Are we ever redeemed? No matter how hard we try, do we ever really overcome our base nature? Our sins, are they really ever forgiven?
As I begin to exit middle age and enter whatever we are going to call the next stage of my life, I wonder how much this reinventing yourself really works. There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think of something I’ve done in the past that causes me to sigh out loud. Something will trigger a memory of something stupid that I have said or done over my life as an idiot and I feel myself blushing.
I’d like a couple of dozen do-overs.
I’m reading a translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables now, and if you know the story, you know about Jean Valjean’s struggle to maintain his soul. A convicted criminal (he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving siblings), he served his time, found religion, and dedicated himself to a living an exemplary life, a life of penance. He built a business that saved an entire region and was eventually made mayor, through his penance he apparently saved himself and many others. But; in order to save an innocent man, he had to reveal his true identity in open court, he was more than a penitent, he was also a sinner. His past wasn’t really past, he still had to answer for his sin.
I’ve done worse than steal a loaf of bread and I can tell you that my past isn’t really past either. When do we answer for our sins? We answer for them everyday. How does one know if his penance is acceptable? What if it isn’t? Does Karma really come back at us, does it get even by going after the ones we love? Does my new found maturity and inner peace overcome a legacy of ego driven ambition?
In the 1986 movie The Mission, Robert Di Niro’s character , Rodrigo Mendoza, is a soldier and murderer who comes to his breaking point too. Saved by Jesuits, he straps his armor to his back and painfully drags it and himself up a mountain, he is doing his penance until he finds mercy and redemption. When he is cut loose from his armor, he begins a new life of love and service. When the people of his Mission are threatened he dons his armor again and his past returns, he reverts to the soldier he was to die for them.
The self help crowd would tell you that you have to forgive yourself. But is that enough? Isn’t it convenient to set that same “self” up as your judge and jury who got you in trouble in the first place? There has been a lot of damage done by people who have decided to take care of themselves first. Forgiveness, however, isn’t the point. The point is redemption, it is reinvention, it is change.
I don’t know. I know we can try very hard. I think we have to begin be acknowledging that there is a higher power. You can go the full route and subscribe to a religion (I have) or you can simply channel your inner Plato and acknowledge that there is Truth. If everyone is their own judge and jury, there is no truth, there are no standards, only chaos. Somewhere, deep inside all of us, we know the difference between right and wrong: yet we still do wrong. We revert to our nature. At least I do.
As far as I can tell, the answer to saving yourself is not to be found inside of self. I think it comes back to living in service. Service to those you love, service to truth, service to God. It comes when you understand that you are indeed a wretch but you can overcome your baseness, your nature, your selfishness by releasing it and understanding that you are the same as everyone else, someone who is connected to everyone else. At least you can for a while.
I feel that way this morning, yet it remains to be seen how I’ll do the next time someone cuts me off in traffic. In the meantime, I remember the final words of Jean Valjean in the musical version of the book. A miserable life of penance and service to others is summed up by his revelation:
To love another person is to see the face of God.
I pray you have that opportunity.