My great-uncle’s death has reanimated a host of ghosts, all of them seemingly rising from the pit of my past at once; demanding to be heard. I did the most sensible thing I knew how to do: called my therapist, made an appointment, wrote it down on my calendar. I marveled at my cogent responsibility, my inimitable organization. Look, I tell myself, look! You are not your family’s mistakes! You are good and pure and whole and responsible!
Note to self: you know you’re telling yourself lies when you start comparing yourself to others.
The truth is, I’ve careened off into the mist of ghosts and I’m having a hard time quieting their clamoring voices. Did I make a false vow? Did I really believe that by vowing to do everything different I could expunge my family’s past entirely–utterly untangle myself from this genetic web? I don’t necessarily buy into generational curses, but I do see the same predilection and propensities following me like a faint shadow.
“If you don’t think you’re like your grandfather, look in the mirror,” she had said to me, my long-lost family member slinging those words at me–those words embodying my deepest fears. I don’t want to be like them. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t….please, God.
But when I look in the mirror, I can see it. And it frightens me.
I am no different. I am no better.
I am frail and weak. I am unequivocally human.
Do you know what I’ve realized? If I had the same excess of power, the same access to disposable income, the same opportunities for indulgence—I would do the same. I would fail the same. Our Father, lead me not into temptation….
So, do I have a choice? No matter how hard I try, can we ever escape ourselves? What if the curse lives within me? What if I’m foreordained to commit the same sins, to walk the same path of destruction?
In the battle to overcome my past, perhaps the greatest enemy is myself. I’m forever evaluating, analyzing, casting value judgments on behavior as right/wrong, good/bad. Inside my mind lives a relentless prosecutor, accusing me of every sinful jot and tittle.
Perhaps true goodness isn’t about mastering a system of morality and adhering to it, but about coming alive inside a new Life? As the Orthodox Fr. Stephen writes:
St. Paul’s language of “putting off” and “putting on” is the language of Baptism. We “put off” the old man and “put on” Christ. It is language that differs greatly from that of “moral” striving. To put to death “covetousness,” is quite different than trying not to desire someone else’s property. The language of “putting to death,” is rooted in our being (it is ontological) rather than our decision-making (legal, forensic). St. Paul’s language implies that something within us has profoundly changed.
The ego’s efforts to behave itself have little to nothing to do with such an inward, profound change. Non-believers can adopt a set of rules and endeavor to keep them. There is nothing particularly or uniquely Christian about moral efforts…
The moral man (and the immoral man) is put to death. The life that is hid with Christ in God is the new man. He is more than moral – he is good. He is no longer dead – he is alive. And it is for this man fully alive that Christ died.
Here’s the truth: I know a lot about how to be moral. I know very little about how to be good–or, rather, how to live into my inherent goodness, the goodness of that life hid in Christ.
My humanity conspires against that true goodness. My humanity would far rather live in the realm of relentless prosecution and legalizing.
Perhaps by living from a heart made new–a heart that desires something entirely different from my past–ah, therein lies my way of escape. Perhaps this is how I become fully alive?