How To Do The Right Thing, For Sinners Like You And Me
Growing up in a culturally mainstream (but non-religious) family, sinning wasn’t something I thought about much. It was something the church people dealt with and talked about.
But I did sin and still do. I now see myself as someone who sins on a regular basis, and I’m working on that.
The word means something different for me than it does in contemporary culture. As a child I learned (and you probably did too) that to sin is to do something really bad. If you look it up you’ll find it usually refers to a violation of a religious code of conduct.
So by this definition if you’re not religious, you can’t really sin, because you have no religious code of conduct to violate.
But I still think it’s a useful concept to the non-religious. As I’ve mentioned before, I think religions are essentially self-improvement methodologies that have lost track of themselves. They’re philosophies and mythologies meant to help us navigate human life in such a way as to cause the least harm possible, to ourselves and others. [For a more thorough explanation of why I think so, read this.]
Christianity’s infamous “Seven Deadlies,” for example, aren’t different in purpose than Buddhism’s prohibitions of sexual acts that cause harm, or lying, or stealing. They are all clear warnings that certain categories of behavior lead almost invariably to suffering for you and others, and so if you’re not into suffering you might want to avoid doing those things. The well-defined sin exists to create a red flag in your mind when you’re about to do something harmful. They can be pretty helpful, as a tool for becoming a better person.
The word got a bit loaded somewhere along the line though, and the S-word became a word to use almost exclusively in indictments of other people, as I’ll explain. Sinners!
It’s becoming more commonly known that the word sin derives from a word that meant “to miss the mark.” Not to do something bad per se, but to make a mistake. In modern terms, maybe the closest phrase to the original meaning of sin is “to fuck up.”
It doesn’t have to have such dire moral baggage strapped to it, even though it does imply that you’ve done something that causes harm. And whenever we cause harm, you could say there is a moral issue at play somewhere. Morality is nothing but the consideration of the harm caused by a particular action, right?
But I think instead of regarding sins as something “against the rules”, which we’ll be punished for (by Whoever or Whatever invented these rules) it’s more useful to think of sins as moral transgressions against ourselves.
We all cause harm in the way we live, particularly to ourselves. We overreact at the same everyday things, to nobody’s benefit. Traffic, long lineups, certain people’s habits. We procrastinate even when we’ve learned again and again that it’s so much easier just to roll up our sleeves and do it.
That is a very human thing to do, to harm yourself senselessly. I wonder how other animals do so little of it. Since the idea of sin arose as a response to the obvious tendency for human beings to cause harm, once we drop all of its religious baggage, we can use the concept of sin in our own lives to recognize those instants when we’re about to do the dumb thing, the bad thing, the lazy thing, the self-defeating thing, and do something else instead.
Each of our lives is different, and so our typical sins are different too. Some of my most common sins are:
- putting things off when there is no intelligent reason to
- backing away from interactions where I risk social pain (like rejection or awkwardness)
- indulging in gratifying, zero-risk behavior that offers no long-term benefit (such as open-ended web-surfing sessions)
Maybe your sins are:
- opening the fridge when you’re bored
- giving your partner the silent treatment when you’re frustrated about something
- leaving dishes in the sink when you go to bed
Sins tend to undermine attempts to improve yourself, to change patterns, to escape cycles. Being aware of where the sin occurs in your behavioral cycles is like finding the slip-joint in the ring, the one place you can yank yourself free and avoid going around again. Knowing your sins is fertile ground for huge breakthroughs in life.
Traditional religious sins try to reduce all these specific self-defeating behaviors into much broader, one-word categories of no-no behavior, such as “greed” or “pride” but those don’t give us enough clues as to how else to go about things. I think if we want to make real changes in our lives, and sin less often, we need to get more specific, and more personal.
Who the Devil really is
I know that one of my perennial sins is convincing myself that I can work out tomorrow instead of today. The reasoning is always the same slippery lie — my daily workouts are short and intense, and I could definitely do two in a day, so I can reasonably skip today’s and do it tomorrow. Of course, the next day I feel like avoiding it again, and it’s twice as tempting to avoid, because I have to do two not one. So I’m off the wagon.
It’s almost like there is an evil part of me in there somewhere, a trickster trying to undermine all that is good and virtuous. It’s not unreasonable to want to give this trickster a name. How about “Satan?” He tricks me and makes me sin. Sometimes I believe he isn’t there at all, and that’s when he’s most dangerous.
It should be obvious that it would be easy to project a religious narrative onto all of this. You could regard the fearful, deceptive part of your mind as the Devil. You could regard the virtuous, intuitive, noreactive part of your mind as God, and you could see your personal struggles as a conflct between good and evil.
Sinning causes us to experience the same pain repeatedly, locking us in a cycle of pain which manifests itself in people’s lives as Hell. The Hell of addiction, the Hell of self-loathing, the Hell of procrastination.
Hell is what you create when you sin. It’s not a place you go once you die if you ended up with a bad score in life. I’m convinced that personal, self-created cycles of suffering were all that Hell was ever supposed to be, by the sages who wrote our religious scriptures. And if you’ve ever experienced the agony of writhing in a cycle of life’s great pain (you have) then you know it’s Hell enough.
I don’t think it’s an unreasonable picture to paint, these mythological narratives, but then we run the risk of cartoonifying the whole thing, making these helpful concepts into concrete entities that supposedly fight outside of us in the world at large.
But even if that war were real, the only point of influence you have in that war — and therefore, the only point of concern for you — is how you conduct yourself. And that’s all religion was ever about. The names, the events, the fables, the creation stories — all of it is only allegories and stage-setting to help a human being understand how to live without falling into Hell.
In other words, viewing sin as anything but a concern for your conduct is an escape chute away from personal responsibility. You can take the spotlight off of yourself, off of the suffering you are creating, by concentrating on faults in the behavior of others.
And that lends us an extraordinary sensation of relief — to be able to feel “okay” with yourself for once, because you see that someone else is sinning much worse. Think about it. All of us have been trying to get ourselves to do certain things forever! It’s a lifelong battle, and we don’t get many breaks, except when we preoccupy ourselves with the mistakes others are making.
It’s far easier, and far more appealing, to rag on the “sins” of others than it is to concentrate on overcoming our own demons, and I think somewhere along the line that became a more prominent theme in spiritual practice than did self-reflection and self-development. Sin became about judgment, rather than personal growth.
Know your sins
Religions all have their list of sins. There are certain behaviors that appear to be unwise ones — universally — for anyone who doesn’t like suffering. Greed, laziness, envy, lust, fury, and so on. You know what they are. And they are true, generally. Most people are prone to hurting themselves and other people by indulging in greed, envy, lust, gluttony or the others.
The problem is that they are too general, and there’s no clear point at which to apply them to your behavior. When I go anywhere where there are a lot of people on a hot summer day, I’m going to see dozens of gorgeous women wearing halter tops and short shorts. I am going to experience lustful feelings. Am I sinning? Am I hurting myself or others? Where’s the danger? What am I supposed to do?
Perhaps there is some danger there (especially if there’s a beer tent). I could make people feel uncomfortable or unsafe by staring at cleavage. I could step on someone’s toes by hitting on an unavailable woman. I could lose my wits and get drawn into an impulsive sexual encounter that causes enormous suffering for my girlfriend or wife. Clearly it’s worthwhile to acknowledge the forcefulness of lustful feelings and learn how to make sure I don’t cause any harm in response to them.
But if the sin is prescribed to me by a holy book as simply, “Lust” then there’s no accounting for how I might respond, given that the danger seems to be everywhere. In some cultures, the men insist that the women not be allowed to show their bodies at all, otherwise they are provoking sinful behavior. So they must wear cloth bags outside.
This is insane, and it’s what happens when the idea of sin leaves the sphere of personal responsibility and reflection, and becomes an instance of dogma — where all reflection on why is deemed to have been dealt with centuries ago. Self-inquiry about how one ought to live should never be considered “over with.”
“Knowning my sins” in this case might mean knowing that flirting with someone might be okay, but unprotected sex is definitely something that risks harm to myself or others. If I’ve made that transgression in the past, I should reflect on exactly where I might feel that temptation to sin, and what I would do instead.
The sins each of us are susceptible to are going to be different. For you it may be hitting the snooze nine times and skipping your morning meditation. For me it may be surfing Reddit while I drink my morning coffee, instead of making a lunch to take to work.
Each sin has a moment of truth wherein you have a chance for redemption. Instead of hitting the snooze the second time, you sit up and get your feet on the floor before the Devil takes over. Instead of clicking one more interesting/infuriating link, I snap the laptop shut, and go get out the tupperware.
I don’t suggest sitting down and attempting to inventory all your sins and then making a list of “Fred Smith’s sixteen deadly sins.” You need to be able to recognize them as they’re happening. You need to know what it feels like to be in that moment when you could do the wrong thing, again.
You need to decide what you’re going to do instead. Once you do, to get yourself to do it, you just have to move your body in spite of what you feel like doing. Sit up, get your feet on the floor.
Knowing what you need your body to do in that moment is crucial. Then you have to just throw your body into it and get the moment of temptation behind you, or the Devil will descend on you. In the moment of truth where I notice I’m trying to convince myself to delay my workout, I know I need to take my pants off, move the coffee table aside, pick up the kettlebell and start warming up.
Move your body before the Devil does, and never let him convince you that you aren’t a sinner too.
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