Deep within every human heart, there is the desire to be good. We all want to find and be our best selves, to go to bed each night at peace with who we are and how we acted that day. We want to be the kind of person we ourselves would want as a friend: trustworthy, dependable, fair. Yet often we fail -- ourselves and others -- in ways both small and significant.
What can lift this burden and restore our humanity is confession, a word that I use often in my new book, "The Art of Confession." In my own religious tradition, Catholicism, the word "Confession" has a very specific meaning. That is not what I am talking about here. Instead, I'd like you to consider confession with a small c. Religious confession is directed to a higher power, but it is first and foremost a conversation with ourselves.
When we take an honest look at confession, we quickly see that it is a pillar not only of religious belief, but mental health. It demands something for which there is no substitute: that we be honest with ourselves.
Confession strips away the veil that we often cast over our actions, realigning our souls with what is best and truest in our natures. I use the word "align," because when we betray ourselves (some would define this as sinning), we fall out of alignment. Until we acknowledge -- confess -- our souls remain confused and fragmented.
This kind of confession, which demands self-reflection and change, has little to do with the flood of confessional disclosures that characterize our age -- on tell-all TV talk shows and social networking sites, even via an iPhone app for confession. In this time of Internet connectivity, amid the din of over-sharing, we mistake spasms of self-revelation for honesty. Our inner voice is not so easily found and cannot be parsed into 10-second bursts. That voice needs time to find the right words to say and the right place to say them.
As Thomas Merton, a monk and mystic, wrote: We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it!
Because it has been so trivialized, confession has lost its power and vitality. In our society today to confess is often considered foolish, weak, even corrosive to our self-esteem, unnecessary. "Such an antiquated notion," some might say, "of right and wrong. What a naive understanding of how things really work, what people are really like."
The truth is that confession, as I seek to redefine it in my book and in this series, is wise and strong and necessary, unburdening both the soul and the psyche to live a forthright, productive, and fuller life. Confession is not only for those who have committed some great public or private "sin." For most of us, our "little murders" -- our duplicities, the daily hurts, neglects, and carelessness we inflict upon others and upon ourselves -- need to be confronted and acknowledged.
When confession becomes a practice, a daily reevaluation of one's actions -- an art -- its power continues to grow, instilling a new sense of confidence, a vision of what life truly can be and hold. Something as simple as a short, nightly reflection, which I present in a later blog, can sort out the chaff from the wheat of the day just past, clearing the mind right then, and setting the tone for the days to come.
Using confession to live honestly and consciously -- the goal in this book -- is an art to be learned and a skill to be practiced. It is neither an easy fix nor a heal-all. Our brash modern optimism assumes that all can be made well if we only will it to be so, but human behavior is complex, requiring deeper thought and actual, sometimes painful recalibration.
Confession is, quite simply, an attitude. It is the cornerstone of the intentional life, not merely a clearing out of the debris, that which is bad or wrong in us, but a realignment of what is best in us, an intention to live a better life. When confession becomes a practice, a daily re-evaluation of one's actions -- an art -- its power continues to grow, instilling a new sense of confidence, a vision of what life truly can be and hold. It is building upon something strong and sure and ultimately reliable. Confession is about truth, and as Thomas Merton advises us, what follows from an attitude of truth will not fail us.