How to Avoid Contempt

How to Avoid Contempt

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Trust is a major bond between persons. When present, it is beautiful to behold. When absent, it can be insidious. While we think of it as prevailing between persons, it can also be found between a person and a pet: the faithful and trusting watchdog.

Some of the world’s great stories are rooted in the trust, or lack thereof, between persons. It is usually highly interpersonal, though there can be a social dimension to it, as happens in wartime, between groups of hostile populations, or between various segments of the population in a dysfunctional society, as in some black-white situations in this country, or in the relationship between native Americans and groups later reaching these shores.

“Familiarity breeds contempt!”. So goes a familiar refrain. Aesop noted this long ago. Is it not strange that it should be so, that the better we know another, the more likely it is that we will hold him or her in disdain? And, yet, must we not reluctantly admit that it is often true? For to know a person well, to the point of familiarity, usually requires a long-standing relationship suggesting a bond of trust between two persons. Yet, even in that closest of relationships called marriage, though we would think this unlikely, mistrust and even contempt can gradually raise its ugly head, and lead to the rupture of the marriage bond: that familiar situation we know as divorce.

William Shakespeare captured the pathos of ruptured relationships in his well-known depiction of the slaying of Julius Caesar by a trusted collaborator, Mark Antony. As Antony stabs him to death, Caesar utters his poignant phrase: “Et tu, Brute!”: “Even you, Brutus!” Was this familiarity breeding contempt? Of course, much more poignant is Jesus’ resigned remark to Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Friend, do what you have come for.” (Mt 26.50). And in our times, Pope Benedict XVI had to deal with the betrayal of trust he experienced at the hands of his personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, who confessed stealing the Pope’s personal papers, “for the good of the church”, a deed that likely precipitated the Pope’s painful decision to resign the papacy.

But, of course, it need not be so, and usually isn’t. Instances abound of unbreakable bonds of friendship between friends, especially husbands and wives, who often lament about a departed spouse: “He/she was my best friend.” Here, familiarity beget unwavering and lasting devotion. And, on the quaint and humorous side is the series of episodes described in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse describing the antics of Jeeves, the butler, in his years of service to his master, Preston Colson. While the softer version of “Familiarity Breeds Contempt” is found in the remark that “No man is hero to his own butler”, the Jeeves-Colson relationship over the years manifests a comfortable bonding that proved to be quite manageable: because it was humorous?

Did not Jesus Himself have occasion to complain that “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own house” (Mt. 13.57)?   Intent from all eternity in expressing a bonding with us by leaving His heavenly home to become one of us by living with us, He realized this was not to be an easy task, so He sought to ameliorate the anticipated difficulties by becoming a most loveable kind of human being: a baby. Of all types of familiarity, that with an infant is likely to be the most attractive.

But, as He got wind of the problems afflicting human relationships, His formulation of the great commandment of love rose to prominence in His teaching. He designed all His efforts to refute the notion that familiarity breeds contempt. And yet, at the end, it seemed that His efforts came to nought as He suffered rejection, being held in contempt, despite His efforts to familiarize Himself with us.

This notwithstanding, we know that familiarity breeds contentment, and none greater than the commandment to love one another because of its capacity to beget a bonding that is difficult to break. It is said that a dog is a person’s best friend, yet a dog’s relatively short life-span doesn’t pass the test as does the kind of human friendship we find in many marriages, which pass the test of time over many decades, far from breeding contempt but thriving on a loving bond.

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