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Exaggerated Responsibility

By Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

People who live in the “developed” world enjoy the gift of being accounted for, of having our personhood registered, acknowledged, and counted. We’re not anonymous. We have a sense of self. We understand who we are as individual people and who we are in relationship to others. We make decisions and are capable of implementing them, for good or for bad. Our individuality is a privilege.

Many people never enjoy this privilege. They don’t know what it means to make a choice based on their own feelings, desires, and preferences. In some cultures, the idea of individuality is so mistrusted that those who stand apart from the crowd and strike out on their own are involuntarily separated from family and community, and even killed.

But at this point in history in this part of the world, most of us are free to make our own decisions and enjoy or suffer the consequences. We’re also free to set aside our own demands and perceptions to be in relationships. Letting go of our own way of understanding and experiencing another’s is ultimately satisfying and life-giving. We’re happier and more complete when we’re in relationships with others, but relationships demand that we become more truthful, more vulnerable, and ultimately more intimate.

Jesus didn’t live in this culture of individuality we hold so easily. His teachings are anchored in a tribal culture and are therefore best understood within the context of community and family and not from the individual perspective of modern culture.

It’s very important that people with scrupulosity understand this distinction. They labor under the burden of an exaggerated responsibility of self that isolates them as they strive to be perfect, pulling them away from relationship and into an almost parallel reality that is unsustainable by anyone.

This isn’t sin, but a significant psychological disorder that denies individuals a healthy sense of self and relationship. They avoid the experience of relationship–trust, vulnerability, and intimacy–because they perceive it as loss of control.

The pull and tug of scrupulosity constantly raging within them can become debilitating. Depression, isolation, and constant worry and anxiety are a daily experience. Eventually the disorder claims a perverse victory that results in a hollow shell of a person drained of all life and for whom day-to-day living is more of a burden than a joy. Scrupulosity is an all-consuming, cruel, relentless master who is never satisfied.

But there’s a twist in this story: The disorder itself suggests a path–extremely difficult to be sure, but still a path–that leads us to reject isolation and embrace relationship. When a person sets aside the fear and the anxiety of the moment and tries to be as truthful as possible with another person–to admit a sense of vulnerability–the doorway to intimacy is opened. Only through intimacy and profound spiritual truth can we recognize and accept that we’re loved and accepted exactly as we are and not as we one day might be. Only then can real healing be possible.

People with scrupulosity often fear that sharing their true feelings will push others away, but nothing could be further from the truth: No matter how wounded we are or painful it may be, it’s not the connection that repels others–it’s the isolation.

God’s grace invites us to reject isolation and the exaggerated sense of responsibility of self that supports it.

God’s grace invites us to embrace connection and the relationships that enable us to experience God’s grace.

Grace abounds at the moment of connection, not at the moment of isolation.

Published in2015 SeptemberCover Articles