Mohini (female representation of Vishnu)
National Museum, New Delhi, India
Our moral compromise always lodges itself in a firm denial which insists that, one way or the other, we are right to be the way we are, or that there is some excuse for it.
Although some might think I have some minor authority on this, that, or the other thing, I'm not at all sure that's the case; I generally feel much more than inadequate on any given subject, when I see the scope of what is required for a real understanding. I do, however, have some considerable authority on denial, since I am a recovering alcoholic and have seen it in such detailed operation in an addiction environment.
Almost everyone suffers from denial in one or another area of their lives, and its most salient feature is the certainty that one is not in denial. We are, in a word, delusional about ourselves; that's the gist of it. We are reminded of it every time a famous person like Dennis Hastert (Republican House Speaker in the United States) is outed for grave moral misdeeds committed earlier in their life; in his case, sexual misdeeds. Because sex is such a common piece of territory to err in, many of us have misdeeds of one kind or another buried somewhere in our sexual past; it's a complicated and tragic question which nearly always renders women or younger persons the victims in one way or another. That's a question for another essay; but for readers determined to ponder this more, read Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree.
The point I am trying to make here is that we are all compromised in one way or another; everyone is, indeed, a sinner. The function of denial is to rationalize sin in one way or another, instead of suffering it. Modern society has advanced the cause of denial a thousandfold; the culture of self-indulgence encourages us to manufacture excuses and forgive ourselves for our transgressions. Now, I'm not saying we shouldn't find forgiveness for ourselves as well as others; but this does not mean we should not ponder the gravity of our error, which is an enterprise that ought to be forever undertaken if one wishes to gain spiritual perspective.
How are we, really?
When I hear of others who are outed, or punished, for misdeeds, I always say to myself these days, "there but for the Grace of God go I." This, of course, is what alcoholics say when they see another alcoholic; but it ought to be, I think, what we always say when we see another human being, no matter who they are or what their condition is. We are all in this sorry state together; and compassion and mercy, while emphatically the property of God, can nonetheless be borrowed—as best we can—for our treatment of fellow men and women.
If one is in denial, of course, one has no need to employ such tools. After all, there is no need to exercise remorse if one is unwilling to see the sin.
One of the values of my practice of self observation, of attempting to see how I am and who I am, over these many years, has been to at least obtain some clarity over the nature of my denial. It requires a willingness to be truthful about who and what I am, and enough compassion for myself to forgive myself, even as I truly experience the remorse for what I am. It becomes, with time, a most organic process.
If Meister Eckhart were still alive today, he might tell us that our sin is sent to help us; that it is good for us, because it helps us see who we really are.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.