Tag Archives: Sin

“Families Are to be From”

Decades ago a student of mine in a high school sociology class quipped this wisdom after a discussion of dysfunctional families.  She clearly “got it” that day in class, understanding that families are a matrix from which we must escape at some point and begin to make our way in life as she was preparing to do at that time.  If we do not “cut the cord,” not only from “momma” but from the family itself we will be hampered in establishing our own roots in the world and carving out our own identity.  My clinical practice of 20 years consisted to some degree in helping adolescents wrestle with their struggles in dysfunctional families as they sought to prepare to “fly the nest” in a few years.  And this “flight” from the nest is not merely geographical.  It is possible to move to the far corners of the world and still not have cut the deep-seated ties with family which bind us to crippling emotional patterns.  Furthermore, it is possible to find oneself in old age and still enthralled by parental and familial dictates that should have been discarded years ago.

The bondage to families is often maintained under the ruse of love, as in, “Oh, how could you say that” or, “How could you do that” if you loved your family.  I have a friend who shares an anecdote of not cutting the cord with his mother until he was age 50 when he brazenly and emphatically, and rudely told her emphatically at the end of a visit one day, “F…k you mother” when she was repeating an intrusive end-of-visit ritual that he was not going to put up with any more.  She was devastated, as was he, but as the dust settled down she plaintively noted a fear that, “You will never visit me again.”  Unconsciously she knew he was cutting the cord.

There are times when a mythical hero will have the herculean task of escaping the toxic family system, the “family system” sometimes being an entire culture.  This hero will often be a scapegoat of some type who will carry the unacknowledged pain of the family and his life will be an illustration of the struggles of Jungian individuation.  T. S. Eliot wrote a play about this adventure entitled, “The Family Reunion” in which the hero is told that his task is to apprehend the knowledge of the family’s darkness, i.e. “sin” so that “expurgation” might be achieved:

What we have written is not a story of detection,
Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation.
It is possible you have not known what sin
You shall expiate, or whose, or why. It is certain
That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.
It is possible that sin may strain and struggle
In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness
And so find expurgation. It is possible
You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,
Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.
Indeed it is possible. You may learn hereafter,
Moving alone through flames of ice, chosen
To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer.

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The Tyranny of Labels in Video

This video brilliantly illustrates everything I have been obsessing about with my emphasis on “distinction-drawing” and actually everything I’ve been trying to say for the past five years on this blog.  If we live our life in the tyranny of the narrowly defined world our ego has carved out for us, individually and collectively, we will always have conflict for there is no end to the need to draw distinctions between “us” and “them.”  Here again we see here the curse of religion…all religions…the ego always tends to take the spiritual wisdom provided there and turn it into a weapon under the name of whatever god we worship.  And, of course, there is the temptation to make this point accusatorily, “You do this but I do not” but the luxury of this self-deception is no longer mine. Losing that “luxury” is relevant to something said this morning in The Guardian about Donald Trump’s narcissism, “Trump does not have an interior life.  He ‘had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury…an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.’”  This “rumbling” is what my spiritual tradition calls “the Spirit of God” and if there is no “rumbling” there is only ego-ridden certainty which is devoid of any Spirit.

And when the ego’s tyranny metastasizes to a certain point, there will always be violence.  For the ego’s need to know that we are “right” can reach the point where we will to express with action the repressed experience of being “wrong,” a feeling that cannot help but arise when we are introduced to a world which is based on the tyranny of labels.  I do think that religion often offers the opportunity to dive into the depths of our heart and acknowledge this feeling of “wrongness” but it entails the willingness to face the pain of disillusionment, in Christian doctrine described as “being lost.”  This is why Aeschylus described the grace of god as “awful” centuries ago for he knew the agony of being disillusioned of the unquestioned certainties of our ego-constructed world.

“And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”  Aeschylus

 

“The Chiefest of Sinners” Ruse

When I was growing up, there were various “themes” we could adopt in our religious/spiritual/church life. From time to time someone would get dramatically converted…perhaps even tearfully trekking down a sawdust trail to accomplish this…and then he would repent of his heinous crimes and misdemeanors, the horrible offenses against god and mankind, and then be gloriously saved. And for sometime thereafter he was feted in the community, holding an honored position as someone who had come in from the “miry pits of sin” and found grace. He was a champion of sorts, an illustration of how the grace of God could intervene and save anyone from the horrors of sin.

But sometimes this man would have a hard time giving up this lofty position. He would make it a regular refrain in his testimony, not letting anyone forget that he had been “the chiefest of sinners” before he found God. So we heard endlessly of his sinful excesses, often with profuse tears and lamentations, and this was usually very rewarding to the crowd. It was even cathartic. But then I suspect that I was not the only one who began to get a bit tired of it after a few years and privately wished we could merely “change the channel.” But this person would not let it go as it had become an essential part of his identity, a suit of clothes that he now proudly wore daily. “I was the chiefest of sinners,” could have been the name of his book. Actually, this well-intentioned, though spiritually immature man, had merely let his ego co-opt his new-found faith and had turned that faith into a plat form for the display of what the Apostle Paul called “the flesh.” Yes, even our attestation of our sinfulness can be a subtle form of egotism under the guise of humility.

This man at some point merely needed to let it go. Yes, he had been a sinner…and was still so, as is the case with us all…but “that was then, this is now.” And all of us have been, and are, “the chiefest of sinners” in some sense even if we have never given full expression to our dark side. Yes, we need to be present of this dark side, acknowledge it, but do not need to make the mistake of obsessing with it; for when we obsess with it, we merely give it life. The Pauline “flesh” will go to great ends to perpetuate itself and “spiritual” culture affords it ample opportunity.

 

Existential Guilt and Forgiveness

 

Guilt is a nasty beast and is often very subtle. My upbringing instilled in me the notion of original sin, a notion that I still subscribe to though not as it was taught to me. With this emphasis of sin came overwhelming guilt and the guilt accrued as a litany of things I had done, or thought of doing, or might do which were bad. My life became a careful, compulsive routine of avoiding an ever-increasing list of “bad” things and by not doing them my guilt was assuaged. So, to speak metaphorically…and to borrow a bromide from back then…I did not “smoke, drink, chew, or go with the girls that do.”

But the problem with that guilt-ridden lifestyle is that it does not deal with the real guilt, a guilt that lies in the depths of the heart, a guilt that can best be described as existential, a guilt that is spiritual, not legal. This is not the place to go into great detail on the matter, but this existential guilt has to do with the very onset of “being”, the very emergence of our fragile ego, and its desperate effort to stave off “non-being.” That guilt is a spiritual issue and cannot be dealt with by mere intellect/cognition, cannot be addressed by following any scriptural syllogism.

Many religions become very legalistic and assuage their guilt by formulating lists of things that they don’t do, vices from which they abstain. Among some of them, it amounts to them telling themselves, “I am ok because I don’t lie, steal, cheat, smoke, drink, lust after the opposite sex, and I go to church dutifully, and tithe faithfully.”

Now, adherence to a moral code is noble. And, sociologically it is imperative that we have moral codes. But spirituality at some point in one’s life needs to go beyond simple adherence to a moral code, it needs to go beyond the “letter of the law” and enter into the domain of the spirit. And that involves getting honest, finding the courage to acknowledge that beneath that oppressive moral code…so religiously adhered to…lies a lot of ugliness that needs to find the light of day, ugliness for which we can find forgiveness. But there is no forgiveness when we hide behind that moral code fig leaf.

 

Metanoia Strikes Deep

Repentence became caricatured at some point in my life into the epithet, “Turn or burn.” That phrase had an aire of facetious over-statement to it even then but conveyed the angry, harsh, judgmental intent of many of my fellow believers.

Repent merely means to have a change of mind, a change of heart, a reorientation of one’s outlook on life. It means a turn about in word and deed but also in attitude and orientation. I think one could summarize the teachings of Jesus to say, “Hey, you guys been looking at things this way; take a break and look at things differently.” Just one illustration from the New Testament illustrates this. In the story of the “Woman at the Well”,(John 8) Jesus noted that he knew that she was an adulterous woman and he knew that the law called for her to be stoned to death. But he looked at things differently, did not view the law so rigidly on that occasion, and told her to “to go and sin no more.” He demonstrated a repentant point of view by approaching an individual with a mindset contrary to the conventional wisdom of his day.

In terms of today’s world, I think repentance can be illustrated in many ways. But a fundamental feature is that people who have truly repented…in the depths of their heart…have found the temerity to view the world in a different manner than they were taught, in a different manner than the prevailing culture would have them think. Repentant people, perhaps, will have come to see the glass half full whereas before they always say it half empty. They will see the world as offering hope whereas before they saw it as grim and ugly, bereft of any hope, with only apocalyptic doom in the offing. One who has repented might find the grace to see himself/herself has having intrinsic worth whereas before he/she saw only worthlessness and self-loathing. One who had repented in the depths of his heart may no longer see homosexuals as less-than-human, worthy of scorn and contempt and even violent persecution. One who has repented might see the other political party is more human terms, seeing them no longer as the personification of evil or devoid of any intrinsic value

“Meta-noia” is the word. Check it out. It is a rich concept.  An old rock tune included the lyric, “Metanoia strikes deep.”

Family Dysfunction and Sin

A wit noted years ago, when systems theory was in the vanguard in clinical culture, that “families are to be from.” He was addressing the need of “cutting the cord” from the family of origin which has been an issue from eons past in our history. And I don’t think we ever do it perfectly but most of us accomplish the task to some degree. In my clinical work, however, I often came across gross examples of family dysfunction where the “cutting” of that cord was difficult to impossible and the problem was often multi-generational.

T. S. Eliot wrote a very interesting play that is relevant to this issue, “The Family Reunion.” Eliot’s lead character, Harry, is deeply enmeshed with his family of origin, especially his mother…of course…and the play is about his emotional anguish as he sought to free himself from familial bondage. He also used the concept of sin to describe the emotional baggage that families breed and perpetuate, identifying it as “instinctual energy.”

He declared that “sin may strain and struggle in its dark instinctual birth to come to consciousness and find expurgation.” He noted that one basic prerequisite for this expurgation to take place is for the struggle to be made conscious, to find the light of day. He suggested that often a particular individual in a family will be the “consciousness of your unhappy family” and described it as a “bird sent flying through the purgatorial fire.”

Just as with individuals, no family is perfect. Families are always flawed as they are comprised of flawed individuals. And, as system theory teaches us, the family usually appears quite devoted to perpetuating the “flaw.” It is our task as adults to wrestle with the “demons” that have been dealt us, to seek “expurgation”, and try to not pass our particular allotment of poison on to those around us.