The Experimental Theology of Insults: Two Standards

an elephant with thick skin
are you thick- skinned?

Richard Beck of Experimental Theology reports the research findings on how we react to insults. Specifically, he and his co-workers ask if the propensity to notice and feel insulted is more an emotional issue (we get angry easily or we are easily slip into negative emotions) or an ego issue (we think we have more to lose).

Summarizing, our research attempted to test two rival models concerning insult sensitivity. Is insult sensitivity an emotional regulation issue? Or is insult sensitivity related to protecting the ego and its feelings of superiority?
Our research found no significant associations between insult sensitivity ratings and the emotion measures (anger proneness and neuroticism). However, insult sensitivity was associated with narcissism. Specifically, the larger the ego the greater the sensitivity to insult.
It seems that insult is more about ego than emotion.

It leads him into some interesting reflections on the mental-health benefits of humility but it reminded me of Ignatius’ view of humility in the Two Standards consideration in the Exercises. There he uncovers the way Christ and the Enemy of our human nature work in the world by two very different strategies. Listen to him describe the strategy of Lucifer’s agents who…

have first to tempt with a longing for riches—as he is accustomed to do in most cases—that men may more easily come to vain honour of the world, and then to vast pride. So that the first step shall be that of riches; the second, that of honour; the third, that of pride; and from these three steps he draws on to all the other vices.

The way of Christ is rather different:

consider the discourse which Christ our Lord makes to all His servants and friends whom He sends on this expedition, recommending them to want to help all, by bringing them first to the highest spiritual poverty, and—if His Divine Majesty would be served and would want to choose them—no less to actual poverty; the second is to be of contumely and contempt; because from these two things humility follows. So that there are to be three steps; the first, poverty against riches; the second, contumely or contempt against worldly honour; the third, humility against pride. And from these three steps let them induce to all the other virtues.

Ownership -> status -> ego & pride rather than poverty -> insults & humiliations -> humility. Clearly Ignatius would have guessed Beck’s correlation. He goes further, though, placing ego at the root of all the other vices and humility at the source of all the virtues. It as as if pride or ego is the essential, infernal twist in the heart that brings its ruin (and vast social consequences too) while humility, kept topped up by insults and humiliations, un-kinks us.

When that dynamic is misunderstood you have a recipe for abuse. If insults and humiliations are good for you then why don’t I help you out with some more! If insults and humiliations are good for me then why don’t I seek them out? The subtlety of the parable Ignatius presents is in its presentation rather than its summary. Lucifer bullies, threatens, puts on a firework display but the Christ is the humble Jesus of the Sermon of the Mount encouraging, drawing, in a gentle and unassuming way. The insults and humiliations that Ignatius commends don’t come from Christ but come about becasue we are drawn to Christ and stand by him. And though we might be urged to pray for such insults and humiliations there are no grounds here for being attracted to them — it is Jesus that we are attracted to, and his way of life… the humiliation comes free.

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