Saturday, September 1, 2012

Tiny Heresies, Little Sins

It was one of those gloomy days, where I stare at the raindrops trickling down the window, sipping a cup of tea and cynically reflecting on the dismal realities of life.

(Okay, fine. I don’t actually ever do that. But it sounds cool. Maybe I should try.)

It was actually a bright and sunny day, and I was walking down a quiet, rural Indiana street, thinking about the dismal realities of life, when I had a startlingly pleasant thought: In heaven, all of our relationships will be healed.

The damage I’ve done to others will be fixed in spite of me. There won’t be any awkward meetings. No bitter exchanges. No subtle undercurrent of competition in every conversation.

I want to get there so badly. Because, in the Fall, we ruined the most beautiful things the worst, I think. God is love, so we chose hate. Our relationship with God was distorted forever, and so were our relationships with each other.

Sometimes it hurts a lot. Not just dramatic betrayals or arguments or heartbreaks, but the daily grind of sniping comments, lonely Facebook posts, jealous thoughts, meanspirited letters to the editor, and disappointed expectations—everything that tells us things weren’t supposed to be this way.

Study people enough, and you’ll see it: the tiny ways we hurt others, often the ones we love most. Study people enough, and you’ll start to see it in yourself too.

Everyone talks about character like it’s a set of qualities that people possess, like a collection of treasures in a hall of virtues, neatly labeled and on display. Instead, I think character is a series of tiny choices, every one making us into a slightly different kind of person.

Sometimes I think I’m good, when I look at the big-picture kind of character, the one that feeds on accomplishments and acts of generosity and service. But then I look closer and see the hundreds of barbs and missed opportunities and selfish motivations that come out of me every day—and that shows where my heart really is.

The solution isn’t something that I’ve read in inspirational books, which tend to focus on the big things, like forgiving a major hurt, conquering your fears, or getting rid of materialism. What I need to do is talk to the freshman I don’t know instead of isolating myself with my good friends, offer a guest my seat, remember someone’s name, stop treating every discussion like a battle that I must win, and so on.

Like Naaman scoffing at Elisha’s command to bathe in the river, I want to be told to do something more dramatic, something complicated that could possibly be accompanied by an epic soundtrack.

The little choices scare me. Because I know I can make some very right decisions every once in a while. But I’m not sure if I can make a hundred tiny right decisions every hour of every day. I want to be a good person overall without making the small good choices that get me there.

Maybe wisdom means noticing the hairline fractures between who your tiny choices make you and who you ought to be. It’s like the way an art critic can disapprove of a painting’s brushstrokes when I see a pretty cool painting or an Olympic commentator can point out bobbles and errors where I can’t find any. It takes a careful study of what’s right to really see what’s wrong.

Yes, in heaven all of those minor flaws will be gone, but why wait until then? Relationships matter because people matter, and they matter now, not just once we hit eternity.

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