A sense of sin: a gift at Christmas?

"Comparative virtue" can get in the way of holiday generosity, or even true self-reflection. The answer to "which one of you did it?" may be staring you right in the face.

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"Comparative virtue" can get in the way of holiday generosity, or even true self-reflection. The answer to "which one of you did it?" may be staring you right in the face.

My mother brought me up to feel sinful. Like modern anxiety, the feelings were free-floating — ungrounded in religious doctrine even though my mom had been raised by a Presbyterian missionary to a tribe of Arizona Indians. What remained of her strict upbringing was the dark power of punishment, which she liberally used in trying to cope with four small children and a playboy husband who was often unemployed. We got into lots of mischief, and in this “we” I include my father. My sibs and I, being kids, sinned at home, while Dad sinned elsewhere.

Of course, Mom was hard on herself, too, as well as lonely. With four little ones rampaging around, the house was forever in chaos. My brothers and sister and I had our share of fist-fights, and things important to our mother tended to get wrecked or stolen. Several times a day we were summoned by her cry, “Which one of you did it?” followed by severe corporal consequences. I grew up thinking that hiding behind each of life’s disasters there was a perp.

As might be expected, the fearful sense of guilt my mom instilled in me didn't lead to healthy choices about smoking at 14, forging ID at 15 so I could drink in bars with the older brother I adored (who also had fake ID), or assiduously necking with every boyfriend throughout my teens. The thought that something I wanted might be wrong tended to make me … stop thinking. I couldn’t reconcile my desire to be accepted with my wish to be good, and if the two wishes collided, the desire for acceptance was what survived the crash.

Fortunately, acceptance was also obtainable by way of some socially respected endeavors I was good at, including getting A’s in school. I went on to become a teacher and made a positive difference in many young lives. I broke the cycle of child abuse in my family and became a loving if not always insightful mom. I gave to worthy causes, picked up street litter, carried groceries for the shopper on crutches — you know, the kinds of things we all do when we happen to notice and have time to help. A sense of sin wasn’t necessary for me to be a good person. In fact, like many liberal humanists, especially those of us who have spent time in therapists’ offices, I believed that guilt corroded the spirit and paralyzed the will.

On the whole, I thought quite well of myself until several years ago, when one winter night I sat up in bed next to my sleeping husband with the sudden realization that I’d done terrible things. You know the kinds of regrets you periodically remember through your life, and the way they sting every time? That night I thought about how I’d cherished grudges against a difficult colleague — perhaps because news of her serious illness had arrived that day. Right on top of it came the thought that my marriage to the father of my children hadn’t lasted nearly as long as hers, and that I’d gotten divorced — more than once. Then the abortion I had in grad school came crowding in. And so on. The memories were old and familiar, but taken together they imposed a new and heavy weight. I’d cultivated my pleasure in someone else’s pain. I’d broken solemn promises to “love and honor until death do us part.” I’d even ended a human life. And so on.

Maybe it was because I’d been reading C. S. Lewis, but sitting there in the dark I realized that I had cut myself a lot of slack. My pride in being a pretty good person had rested on thinking like the Pharisee who plumed himself beside the tax collector: comparing myself with others I deemed less worthy (“Which one of you did it?” …“Not me!”). You know the drill: “I may be selfish and greedy sometimes, and I may cut corners on my tax returns, but I'm no Bernie Madoff.” My sense of virtue was merely comparative, and it had separated me from other people in ways I hadn’t been aware of. But with this recognition my blind pride began dissolving — leaving room for something new to be born as days went by. Was it merely a coincidence that this happened around Christmastime?

Among other things, I began to feel a deeper kinship with the individuals served by charitable causes I support. The homeless person in a torn parka, with sour breath and B.O., the man with a grocery cart full of ragged detritus, the woman muttering curses on the bus — they wear their imperfection on their sleeves, on their skins, in their voices. My imperfection is just as real, even if usually hidden under laundered shirts, within my body's well-tended health, behind carefully chosen words. And it’s a bridge I can cross to connect with others no matter what they (or I) look like, smell like, or say.

I’m still excessively proud of my writing, my productivity, my good taste, my politics, and my résumé. Habits of mind hardened through my decades on this earth still tend to make me hypercritical, judgmental, and competitive with others to the point where I can sometimes actually be glad when they fail. But instead of shuddering when struck by my shortcomings I can smile (wryly) because my radical imperfection helps me. I don't mean that I open an accounting business: “I've got some black marks, so I better earn some gold stars to balance the books.” I mean that a sense of my sinfulness is a bridge linking me with others who might otherwise seem unapproachably different. ("Which one of you did it?" …"Me, too!!")

It seems miraculous that light and warmth can come from a sense of sin, which I used to think was (and, according to some religious teachers, is) darkness and self-loathing. A warm connection with others isn’t always possible, and I can be as petty, forgetful, greedy, tired, rushed, or awkward as the next guy. But again this Christmas I'm thankful for the bridge that always stands ready for me to cross, and hopeful that the season’s joy, peace, and love will endure through the months ahead.


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