This post was written by Luka Romney, a Humanities Center student fellow.
Today, invited by the spring meteorological turbulence, I took my new bicycle out for a spin on the Provo River Parkway. Instead of going up the canyon as I usually do, I followed the river as it raged under major arterial roads like State Street and Independence Avenue. At one point, somewhere near Cougar Boulevard, I saw a woman holding her chest, cupping her body delicately with her hands. When I smiled at her, she didn’t smile back. So, without a second thought, I assumed that would be the extent of our interaction and continued along the parkway. I turned around—back towards home—15 minutes later, and as I neared 800 N I heard the sirens of an ambulance. I squinted across the park that divided me from a mysterious emergency and saw the same woman stumbling toward an EMT.
I was immediately shot through with guilt. What in my mind interpreted her distraught expression as a personal affront to me rather than a display of, what seems in hindsight, incredible physical pain? What within me was afraid of her? Once I got home, my mind turned toward the words of Gregory of Nazianzus (an early Christian church father) in his oration, On Love for the Poor. He states emphatically, “Do not let anything come between your impulse to do good and its execution: compassion, this alone, cannot be put off.” (14:38). When I now think back to my initial reaction to this woman on the parkway, I remember that “impulse to do good” and I also remember how quickly that impulse was shunted away. ‘Because what if she rejects my help,’ my mind rationalized, ‘and what if I get embarrassed?’
Among the many things that exist as barriers in the space between impulse and action, I’m sure embarrassment is one of them—specifically the sort that stems from being rejected. I think this jumble of complicating factors, what keeps us from acting on our good impulses, is often mistaken for true intentions. As a child, I was told that I had to watch my tongue, often in the words of James 3:4-5:
Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
I was told this probably because, as a child with then-undiagnosed ADHD, I had zero filter. I would say whatever came to my mind. And so, for the majority of my life, I have believed that my impulses, my knee-jerk reactions to things, were always something to be bridled and extinguished.
Now at 21, I believe quite differently. But that is not to say that we should all go around acting on impulse and saying whatever pops into our brains. If a child like me were in my position on the parkway, they might’ve said something like, “Why do you look so weird?” This, I’m sure, would’ve been completely unhelpful. I think we are meant to neither extinguish nor become beholden to our impulses, but instead treat them as kernels of intuition that must be refracted through our conscious minds.
That might sound obtuse, but let me elucidate by walking through how I wish my interaction would have gone:
Initial impulse: There is something clearly wrong with this woman. Should I ask if she needs help?
Secondary thought: Even if she rejects my offer, it is important that I check in on her, regardless of what the outcome is.
I think that the entire discussion within Christianity and within society as a whole about whether humans are evil at the core or good at the core is based off the wrong premise. I also don’t think that the persistent Manichaean/Platonist notion of a dual nature is particularly helpful or accurate either. I have wasted so much time in my life trying to ignore my intuition, what I feel is right inside. I have never let it teach me. I have never simply examined it.
So now I’m trying to be teachable and humble to myself. I think most of us have at least partially forgotten ourselves in the process of becoming adults. It is also very easy to mistake our normative behavior rulebook for our intuitions. I have had disturbing moments where I have realized that what I thought was my interior knowledge was actually my psyche determining what would keep me the safest and most assimilated. But, as with many developments in my spirituality, being queer wrecked my dreams for a normal adulthood. It forced me to consider the possibility of trusting myself more than my own parents.
But that’s another story for another time. The point is that becoming an adult is more about interpreting our impulses rather than ignoring them. This practice, this development of a rich inner life, is what saves us from becoming commodities. It is what keeps us creative. It is, as Gregory affirms, the true fountainhead of compassion.
To end, I find my ideas most succinctly articulated, as I often do, through the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke:
I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones—
I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Select Orations, ed. Thomas Halton (Washington D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 14:38, 69.