On Community

I wrote this--including the (now second) Author's Note several weeks ago, but have vacillated on whether or not I should share it. Even now, I worry that it is harsh. But it is honest, and , I hope, stems from humility and not hubris.

**Author’s Note: I hesitate to post this, as my intent is not to cause further injury to anyone reading it, either on my account or another’s. I do not know who reads my blog regularly. Some of what is written here is still rife with raw emotion, although most of it I have been contemplating for the better part of a year. That, alone, is perhaps the best indicator of how deeply affecting community can be. This is a readily available outlet, and I hope that I am not the only one to have struggled here and that these thoughts may encourage and edify someone else. I have tried to be considerate, without compromising honesty. I will, then, simply and sincerely apologize for any undue pain this may cause anyone reading. Please forgive my frankness.

Recent and semi-recent events have had me contemplating the influence we have on those around us: family, friends, acquaintances, even strangers. I’ve also been reading Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun this past week. Along with the familiar Hawthorne themes of sin, penance, and redemption, there is an emphasis on the effect of our sin on others otherwise unconnected to it. Take Hilda, for instance, the essential innocent Christian maiden of Puritan heritage:
A torpor, heretofore unknown to her vivacious though quiet temperament, had possessed itself of the poor girl, like a half-dead serpent knotting its cold, inextricable wreaths about her limbs. It was that peculiar despair, that chill and heavy misery, which only the innocent can experience, although it possesses many of the gloomy characteristics that mark a sense of guilt. It was that heartsickness which, it is to be hoped, we may all of us have been pure enough to feel, once in our lives, but the capacity for which is usually exhausted early, and perhaps with a single agony. It was that dismal certainty of the existence of evil in the world, which, though we may fancy ourselves fully assured of the sad mystery long before, never becomes a portion of our practical belief until it takes substance and reality from the sin of some guide, whom we have deeply trusted and revered, or some friend whom we have dearly loved.
When that knowledge comes, it is as if a cloud had suddenly gathered over the morning light; so dark a cloud that there seems to be no longer any sunshine behind it or above it. [. . .]when [that one friend] falls, the effect is almost as if the sky fell with him, bringing down in chaotic ruin the columns that upheld our faith. We struggle forth again, no doubt, bruised and bewildered. [. . .]the crash, and the affright and trouble, are as overwhelming, for the time, as if the catastrophe involved the whole moral world.

Without any false claims to the kind of unblemished innocence Hilda possesses, and allowing something for Hawthorne’s romantic exaggeration, Hilda’s experience of her dearest friend’s sin resonates deeply. Of course I sin. I fail, daily, and it does not disrupt my daily existence to know that those I care about do the same. Yet, there are some sins that, in my human perception, seem beyond me. . .as if I, in my righteousness, could never commit that one. I recognize the falsity of my reasoning and know that “there is no one righteous, not one,” that all sin is separation from God, that our petty picture of righteousness is “as filthy rags” before His holiness. Still, the thought persists that I could never, for instance, commit murder. Surely I could never abandon my marriage vows. . .or preempt them. Surely I could never falsify documents. Surely I could never. . . .
And then someone I care about does one of those things I persist in thinking “undoable.” And, like Hilda, my world is shattered. My self-righteousness, in what is righteous indignation, sputters about the audacity, the carelessness, the blame. The penitent sinner in me shudders, “If she could, could I?” And I spend weeks. . .maybe even months. . .reeling from the loss of some measure of innocence, alternately wetting my pillow with tears of anguish and pounding it in outright fury.
It is not only a theoretical struggle with my attitude or emotions. It has practical implications. Ever on the lookout for some way to justify myself, I seize the weaknesses of others as an excuse for my own. I take advantage of any godly compassion for my struggling friend, projecting equal compassion and forgiveness for myself in my own failings. Almost without realizing it, my resistance to sin is lowered and so are my expectations for my own behavior.
I must belie my self-centeredness here. The world does not revolve around my reactions to the choices of those I care about. Their lives. . .and the results of their actions. . .are not solely about me, my limited understanding of righteousness, or my response to sin (mine or theirs). Yet as a representative of everyone in the community of believers, it does matter. What we do affects those around us, helping or hindering their individual struggles to live rightly. We have a responsibility to encourage one another not only by our words, but by our right deeds.
In the end, I hope that I learn sympathy and compassion for those whose vision is clouded by temptation in areas where I am undeservingly blessed with clarity. I hope that the failings of others bring me to a deeper realization of my own imperfection. I hope that they make me doubly watchful, watchful that sin not become commonplace in my life--even those “little” daily sins I too often accept without great consternation--and watchful that they lead me to greater accountability, that I may have and heed wise counsel when my own vision is clouded.
As Hawthorne urges at the end of the passage quoted above,
Remembering these things, let them suggest one generous motive for walking heedfully amid the defilement of earthly ways! Let us reflect that the highest path is pointed out by the pure Ideal of those who look up to us, and who, if we tread less loftily, may never look so high again.

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