"My skin sweats too" by Torbakhopper,
This is a topic loaded usually with code words and insinuation, but I’m not going to do that. It's not my way. I'd rather be clear, because I’m writing about two overlapping and complementary states.
One is of being psychologically healthy – productive, effective, responsible, able to meet your wants and needs without routinely or deliberately hurting others. The other is of being spiritually healthy – being in right relationship with the creator, however you imagine God, and with the creation.
There is a lot of talk about “eternal life” but let’s understand that eternity is not “infinity after you die.” Eternity is all of time, and I want to be truly alive right now. I have had many recent conversations about this topic, in one version or another, so it’s time to take it head on and learn what it has to teach.
I have never cared for the doctrine of original sin. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all?” Really? I couldn’t make sense of it and my questions, and the answers that I heard, had something to with my leaving the Roman Catholic Church when I was 16 years old.
My problem with original sin is not a problem with judgment, though in the years between 16 and my present age, I have come to greatly prefer mercy to judgment. Regardless of my preferences, I expect to face justice for the wrong that I have done, but original sin means that God will punish me for something that Adam did? That seems unjust to me.
Of course you can say that God’s sense justice is far beyond mine, and I will not disagree, but that creates another problem. I will get to that later. For the moment, I will point out that the story of the Fall is allegory. If a literal reading of the story gets us to the same place, that we are all flawed and in need of saving, and worth saving, that’s good enough.
If we are talking about being saved or saving others, that idea seems bound to and intertwined with judgment. Something has to be wrong, and someone has to know it, to create the need for salvation.
Further, saving means changing, unavoidably and always. If you want a different answer, you have to ask a different question. If you want a different response, you have to offer a different stimulus. There’s no other way. I have heard that not everyone wants to be saved, but I disagree. I think that everyone wants to be saved but not everyone wants to do what is necessary.
There may be no way to get through a master’s degree in counseling or clinical psychology without learning how many psychologists it takes to change a light bulb. The answer is one, but the light bulb has to want to change. We all want the joy of the light but without leaving the comfort of the darkness. Change is hard and the light hurts our eyes, for a few moments, and then we adapt and can no longer see in the darkness. We cannot return to that former world or that former self.
Here is where I like the Hebrew word shalom. It’s not just peace, but the peace that comes when everything is in right relationship to everything else. When there is justice, within a person or a relationship or a system, then peace is the happy byproduct. Treating my body justly makes me healthier. Treating my colleagues justly makes them happier and the workplace more effective. Treating my friends justly is part of love, and I cannot claim to love someone without acting justly toward that person.
So salvation is intertwined with justice, and when we talk about being saved in religious terms, God expects me to be just, which is the problem with explaining original sin by saying that I don’t understand God’s justice. Though that may be true, if my concept of justice is so far removed from God’s that I am wrong to say that punishing me for someone else’s actions is wrong then I have no hope of being just, and we have just kicked the can down the road. I don’t believe in hopelessness. If I can’t understand justice then my actions will be randomly just or unjust, like walking in a completely dark room and sometimes finding a path and sometimes finding obstacles. If I am, in the image of my creator, a being of light and will then this makes no sense. The reasoning rapidly becomes circular, and I’m making myself dizzy, so let’s move on.
Saving yourself is hard work. In the Velveteen Rabbit (Williams, 1922), the Skin Horse and the rabbit have the following conversation about becoming Real:
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“'It doesn't happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury (1953) said this about saving:
Don't ask for guarantees. And don't look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving…
Joseph Campbell (1991) said this:
When we talk about settling the world's problems, we're barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It's a mess. It has always been a mess. We are not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives.
And, I suggest, along the same lines, Teddy Roosevelt said this:
If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit for a month.
The first two axioms of Choice Theory (Glasser, 1998) are
1. The only person whose behavior we can control is our own.
2. All we can give another person is information.
Finally, God, in Philippians 2:12, said this
….continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
When I put all of this together with my own rumblings and several recent conversations, here is what I get at this moment:
We are born with raw materials, with genetics and spirit, and the job of creating ourselves. That job is never done.
Throughout our lives, we encounter forces and which shape us in one way or another. Some of those forces misshape us, lead us astray, would cast us in roles that serve the other but not us, treat us unjustly. As we get older, we have more choice in what situations we are in, more control over what we hear and what we ignore.
We can take true root in the fair weather that we make for ourselves, and frame the seasons for our own harvest (Shakespeare, 1623). “You can be what they’ve made you into or you can make your own luck,” (Conwell, 1986).
We can’t save others and we shouldn’t try. Doing so is selfish because it starts with our judgment of the flaws of the other and what would be just, would be right relationships within and about the other, and follows with our endeavor to force the other to change. Not even our motives are 100% pure in this. It feels good to be a hero. We expect something in return – gratitude, respect, love – something, and when we try to save another person, we are trying to enforce a contract that the other person never signed.
Instead, I suggest, for right now, based on what I understand right now, that we can and should act justly, seeking the right relationships with others, refusing to take the stage in plays that support others’ destructive roles.
Every action has consequences, and when we allow the consequences of another person’s actions to fall on us, instead of on the other person, then we harm ourselves and the other person. Mercy is a beautiful thing but it never exists independently of justice.
We cannot save others and we should not try but we can be a voice, be a force shaping the circumstances in which others, having made the decision, can save themselves. When we are in right relationship with ourselves and those around us then we are safe and comfortable and we make this whole state of being saved appealing, give others a reason to want it.