When I was a rather young child I stole about fifty cents from a friend. I almost immediately regretted what I had done, but didn’t know how to rectify my infraction. Eventually I saved my money and collected enough to discretely leave a dollar for her as compensation for the original transgression. I felt so horrible about what I had done that I became obsessed with the idea of setting things right. I went to confession, admitted my sin, and continued to leave more and more money to assuage my feelings of guilt. Somehow nothing that I did would ease my conscience, but I was never quite willing to do the one thing that might have helped me to put the matter in the past. I could not bring myself to admit to my friend what I had done. Instead I neurotically carried my dark feelings all the way into my teenage years when I once again spoke to a priest about my shame in a confessional. His advice would change my thinking about being judgmental of either myself or others.
The good man reminded me that Jesus had a forgiving nature as dramatically exemplified on the very day that He died on the cross when He pardoned the thief. The priest then suggested that my unwillingness to be merciful to myself demonstrated a kind of lack of faith in the generosity that God felt toward me. He insisted that I let go of the feelings that were causing me to think less of myself than the Lord did. He absolved me one more time and said that my penance was to practice compassion starting with myself. I felt as though a great and needless weight had been lifted from my very soul, and I never again berated myself up for simply being human.
I know that there are penitents who literally beat themselves with little whips and work themselves into frenzies of grief over their actions. I have come to believe that there is no purpose in such self loathing, which makes me particularly dismayed by current attempts to pour feelings of guilt on certain people or groups for things that they often did not even do. For example there are those who classify anyone with even a modicum of wealth as being selfish or accuse someone with white skin of having unearned privileges. In today’s society glib self righteousness is a weapon designed to condemn people based on stereotypes rather than realities in the hopes that they will feel the need to atone for the supposed sins of their fathers or people that they have never known. These self styled arbiters insist that certain people be chastised for belonging to a particular stratum. The tactic is designed to divide rather than unite, and it is an ugly and unlikely way of accomplishing the true progress that we need. The healthier method of dealing with our societal problems is to follow the way of Christ, which is to accept and love people as they are rather than forming judgmental stereotypes about them.
We live in a time of national neuroses in which rather than assuming the best about people we all too often harbor unfounded suspicions about them. Sadly getting along is not a good story and so the media often focuses on the negatives rather than admitting that few people are either all good or all bad. The always heroic figure is almost as mythical as the ever evil villain and yet we classify individuals one way or another depending on our personal beliefs and then proceed to lay blame like a suffocating blanket.
The truth is that not all immigrants are criminals nor are they all wonderful loving people. Not all Democrats are kind and giving nor are all Republicans selfish gun toters who don’t care about people. Not all young people are lazy, but they aren’t all perfect angels either. In other words nothing about reality is as simple as we so often wish to make it. Fox News isn’t particularly fair and balanced and neither is CNN if truth be told. Christians are imperfect and so are people of other faiths or no faith at all. It is in our natures as humans to have tragic flaws, but those imperfections don’t and shouldn’t define the totality of our lives.
We do our best, but in the long haul we are certain to make mistakes. It is in how we ultimately address both our successes and our failures that we shape and define our individual character. I am not my mother or my father or anyone who came before me, but I have learned from the lessons of their lives. I am as unique as every other person on this planet. To view anybody based on group think is as ridiculous as insisting that all of us are capable of being exactly the same. The beauty of the world lies in our differences and the power of the talents that we use to better ourselves and others.
I have grown to spurn the use of guilt to control people’s feelings and actions. Atonement is a very personal and private thing. We all must learn how to forgive and forget just as I eventually did. On this very holy day when Jesus died on a cross His purpose was to sacrifice His own life to lift the stain of sin from ours. His last action on this earth was all about mercy. We would all do well to remember Him whether or not we believe that He was God, and follow His beautiful example by embracing and attempting to understand each person that we encounter without any preconceived notions. In the process many of our current problems just may be resolved.