Paradoxes have always both fascinated and frustrated me. I’m reading a wonderful book right now called Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life, by Joan Chittister. The theme of the book is that every paradox of life has a goodness that we can gain from each side of it. The catch is that we need to be willing to accept, learn and grow from them, and in my experience, that is more difficult than it sounds. She believes that God is a part of our healing, but she lays it out in a very nonjudgmental way, full of psychological knowledge and wisdom from a sage whom has been there in the darkness and can point the way out.
In Chapter 13, she addresses an idea with which many of us struggle: trying to be perfect. The title of the chapter is called, “The Temptation of Sinlessness.” Many people are immediately turned off at the mere mention of the word “sin.” I think that is because it has been used so inappropriately in our culture. As far back as the times of Jesus of Nazareth, there was a struggle between people who wanted to remain sinless and Jesus, who said to a rich man that the only way to be “perfect” (not sinless) was to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. Then he would have treasure in heaven. Jesus said to “then come and follow me.” The term “perfect”, as it was used then, did not mean sinless. Chittister would say it meant holy, which I understand from her use of that word to mean healthy and loving.
Well, jump forward to the times of Saint Augustine, one of the Fathers of the Christian Church, and whom Sister Chittister points out in the second paragraph of Chapter 13 as “the expert on sin, confession and repentance,” and the plot thickens, in my opinion. Augustine said, “This is our perfection: to find out our imperfections.” The thought that came to me as soon as I read this was that he is not saying perfection is to avoid sin, and he’s certainly not saying that perfection is to stop sinning. He just says to find out what your sins are. Chittister points out throughout the chapter that this awareness is for a special purpose: Acceptance. Stop rejecting yourself, and then you will stop rejecting others.
I have spent much of my life trying not to sin, and I think many of my Christian friends and family have done the same. In some ways, it is just a part of the “Christian American Way.” So, how much time, effort and energy have you spent trying to stop sinning? Do you think it is possible, or do you agree with Jesus, and Chittister, that all this obsession with sinlessness is really a form of hatred of ourselves, which is then projected onto others? I think the first step in the process of healing, what Chittister would call “holiness” is accepting God’s infinite, unconditional love for us. The next step is accepting and loving ourselves.
I have bipolar disorder, and one method I have used to cope with various symptoms is called “thought suppression.” Sometimes, I seem to avoid conflict, and that is probably what I learned when I was young. But, these days, I have learned that a better solution is mindfulness, the mental process of focusing on what is happening in the here and now. It takes practice, but it works great for redirecting energy and attention that would usually go to worrying, anxiety, obsessing, acting inappropriately (like in a meeting at work, in therapy, or while just “listening” to a friend or family member. Wow, I know). The reason I mention all this is that it is a healthy way to get out of the “I’ve got to be perfect” mindset, and we aren’t constantly stressing ourselves out with self-loathing or self-hatred, and then projecting it onto others. I still struggle every day, but I think I’m moving in the right direction, and that’s what really counts!
The process of discovering our sins is simply one step in an effort for personal growth, not to make us become sinless, but to make us aware of our needs, so that we can be capable of loving ourselves, loving God, and loving others. At the end of the chapter, Chittister repeats Augustine’s words, then says “we never need fear our capacity to sin against God by sinning against others.” I instantly anticipated the flip side which is covered in the next chapter. I struggle with this other side of the paradox as well. She calls it, “The Struggle Between Guilt and Growth.”
I worry constantly in fear of doing the wrong thing, and being punished for it, judged not by God, but by other family, friends, authorities and anyone else I meet on a daily basis. I struggle with guilt, shame, and, occasionally, telling the truth, when I am too afraid of what might happen if I do. I happen to be an artist. I write poetry and draw abstract pictures. Most people say my creations are hard to understand, but some say they are beautiful. I have a really hard time accepting the second part. I look at my art, and it looks ugly, sickening, perverted, demented, scary and dangerous. I think about thoughts that occasionally pass through my mind, or feelings I’ve had, or memories of things I’ve done that I’ve perceived as wrong, or tried to cover up because I was afraid to tell the truth about them. Terror fills my soul about these things. And so, Sister Chittister would agree, in those areas, and perhaps in others, as my fears grow, I’m not psychologically or spiritually growing. I’m stuck.
Another author that I’ve read, Ram Dass, in his book, “Be Here Now”, would say the process is to notice these dark thoughts, feelings, even actions, and say “yes, that” “it does exist” and to accept it, which enables you to not be mastered by it. The next step is to redirect to what is happening now, to be where you are, in the moment, and move on to life in the present, which means freedom, serenity, love, the place where we all need to be. I hope and believe I am on that path, very slowly, full of hiccups and failures, but I’m trying, I’m making an effort, and I’m growing. I believe we all can do it, no matter how many problems we have, or how many times we’ve failed, or even how bad those problems or failures have been. We can all get there, maybe not right away, certainly not completely. Life is a journey. We are all on that journey together. We just need a little courage, and the willingness to try, and to keep trying. Let us go together, in search of goodness.