Why It’s Useful to Think of Yourself As a Sinner – Free Ebook

One of the strangest ideas bequeathed to us
by religion is the notion that it might be

wise and socially beneficial to think of ourselves
as being, every one of us, sinners. This seems,

at first glance, both patently untrue – and
deeply unhelpful. The vast majority of us

have committed no particularly egregious crime
and might feel understandably targeted and

shamed to have to carry such a dark and archaic
title. Furthermore, a burden of non-specific

guilt seems like a sure route to damaged morale
and a hounded personality. But the counter-argument

runs like this. Simply stated: the only people
who can count as good are those who are modestly

and openly prepared to acknowledge their potential,
and active tendencies, to be less than perfect.

And the truly bad and dangerous among us are
those who have never suspected they might

such things. It is, in other words, a sense
of innocence and purity that renders people

properly unpleasant and dangerous, for it
removes their capacity for introspection,

moderation, guilt and atonement, the ingredients
upon which true goodness is founded. Nice

people aren’t without flaws; they’re just
unusually aware of them, and unusually committed

to overcoming them. Only with an ongoing degree
of self-doubt and self-reflection can we check

our myriad tendencies to native arrogance
and cruelty.

We need to accept with grace that
we’re geniuses at fixating on the wrongs

of others and at eliding evidence of our own
less than ideal natures. We can see the lies

of others so clearly; our own mendacity is
frankly always a very real surprise. The aggression,

stupidity and sheer evil exhibited by them
– the target group of our anger – renders

us immediately incensed and impassioned. But
that we have been less than perfect in another

area, this remains truly puzzling and unfamiliar
news. The cardinal sin here is a feeling of

righteousness. Being right and being righteous
are painfully different concepts. When we

are right, we are so within a specific context,
on one occasion, but we have no guarantee

of being so again. The moment of rightness
has to be earned, never assumed. However,

when we are righteous, we feel ourselves to
be right not only on this occasion – but

on all others too. We trust ourselves to be
above being evil – and therefore become

so with particular insidiousness. A sense
of purity is a particular error of the adolescent

(and the adolescentally-minded) because they
are as yet more likely not to have sinned

yet – or only in ways that are hidden, incipient
and tentative. They look only at the evidence

of the sins of their elders and superiors.
How normal to conclude then, that they must

be good in and of themselves – and that
it is the rest of the world that will always

be corrupt and wicked. It is no coincidence
that in revolutionary armies, it has traditionally

been the youngest soldiers, that is, the soldiers
most convinced of their own purity, who have

shown the greatest ruthlessness to the enemy.
A good community isn’t one where there is

a feeling that everyone can one day be pure,
but rather one with a sense of how close everyone

is to being bad, which breeds a group commitment
to increasing the amount of self-observation,

confession, productive guilt, tolerance, understanding,
and kindness in circulation. Good people know

never to allow the rightness of a specific
cause they’re involved with to function

as an excuse to abandon manners, tolerance
and modesty. People who think they are good

are no so such thing: they just lack imagination
and self-knowledge. The evidence would be

there if there eyes were open enough to see
it. Far from demeaning us, the idea that we

are all sinners is the surest guarantee of
virtue.

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