Was it Augustine who wrote something about deploring his failure to do good as much as his conscious acts of evil? Something about sins of omission versus sins of commission. It’s related to those unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions we all laugh about.
Sometimes I think I’ve always known what is important. I haven’t always named it in the same way: living to the full potential of my talents, bringing good to the world, living in harmony with the whole world, being appreciated as someone who made a big positive difference, someone who is loved by others, making the world better, living in harmony with God or the gods, and so on.
Like those New Year’s resolutions, I’ve also been really inconsistent about organizing my life around whatever I “knew” to be important. Mostly I respected those standards to the extent that it didn’t disrupt other stuff I felt like doing. Now, I’m not sharing this terrible truth about myself because of a masochistic need to bare my soul before a million digital voyeurs. I don’t even think there is anything particularly unique about my failure to live up to my own standards. In fact, that’s my point. Perhaps, Dear Reader, this little bit of self revelation will awaken a spark of recognition in you. And from such connections, community is born!
Let’s look at career moves, for example. I changed jobs in 1996 because I was bored and because I’d make a lot more money at the new job. That allowed us to trade our New York apartment for a house in New Jersey. Sounds sensible enough, except that the apartment was amazing and perfectly adequate for raising two children, and it would be a real stretch to say that the new job or the money that came from it did anything at all to promote the high-sounding values I listed at the beginning of this post. But that’s how we (I don’t think I’m alone in this) operate — we move up through careers, houses and cars according to standards that have a lot to do with money and prestige. Whether or not these moves contribute to, or detract from, our highest values often gets secondary consideration, if any.
At this point, Dear Reader, you may be shrieking in indignation at my suggestion that you might share in my feckless irresponsibility. You may be one of those who lives rigorously according to the highest principles. If so, I bow deeply before you and apologize for the unintended slight. Meanwhile, you, Dear Other Reader, may object that your financial progress and fine home have not been solely in the service of greed — rather, your choices have been motivated by the deep love you feel for your family. Thank God we have families to provide a cover for the things we feel like doing! (Aside: Fans of Breaking Bad will recall that Walt got into the methamphetamine business out of love for his family).
For those of us whose adult lives have evolved within a conventional family structure — marriage and children — it is worth paying attention to the extent that commitment to family becomes a catch-all justification for the decisions we make. We do things for our family and we forego things because of our family. So the wealth and prestige that come with a promotion are easily justified as the right choice for the family (even if it means less time with them or greater distraction from them). By the same token, abandoning a dream due to family commitments may feel like the honorable thing to do, but also a source of festering resentment.
Perhaps the wisest course is to be a whole lot more honest about why we do the things we do. Noble principles generally capture only a little bit of the truth about our souls. When our behavior seems inconsistent with those principles, I don’t see that as a revelation of sinfulness (as Augustine might); rather it attests to the complexity of the soul that cannot be captured adequately by statements of principle. In the end, I alone am responsible for my actions (just like you, Dear Reader). In closing, I’ll return to the saga of my current favorite paragon of immorality: At the beginning of season one of Breaking Bad, Walt, the brilliant chemist, set out to make methamphetamine to secure his family’s future after his expected death from cancer. By the middle of season five, his cancer has long been cured, his meth career has survived numerous grisly compromises and he has succeeded in earning his wife’s hatred — at this point, he no longer talks of cooking meth to save his family; rather, he says he persists because it’s all he has left. Perhaps we need to be more sceptical of the reasons we give for our actions, both the noble justifications and the self-condemnations.