“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!