(The Young Seamstress by Joseph Israels, 1880)
It is not easy to sit with hard things, even impossible things, when we find them in our own character. Look within yourself—what is it that you do not like? What temptations to unethical or immoral behaviour do you find? What impulses tempt you to do things that you consistently look back on and regret? Are you given to anger, people pleasing, an addiction, a sexual vice, too much food, too much television, judgement, gossip? How easy is it to change these things about yourself?
It is not easy. We both know that. And when we try, yet repeatedly fail, to make a change to our inner character and our habits, we are all prone to feelings of shame and despair. Ours is a culture that tends to assume that with enough self discipline we can simply shape ourselves however we wish, and that those who have failed to so shape themselves are simply failing to make the right choices. And in one respect that is of course obviously and absolutely true. After all, the addict need merely stop consuming drugs, and I can simply stop reading so much garbage on the internet. It really is that simple, in a way.
But it is rather more complicated than that at the same time. And that means that most of us have to sit, often for many years or a lifetime, with the intense difficulty of wishing we were different—better, I mean—and finding ourselves unable to get there quickly or easily.
As long as there have been humans, there have been people selling quick fixes to this situaton, and as modern technologies have grown exponentially in the last several decades there are ever more cures (of myriad types, medications, devices, life hacks, therapies, ways of thinking etc.) available to help us become what we think we should be. Some of them might even work pretty well, or at least be of moderate assistance. Some might be largely benign if almost certainly useless (behold the walls upon walls of basically inert dietary supplements at the supermarket next time you are there). And some, of course, are deeply destructive.
One thing that a lot of people are selling today amounts to the idea of giving up and denying that your problems are problems in the first place. Perhaps the only real problem with your weight, your overwhelming sexual desire, your addiction to cannabis, your decision to have an abortion, or whatever else is simply that society is so intolerant of these things. Perhaps you need only convert the discomfort of living with things that you do not like but that are incredibly hard to change into outrage at the world which you perceive to be demanding such a change. You were never really the problem, so the logic goes. You were always okay exactly as you were. It was only those people out there who were wrong and broken and corrupt and evil in a way that you are not.
What a relief. You don’t need to do anything but be angry at the world, and that is a feeling we all enjoy and one that is easy to sit with. Thank goodness for the social media personalities who have liberated you to see that you are one of a small collection of people who does not need to lift a finger in the work of growing into something more beautiful and good. Only other people need to do that, and the fact that they are failing is what’s causing all your distress.
As with most things, this logic is far from entirely untrue. God Himself has taken on your nature. You are, at the very heart of what you are, divine. You are redeemed, and above all you are loved literally beyond description. You are a creature of such beauty to your creator that you were worth dying for. You are astonishing in your goodness. And you are more or less certainly a victim of abuse, perhaps just the mundane abuses of bullying and meanness, perhaps extremely serious and traumatic patterns of abuse—quite probably a mix. Those other people out there have hurt you—it is absolutely true. And the damage they have done is their fault, and it is their responsibility to try and transform into someone who does not do such things. You are a good and a beautiful creature, and you are a victim—these things are absolute facts.
And you, like me, are prone to vices and sins to which you become enslaved and which cause you to suffer. You are prone to wickedness, and you are the perpetrator of abuses against other people. You exist on both sides of the coin of the dark things that humans do to other things. You play both roles.
The stark reality is that that will not change in this life. You will not stop hurting others or enslaving yourself to what is immoral and destructive. Which means that one thing we must learn together, as we practice the art of living, is to sit with what is difficult and not despair.
This is not easy. It requires a kind of double perspective about oneself to be able to recognize that even though something within oneself is broken and vicious it may be there for a very long time (or one’s whole life) without utterly corrupting the goodness of what one is or justifying one’s own suffering. There will forever be a tension, and there will be a voice inside each of us that points to every failure and says “look—this shows that you are worthless.” We can respond with the narcissism that says “no, I never do anything wrong, this thing must not be wrong, it is not me but those around me who are at fault.” Or we can collapse into despair and agree “yes I am worthless and can never be loved, and I deserve to be treated as badly as I am.”
Both are simply a mistake.
But the problem with that observation is that it promises us not peace, comfort, and resolution, but an entire lifetime of frequent tension and challenge. Not constant tension, mind you, but frequent. It’s never going to get completely better; there is no true and final cure for the disease as so many peddlars want us all (and themselves) to believe. You will always fall short of what you are meant to be. And, no, it’s probably not everyone else’s fault. The Christian life promises only this—to keep getting back up over and over, knowing the depths of one’s goodness, but insisting no matter how unpopular the opinion might become that vice is vice, and that many of our impulses are dark and cut against the will of God.
Quite a sales pitch, isn’t it? Come follow the path I walk and you too can live a life of affirming the goodness of your existence, yet being constantly reminded of the way you do not live up to that goodness. You will never feel completely better, or completely happy, and you will never be completely without hope. You will try and often fail and try again, and no set of choices will make it stop. Not only is it not an easy fix, in some ways it is no fix at all—not in this life. Who would ever want to buy into such a thing in a world where the next video on Tik Tok seems like it may very well have the final key to making everything feel okay for the entire rest of one’s life?
But then if there is no such key after all, your only real choices are to search forever in vein, or lean into what is actually true about you, the world around you, and the One who created it.