George Costanza’s Guide to Better Living

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Mike Kerrigan headlined “George Costanza’s Guide to Better Living”:

In the classic “Seinfeld” episode, “The Opposite,” George Costanza laments during lunch his terrible instincts and their resulting life choices. Hearing this, Jerry Seinfeld observes, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” Inspired, George approaches an attractive woman dining alone and against all instinct tries honesty: “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” She agrees to a date.

Such wit and wisdom! So what if it’s merely sitcom dialogue? The cannonade behind George Costanza’s newfound approach to living has lit the Western sky for centuries. Support is found in the intellectual artillery of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius of Loyola and C.S. Lewis.

In the 13th century, Aquinas wrote that original sin disrupted man’s natural predisposition to virtue. If fallen man no longer invariably knows and wants what’s good for him, recognition of this fact is an important step toward right action. In acknowledging how often he was his own worst enemy, George Costanza filled the Angelic Doctor’s prescription.

Centuries later, British writer C.S. Lewis advanced this thought in “Mere Christianity.” Self-awareness wasn’t enough. Rather, “if you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road.” Lewis knew good and bad habits led men in opposite directions. The rational reaction to realizing a compass is broken is twofold. First, stop in your tracks. Second, find true north. George Costanza took both steps.

Between Aquinas and Lewis was Ignatius, a keen 16th-century student of human nature. Like Aquinas, Ignatius knew man was a creature of imperfect tendencies. Like Lewis, he knew frequent about-faces were in order. The Ignatian practice of agere contra, or acting against, set forth in Rule Six of his “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits,” showed the surest way to Lewis’s right road.

To Ignatius, the path to overcoming desolation like aridity in prayer was more prayer, not less. He knew strength often comes from doing more of something precisely when you want to do less of it. Agere contra encapsulates George Costanza’s “do the opposite” philosophy.

Identify the problem (Aquinas), halt and turn (Lewis), and make haste in the opposite direction of bad instinct (Ignatius). No wonder George’s contrarian philosophy worked so well for him. He was standing on the shoulders of giants of Western thought.

Mike Kerrigan is an attorney in Charlotte, N.C.

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