The Fall

“What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate.”

I recently relocated to the bucolic midwestern countryside.  Now autumn, and red-and-gold leaves, and harvests, and frost, are descending on us now faster than I expected.  Fall is my favorite time of year, because it is so gorgeous but also so brief; it really is a last gasp of concentrated beauty before the end.  I crunch through the leaves and I find myself reminded everywhere of the passing nature of beauty — and, internally, of the fall of man.  What causes our souls to seek separation from God, to grow along paths of development then suddenly depart away from them?  What causes us to fall from grace, again and again? What is wrong with us?

The quote I cite above isn’t Paul, it’s a character in Terence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE. But it captures a bit of the frustration I feel as a mortal and as a sinner: why do I keep saying things, doing things, that I dislike? Why do I say things I don’t “mean”? Why can’t I do want I want to do, but instead do what I hate? Put this way, there seems to be an opposition between who I think I am and who I really am. The cynic would say that this is a false opposition based on the illusion of self-conception; who you think you are doesn’t exist, and the only ‘real’ you is the one out there doing works. Gnostics would situate this in terms of flesh vs. spirit — you are a spirit trapped in a vessel made of corrupted flesh, and you do what you hate because that is the will of the flesh. King Benjamin might agree to a certain extent. Ultimately, however, I think Mormonism eschews gnosticism in this form, teaching instead that the spirit/matter divide is very narrow.

Instead the fall feels like self-estrangement; that I am somehow separated not just from God, but from who I really am meant to be because of the cumulative weight of bad decisions. This is one of the more bitter ironies, really — we love to talk of freedom of choice, agency, etc., but these condemn us. We are extremely poor choosers. Instead of recognizing the glory around us, we get caught in seeking money, or power over other people, or vanity. Eventually we become unrecognizable to ourselves, strangers to our own souls. King Benjamin mentions a man who cannot know the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart — similarly, at my most desperate times I fell like a stranger to myself. Paul would tell us that this is just the way things go. You are a slave, you see; you can either be a slave to sin, in bondage to sin, or you can be a slave to God, who is good and who in time will adopt you as His child, and who will let you call Him “Father.” Personally I feel this analogy is heavily influenced by Paul’s contemporary culture, but it’s true that sin — especially the repeated failing of living up to expectations — feels like bondage.

The problem with the bondage analogy in my mind is that it externalizes sin too much, characterizes misbehavior and personal weakness as some outside force that has us — our real us — in its grip. Accordingly this analogy might seem weak to those who favor a personal responsibility and individual development perspective. But if you emphasize the personal responsibility angle, what then becomes of the dichotomy between our ‘real’ selves and the natural man? Doesn’t the dichotomy have to disappear?

Anyways, these are the thoughts that came as I walked through some leaves and harvested some grapes one autumn day. I’m extremely grateful to have this sacred season every year where beauty and decay come into such a precious balance so as to bring these thoughts to mind. You, as reader, may be substantially less grateful for a season that causes hack bloggers to inflict their malformed thoughts on you. Alas!

Comments

  1. Antonio Parr says:

    This is stunningly, stunningly beautiful, and worthy of great reflection.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks AP!

  3. You won me over at Bruegel’s The Harvest!

  4. And, then, of course you had me at the first line of the post being a quote from The Tree of Life, easily one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    John, if the Church swapped that movie into all our temples I’d go every week.

  6. Yes, the movie really is that good. Almost every Mormon I know who’s seen it has been stunned. I certainly was and have seen it multiple times.

    As to your post, it is profound as well. I don’t have too much insight on your ultimate question of whether the dichotomy between our real self and the natural man has to disappear except to say that if we look at our “real self” as the end product of the influence of the Atonement, then the dichotomy still makes sense. The Tree of Life quote works that way too — what I want to do is that which a celestial being would do but what I find myself doing is what I hate, i.e. what the natural man defaults to based on biology, genetics, etc.

    My favorite part of this post was this: “Instead the fall feels like self-estrangement; that I am somehow separated not just from God, but from who I really am meant to be because of the cumulative weight of bad decisions.” I really like this notion of “the cumulative weight of bad decisions”. I recognize it daily in my life and being a parent provides a new perspective on it as I recognize it in my children’s lives as well, as wonderful as they are. We are truly closing doors every day, aren’t we?

  7. Steve Evans says:

    We open them, too. But the parent who spanks their child for the first time, for instance, knows the feeling of a door being shut, perhaps forever. It’s an awful, damning feeling.

  8. Your thoughts on Fall—also my favorite time of year—are much more profound than mine. Thanks, Steve. This is wonderful.

  9. Yes, that’s something that is presented in the movie as well: the mother’s approach of recognizing grace and being grace opens infinite doors while the father’s distracted, disciplinarian approach tends to close doors in his relationship with his kids. He recognizes that the natural man is dragging him down and causing unhappiness but he doesn’t seem to know how to change. He is trying to do what’s best for his kids; teach them how to be effective, productive respectable people but he’s just going about it in a negative way.

    The movie is intensely realistic precisely because of its impressionistic approach. It is impressive on so many levels.

  10. A post about Fall with nary a mention of football?! Sounds like you need to reconnect with your fellow man and lift your spirit at the church of Lambeau. Of course, if you prefer Saturday as your holy day, Camp Randall is also pretty good.

  11. Steve Evans says:

    Wes, Camp Randall is amazing!

    And yes, when it comes to football I’m a Seventh-Day Adventist — Saturday is the day of worship.

  12. observer fka eric s says:

    The Tree of Life was great, I saw it twice in the student theater here. I liked the character played by Sean Penn, who was left bewildered by life’s experiences and where he had arrived. His adult character and environment were so sterile. The feeling of fall, a loss of something precious, was captured well when he slowly turned on the polished chrome faucet and ran his fingers under the convenience of tap water. It harkened back to his youth when he would play in the free flowing rivers and rain. He stood staring at a sterile, expensive, lifeless upgrade in his quiet kitchen. It was water, but the water did not provide the same experience as did the water of life’s other environs. Somewhere along the way he had lost that connection with something so simple, so peaceful and precious. And that reflection on that “something” came from simply interacting with boring tap water.

  13. Congrats on the relocation. I was surprised to see your quote in Peggy Fletcher Stack’s piece this week (“Steve Evans, a lawyer from Wisconsin”). Seattle to Wisconsin — some would say that *is* a fall. Heh.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  14. ‘Malformed’. If walking through the fall leaves provides posts like this, I hope autumn comes more frequently.

    More than that, Steve, your comment #7 is simply one of the most haunting comments I have read on the bloggernacle.

    To the OP: self-estrangement is certainly an insightful way of framing this issue, however I wonder whether, paradoxically, that estrangement is both from who I am really meant to be but we are also estranged from our own culpability. Too frequently I seek to excuse myself or blame others for my sins.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks Aaron. However haunting though #7 may sound, experiencing it was one of the worst bombshell moments of my life…

  16. Romney / Huntsman 2012 says:

    This is the time of year when it sucks to live in Arizona. It’s 98 degrees here.

  17. Thanks, Steve. This is profound.

  18. Steve Evans says:

    R/H, Arizona has the distinction of being a sucky place year-round.

  19. I want to weigh in so that I can get the followup comments. I am at a loss of words after watching “Tree of Life.” I identified so much with the film having lost a sibling, being part of that generation, my parents passing recently. Watching the film was a spiritual experience (and it continued for days and in my dreams) and as soon as I can purchase it I will and watch it over and over again. There is love, there is grace and that in the end is all there is for me personally and I believe all of us. And this line in the trailer was not in the film: “someday we will fall upon our knees and weep, and we will know it all–all things.”
    Malick is a genius–the greatest anti-war movie ever being “The Thin Red Line.”
    Thank you for this post and tapping into something that captures the essence, imo, of true religion.

  20. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks Ron. It’s simply one of the most meaningful movies there is. Not for lightweight movie night, though!

  21. I enjoyed reading this. (I’m not even sure exactly what I agree with, or if there are places that I might disagree on further reading.) Maybe there’s a way to combine the sin as estrangement (with God and self) view and the sin as bondage view, Maybe not. Maybe both are true/helpful in understanding different ways sin affects us and different things that need to happen to get out of, away from, sin.

    “This is one of the more bitter ironies, really — we love to talk of freedom of choice, agency, etc., but these condemn us. We are extremely poor choosers.” Yes. Even if we make the “life choice” to turn to Christ–a choice that offers freedom through Christ–we still make choices that go against the grain of that. After all we can do, we know that it is by grace that we are saved.

    [The Tree of Life is a beautiful movie--agreed.]

  22. As malformed thoughts go, these are really good.
    And now I have to watch The Tree of Life.

  23. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) says:

    I suspect that our notion of a unitary identity (the “real me”) is overly simplistic. There are probably multiple “me”s that conflict with each other at times. It is not completely contradictory to say, “I want — and I don’t want — something,” because the “I” in the statement is ambiguous.

  24. Thanks, Steve.

    You articulated well my feelings about this that I’ve been thinking on for some time now. This tug of war between what I seem to default to and what I know I’m supposed to be.

    Good stuff.

  25. observer fka eric s says:

    I hope this isn’t poor for to make one more Tree of Life reference. But when I read the following a few weeks ago, I thought it was sort of funny and telling that Penn didn’t know what his character’s role was and Malick never explained it to him. I couldn’t decide if this was aimed at promoting the film or just a straight-forward article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/21/sean-penn-tree-of-life_n_932650.html

  26. Ditto to swapping out the temple video for the Tree of Life.

    I think it would make sense that the fall would not only feel like an estrangement from God, but also an estrangement from self. We come from him and are meant to become as he is. Sometimes I wonder how much separation there is between who he is and who we are.

  27. Brilliant.

    (And add my voice to the chorus of applause for Tree of Life, especially in calling for it to merge with the Temple film.)

  28. Observer, I can’t quite get into Malik myself, but I believe that’s a standard technique he uses. He writes a relatively straightforwards script, films it and then starts modifying it to become something more. He’s actually got a heavy background in Heidegger so he’s usually focusing on something that pops up out of the straightforward narrative that he wants to highlight for people. Thus all his films become something more than the narrative – with often the narrative being spliced up heavily in post production sometimes to the point of unrecognizability. (This reportedly happened with The Thin Red Line.)

  29. Wow, that was wonderful to read. Thank you, Steve.

  30. This is a beautiful post. Let’s dub it “The Psalm of Steve”

  31. Steve,
    I was digesting this all day.. It’s beautiful. Thanks.

  32. Thanks. I wish I had more to say, but I just… dont…

  33. I can’t help reading this through the prism of your (and my) decision to leave New York. Seattle. Wisconsin. Yes-you have sinned my son.

  34. For any of you that haven’t seen the Tree of Life, I recommend trying to see it in a cinema if you still can. Although I am sure that watching it at home will be an amazing experience as well, I doubt that a home system will be able to convey the grand themes as well as the big screen.

  35. Mommie Dearest says:

    It’s darn hard to clearly and honestly assess one’s own fallen sinfulness, and even more difficult to write about it without equivocating. I’d much rather discuss the movie too. I’m encouraged to seek it out while it’s still available.

    All I can say about that other business is Thank God for the atonement. Would that I could apply it better.

  36. Steve Evans says:

    Amen John f. (#34). Well worth the price of admission. We’ll be doing a round table on it here at BCC in the near future.

    Mat, what can I say? I’m a ramblin’ man.

  37. Good stuff, Steve. I definately miss you in your forsaken land.

  38. This was almost perfect. Through all the pondering it generated, I became more grateful for spring.

    Thank you for sharing.

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