teeth. He can begin, at a moment’s notice, becoming a person who does not chew his nails by—you guessed it—choosing not to chew his nails. Thomas will never be a nail-biter; that identity is outside his reach because he will, as long as he lives, have the choice to chew or not to chew.
I can imagine my audience bristling at the idea that they are not what they imagined they were but only becoming that thing. One of my readers may say, “But I am a teacher! I received a certificate from the state!” In a certain arbitrary human sense, my reader is correct—but in a concrete, philosophical sense he/she is painfully incorrect. I am about to explain why. Now, my teacher-reader and I would both agree on two facts, which I will place in bullet points for easier perusal:
1. No teacher at any school anywhere is or has become or will ever become a perfect teacher.
2. If my teacher-reader, in the next ten minutes, decided to do something despicable to a child (perish the thought), that teacher-reader would cease to be—in the arbitrary, certificate sense and the moral—a teacher.
If no teacher at any school anywhere is or has become or will ever become a perfect teacher, there is a sense in which no teacher any where is a teacher at all, but merely on the road to becoming one. This is only proved by the fact that a single bad choice will make it impossible for that teacher to continue becoming a teacher, like a fish who has stranded himself on a rock is no longer a swimmer (though he is still a fish and made to swim). In short, most of what we think we are, we are becoming and most of what we think we are not, we can begin to become with a single choice. You are not overweight, middle-weight, or underweight you are becoming one of the three with every meal and exercise choice you make. I do not have good teeth; my teeth are becoming better or worse with every choice I make to floss and brush or not to floss and brush. I do not say that we cannot accumulate celluloid and muscle on our bodies to make us appear more weighty or keep the plaque off our teeth to make us appear healthy-toothed; I only say we cannot identify ourselves completely as those things, because they can be reversed with a series of choices.
This idea of becoming can also apply to what might be (wrongly) termed the “Lesser Evils”—those activities that are not, in themselves, sinful but can lead to sin when done without moderation or with sinful intent. These activities include (but are not limited to) gambling, drinking alcohol, smoking, and dancing. The first thing that must be said about these activities is that each one can be sinful or have a tendency to lead one into sin. The second thing to say about these activities is that they are not, by nature, sinful and can be done without breaking God’s holy writ. The third thing to say about these activities is that some of them can be positive goods—socially and artistically.
However, I would like my readers to consider these activities in light of the fact that, as humans on this first earth, we are becoming. We can play penny-poker with friends and have a beer without sinning; still, when we play poker and drink we are, in a very real sense, becoming more like poker players and drinkers. And the more we carry on those activities, the more we identify with them, like the man who chooses to eat moon pies every day and begins to resemble his choice.
We are all stepping our way toward the Day of Judgment and we do not have the convenience of being many things; therefore we must become until the day we cease becoming and, finally, are. Therefore, when it comes to those things that are not inherently sinful, we must ask ourselves whether what they are making us is what we want God wants us to be. Once we have this answer, we should act (and become) accordingly.
I understand I have spent more time on the lead up to my main point than that actual point, but there is little more to say. I cannot tell you when you should drink ale or water. I cannot tell you when you should dance and when you should sit silently. I cannot advise you whether to smoke a pipe or breath fresh air—whether to play a card game or reflect on eternity—whether to gamble or give, eat or fast, sing or sermonize, wake or sleep. I can only tell you that, with each choice you are becoming someone. Make that someone becoming to its maker. But understand that you can only be becoming to him because he became one of us.
R. Eric Tippin
Becoming a Writer on Thurston Street in Manhattan, KS
July 20, 2014
Oil on Canvas - 1853
Constant Guillaume Claes