On stuffing up

'Disunity in the Year of the Priest', screen grab from Eureka StreetAn early Christian hymn speaks of Adam's 'happy sin'. Happy, because Jesus came to set it right. A happy sin is a striking idea, but it does resonate with experience. Actions that we later regret are often turning points in our lives. They make us ask what matters in life, and remind us of the gap that exists between our ideals and the messy reality of our lives.

I recalled this recently when I recognised that I had got the facts wrong in a Eureka Street article. I had to apologise because my erroneous assertion caused avoidable hurt. But it did have some good results. It led to a good conversation that I would not otherwise have had. I was also reminded that merely to write for a magazine with high ideals does not guarantee that you live by them.

Eureka Street does have high ideals. It tries to encourage humane conversation. That implies respect for the people who participate in the conversation and for those who are the subject of conversation. But it also implies a particular approach to the issues discussed in the magazine.

Eureka Street tries to focus on the human rather than the technical dimensions of public relationships, situations and issues. Its turns its attention to the impact on human beings of policies and events, and not to the personalities of those responsible for policy, nor to the abstractions that conceal its human reality.

That is the ideal. It is difficult to realise in practice. The particular challenges facing writers arise from the fact that effective writing depends on good technique.

It is impossible to represent the full human reality of any issue or to describe the impact on all the human beings affected by it directly or indirectly. So if writers are to help people to understand an issue and come to a reasonable judgment about it, they need to simplify it. They need to group and name the innumerable aspects of the issue, and schematise the reasons for taking different approaches to it.

And if they are to catch the imagination of the readers, they need telling images and stories that encapsulate the issue.

The challenge that arises from the need to focus on the technique of writing is that it may draw the writer's attention away from the human reality of the situation that is described. If a story forms a dramatic illustration of the writer's point, they are likely to see it simply as an illustration, so forgetting that the characters in the story are also human beings.

That is especially likely to happen when writers are involved in the situation that they write about. They will then come to their writing with an abstract understanding of the groups and issues that they describe, and with a general view of how people in different groups might be expected to act. So any stories of people who belong to these groups which confirm their general view will seem plausible and will escape scrutiny.

So it is easy to be careless. But carelessness betrays the ideals we hold. Writers who advocate respect for the dignity of ordinary human beings above technical and abstract considerations find themselves disrespecting ordinary human beings because they are led by an abstract view and by the technical requirements of their craft. We are caught in a contradiction.

What good, if any, might come from such ruminations? Christian tradition records a raft of specials on offer to repentant sinners. The first is a firm purpose of amendment, or in more down to earth language, making sure it doesn't happen again.

A second is humility. In this case we recognise that high ideals of respect for human dignity are aspirations and not our achievements. Humility also means recognising that our writing always reflects our prejudices, and that the detached and omniscient view from above of issues in which we are involved is a chimera. We should aim at objectivity, but we never fully achieve it.

The third special on offer is sympathy. It is easy for writers with high minded ideals to disdain the standards of the popular media. Our own faults give us a sense of fellow feeling with other writers. We realise that we are all in the same boat, all human beings. So when others lapse, one's first thought is likely to be, 'People in glasshouses shouldn't cast stones', or in more elevated terms, 'There but for the grace of God go I'.

That, when I come to think of it, underlay the argument of my offending article. Pity it ended to the tinkle of broken glass.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, Eureka Street, Disunity in the Year of the Priest, mea culpa, apology



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Existing comments

heh -- like everyone else who started your piece, Andrew, I immediately went right to the apology. Maybe ER should run a tag in the corner of every issue: WE TRY NOT TO SCREW UP, BUT WE WILL, NOT AS MUCH AS GEORGE WEIGEL, FOR EXAMPLE, BUT HERE AND THERE WE ARE DOOFUSES, ROLL WITH IT.
Brian Doyle | 10 September 2009

"There but for the Grace of God go I."

This age old proverb says it all about living and working within the paradigm so central to the Judeo-Christian faith - fall and redemption.

But that paradigm is fast receding from Western Civilisation's psyche.

What's replacing it we do not know, but there are many secularist attempts being undertaken to provide 'ethics without God'.

Fr Andrew's reflection on his 'fall and redemption' is not only good for his soul, but also ours.

But it is also a warning that there is no guarantee that we can rely on such a dynamic being the governing one.

I teach in a Catholic College and increasingly find that young people are being seduced into accepting and relying on something other than the whole truth, even in their ordinary schoolwork. If it sounds good, they use it in their essays and reports and then, when challenged over it, they simply say, "I didn't say it, I just got it from the internet, don't blame me."

I'm going to use Fr Andrew's reflection on stuffing up with them.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 10 September 2009

Thanks, Andrew, for you exhortation to sympathy, humility and resolute purpose. I came upon it online. I see our mission as writers especially clearly in your statement: "We should aim at objectivity, but we never fully achieve it."

May God help you to be clearly understood.

Carey Rowland, author of Glass Chimera, in the USA
Carey Rowland | 10 September 2009

An excellent meditation on writing.

If we only published perfect writing, most of us would give up before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). Instead we have to live within our human limitations. As Andrew notes we have to have humility and see what we contribute as part of a larger conversation, rather than as a definitive answer.

Which is why I get so disappointed when our official Church leaders so often seek to shut down such conversations, such as has been the case with the papal response to the question of the ordination of women, and the apparent response by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to the Catholics for Ministry petition regarding the shortage of priests (http://www.catholicsforministry.com.au/).
Kevin Mark | 10 September 2009


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