The Devastation of Contempt

In the last post regarding contempt, the opening words from Philo called our attention to the great battle that every person we meet is in, and encouraged us to treat them with kindness.  That was a sneaky way of asking you to consider your own internal fight with contempt.  It may come under a dozen different names: self-esteem issues, tending to be ‘hard on myself’, being your own worst critic, or beating yourself up.  However, we have become too comfortable with these descriptors; they have become almost benign.  We need to press into this language so as to name the actual devastation and destruction that self-contempt is wreaking in our hearts.

In my own life and in my clinical work, I have found self-contempt to be like an impenetrable cloak that people wear.  The effect of kind words, compliments, genuine care, or excellent therapeutic work are all muted and even repelled by contempt.  However, as fitting as the imagery of a cloak is, I believe there is much more to contempt.  I see contempt as an active, degenerative, languaged presence within us that seeks to nullify goodness. Contempt is not something that we dabble in and then put down; it is a consuming entity that seeks to blot out our sense of the goodness of God and cut us off from future encounters with that goodness.

Self-contempt intertwines itself masterfully with the data of our story.  I see this time and again with clients. I help them name harm they have known from a parent and they begin to experience deep grief. And yet within seconds, their posture tightens and their tears dry up in a flash.  Almost without fail, memories of their own failures as a parent or a friend, sibling or spouse have immediately come to their mind. The initial experience of rest and relief vanishes before our eyes, stolen away before it has a chance to settle in. The inherent message seems to be that it is hypocritical to name other’s failure when you too have failed; that this was a fool’s pathway to begin with and nothing lasting will come of those self-indulgent tears. The work of contempt is swift and brutal.

The most devastating aspect of contempt is this: it is present in me and in you by our own invitation.  Most assuredly each one of us was introduced to contempt by others, but we welcomed it in the moments of our lives that felt hopeless, powerless, shame-filled and hellish.  And our contact with people since then may have caused our self-contempt to grow.  However, time and time again, my heart has welcomed and been hospitable to contempt. And this has nearly brought death to my soul.

As we journey together, the self-contempt that is wrecking our souls must be named, encountered and grieved.  God abides by our commitment to self-contempt as long as it exists. However, God is waiting for us to open our hearts to his delight. A delight that will expose all that is good and redeemed.