Post 4

Seeing the Bad Side: Knowledge vs Behaviour

Today I was flipping through a rather dull publication and I came to a complete stop when I saw some really bad head shots. I don’t remember ever seeing such bad portraits. The photographer used a really tiny depth of field, and they were close-ups, so the nose was in sharp focus but just a few inches back, where the ears were, the photo was out of focus. Strange and unflattering. They even printed a close-up of the woman who had blinked, which is hard to believe in this digital age.

So I’m not sure what happened there.

A good photographer emphasizes the good features, and chooses the angles that show the person to best advantage. So part of the task is being able to compare and notice when things don’t look as good. There’s that funny mix of knowing what’s bad in knowing what’s good.

It can be a shock to realize how much good people actually know about evil. They seem so mild and they behave so tamely that they seem much more naïve, stupid and clueless than they really are. They bite their tongue instead of making that clever put-down.

G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are inspired by Father O’Connor. One time, Fr. O’Connor needed to enlighten Chesterton about an issue, and in order to do so, had to explain to Chesterton the practical and shocking nature of some morally abhorrent practices occurring in society at that time. Chesterton, intelligent and perceptive, and considering himself well-enough acquainted with immorality, was in for a shock. He writes in his autobiography, “It was a curious experience to find that this quiet and pleasant celibate had plumbed those abysses [of iniquity] far deeper than I. I had not imagined that the world could hold such horrors.

But a few moments after educating Chesterton, this same priest was criticized out of earshot by two young men, who, though they liked the priest a lot, dismissed him, saying that he “didn’t know about the real evil in the world.” One of these men said, “It’s a very beautiful thing to be innocent and ignorant; but I think it’s a much finer thing not to be afraid of knowledge.

Chesterton writes: “To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of which the priest had warned me, this comment came with such a colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a harsh laugh . . .” He writes, “That the Catholic Church knew more about good than I did was easy to believe. That she knew more about evil than I did seemed incredible.

The photographer showcases your best features, but he knows how to do otherwise. The soprano could give you a pop song, but she gives you a cantata instead. The artist paints arches and columns, but he could have given you a splattered mess. Choosing to do better doesn’t mean a lack of knowledge about what’s worse; it’s often part of the package. And that can be a good thing. When it comes to the sacrament of reconciliation, for instance, we never need to worry about shocking the priest – he’s heard it all before!