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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Something Disfiguring But Characteristic: Thoughts on Sin and Self-Identification

"I long for the old David - I miss him, like one might miss a scar or a wooden leg, something disfiguring but characteristic." Katie, in How to Be Good, by Nicholas Hornby
I was listening to myself talk the other day, and it suddenly came to me that even I didn’t agree with what I was saying. It’s an odd experience, to realize that you fundamentally disagree with the very words coming out of your own mouth, but I suppose it happens once in a while to all of us who talk a bit more than we should.

I was offering some excuse about why I wasn’t doing some aspect of my work. I was attempting to coax my co-workers into doing some small but universally undesirable task from my day’s to-do list. My defense was that I was an intrinsically more slothful person than most, and should be spared the work due to this unfortunate but inherent spiritual malefaction. Speaking from an angle of utilitarianism, therefore, it made sense that someone else should do the task. “You should just do it—you’re going that way anyway, and you are so much more a go-getter than me. You work so quickly, you would do it in half the time I would. I just need a few minutes to rest here after lunch- you know how I get in the afternoons…”

Pathetic. However, I soon realized that while I didn’t find much weight in my own rationalization (I would have told me to get to work), I also disagreed with what I was saying on a more fundamental level. My basic argument could break down as follows; I am intrinsically slothful, it’s just how I am, so you should let me off the hook for my continued sins of sloth.

I wonder how often we appeal to our identity in this way. We live in a culture and in an age that enshrines individuality. We love individuals- quirky, unique, and uncharacteristic. With this comes a constant desire to define ourselves. We are only able to be individuals if we define ourselves in a manner of differentiation- I am who I am, because I am not who you are.

In this manner, I wonder if we don’t sometimes cling to our sins as a matter of self-definition? Perhaps I do not so much like sloth, or lust, or gluttony, as I like that I can define myself by them? I am me because I am the slacker, the ladies-man, the gourmand? This becomes a problem anytime individualism becomes an end in and of itself, instead of a means to a higher end. When the important thing is that we are not like anyone else, then simply having a self-definition becomes more important than the worthiness or unworthiness of the things by which we define ourselves. We will define ourselves by something, anything, as long as we are more that thing than anyone else is.

So I wonder, if at least a little, we do not become attached to our sins because we think of them as a part of us—as part of who we are, as vital to our self-definition? Do we tolerate some of our pet sins because they compose a part of our self-identification? Do we look on our sins fondly sometimes because they are familiar and re-assuring—in Hornby's words, “something disfiguring but characteristic?” We are like a man with a frightful scar, who looks at it lovingly in a mirror. Perhaps it is ugly, perhaps it is frightening, but it is by this scar that we choose to recognize ourselves.

As we all know, this will not due if we truly want to become saints. For the question of a Christian is not was I as fully myself as possible, but was I as fully Christ as possible. We are called to dissolve our own personality in Christ’s, and to cast off all those parts of ourselves that are not like Him, and to put on the new man. We are called to dismiss those characteristics of ourselves that are divergent from His own, no matter how characteristic of ourselves they may be. However, this is great news, even for us individualists! For just as a painting is seen better in a well-lit room than a dark room, just so are our personalities illuminated when imbued with virtue. Just as a baby casts off crawling for walking, so must we cast off who we are now so that we may become who we were meant to be. When we become Christ, only then do we truly become ourselves. A saint, having become sanctified, might no longer recognize her old self when she looks in a mirror, but what she sees is infinitely more worth looking at! Who she is now is infinitely more worth being!

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