It is not always the people living in deep mortal sin who need our help most, but often it is the people who think they are doing just fine when in actuality the opposite is true. The functioning alcoholic is, after all, still an addict, and often doesn’t realize the extent to which they have caused pain and suffering in their lives and the lives of those around them until it is too late.
Before my conversion to Catholicism, I was that person – functioning but spiritually sick – living as good people do, but shrugging off any need for an objective moral code because I considered myself to be a generally good person. I opened doors for strangers, volunteered, gave blood, recycled glass bottles and reduced my consumption of plastic goods. I once drove all over town in the middle of the night looking for an emergency veterinarian because a stray cat was dying on my front porch and I didn’t want her to suffer. That, I figured, certainly tipped the karmic scales in my favor.
Besides doing these positive things, I also wasn’t doing anything especially depraved, at least nothing outlandish by society’s standards today. No murders or drunk driving accidents. No permanent record to speak of. I wasn’t abusive and I enjoyed a nice relationship with my family. Coworkers laughed at my sneaking in late and slipping out of work early without the boss knowing, friends giggled at my retelling of casual sexual escapades, and boyfriends certainly didn’t complain about the use of pornography. White lies either embellished stories to make them more amusing or kept other people from getting their feelings unnecessarily hurt, and, for a time, marijuana was a tool used daily to help me process the difficulties of life, which ironically were caused exclusively by the very sins I denied I was making in the first place.
Through all this, the morality I ascribed to was detached and subject to change at any moment. My goal was simply to live my best life without actively hurting other people. But if I did hurt other people? Well that was more a symptom of where they were on their own spiritual journey, rather than a reflection of what I had done to them.
Looking back now, it’s plain to see that my self-image, my actions, and my moral code were all in deep contradiction to one another. How highly I thought of myself was in no way reflected in how I acted, and how I acted in no way aligned with the objective morality I intuitively understood but failed to apply.
I am not unique. The person living as I did, deep in denial, functioning but spiritually sick, is destined to be a contradiction.
Several years ago, one of my aunts was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having embraced a generally healthy lifestyle, she couldn’t accept the reality of just how sick she had become, or the fact that she was sick at all. The tumors on her grew so large that she needed to buy a bigger bra, but still she remained in denial. Rather than seek outside medical help, she kept doing the things she’d always done and died.
In a sense, I see a reflection of my spiritual state mirrored in my aunt’s physical suffering. For a long time, I didn’t see nor did I accept how sick I had become, and with just a little massaging, I could justify all my sins. The lie I told my mother? It protected her from knowing about the things I felt I had under control. The job I randomly stopped showing up for? The company would now be able to hire an employee who cared more than I did. The abortion I’d had at seventeen? An unfortunate necessity.
My shortcomings can’t be chalked up to the sins of youth. For one, plenty of my friends and peers were leading much more wholesome lives than I. And second, my poor choices and overall outlook continued into my thirties, even after I’d gotten married and had a couple of children. The sins weren’t so dramatic as they were in the throes of young adulthood. But they were more insidious. I was settling in comfortably to a life of egotism, arrogance, and isolationism. You take care of yours, I’ll take care of mine, and we won’t cross boundaries. I wanted an eight foot privacy fence around my property, my family, and my heart.
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