Dante: Do You Want To Want To Want To Be Good?

We all know how we could become better human beings. The problem is that we do not want to become better human beings.

I began teaching The Divine Comedy this week and I was freshly struck by the rather straightforward psychological realism of the three opening cantos. When Dante comes to himself in the dark woods, he sees the sun coming up over a mountain and begins to climb, but sin impedes his climb. Dante knows what he should do. He should ascend the mountain and join the life of God. However, ascending the mountain is not his deepest desire. He is a coward for his sin.

Poll your students. Ask them, “What could you do in order to be better human beings?” Answers will immediately pour forth. “We should pray more. And read our Bibles more. And spend less time on the internet. And read more good things. And help people who are hurting. And not gossip.” How to become a better human being is not exactly a closely guarded secret. Of course, after the students name all the ways in which they could become better, tell them, “Well, go do it.” Then the students will laugh.

Dante’s Comedy is all about learning to want the right things. Knowledge is insufficient by itself.

Sometimes that want is very deeply buried in our souls, though. I told my Dante students this story when we finished the second canto:

A priest once told a story about a woman who had been abused and mistreated by her mother when she was young. When she grew up, she was angry at her mother, and that anger and bitterness was making her life miserable. The woman came to the priest and said, “My hatred for my mother is ruining my life. But I don’t want to forgive her. What do I do?” The priest said, “Do you want to want to forgive her?” The woman thought a moment, then said, “No.” The priest said, “Do you want to want to want to forgive her?” The woman considered. “No,” she replied. The priest said, “Do you want to want to want to want to forgive her?” The woman said, “Yes.” The priest said, “God can work with that.”

If my students are anything like me, they do not want to change. They do not want to become good. And perhaps they do not want to want to change. Although I think they want to want to want to change. They want to want to be done with their besetting sins. They want to want to confess this or that to their parents. The Inferno is about a man who has to dig that good desire out of the depths of his soul.

I have found it liberating, exhilarating, and encouraging to admit to my students that I do not want to change. Change begins with the admission that you do not want to change— otherwise the change would have already taken place. When a man admits he does not want to become righteous, he understands the nature of the problem: he knows what righteousness is, but has not lived in such a way as to find righteousness attractive. A man who is not becoming righteous may have convinced himself of any number of lies which excuse stagnation: the problem is ignorance, the problem is environment, the problem is a hectic life. I do not have time to be good. When the problem is recognized— and the problem is a lack of desire for goodness— then that man can begin praying and confessing properly. Forgive me for not wanting good things. I have regularly confessed to my students, “I have a hard time praying for God to give me enough faith to pass the martyr’s test. Instead, I just pray I won’t be put to the martyr’s test.”

Much, much, much later on (well after change has begun), the man who has confessed his lack of desire will realize that he did not really know what righteousness was back then… but it is unfair to jump so far in the narrative. There is work to be done first before that epiphany can have meaning.

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