Our faultless age and our thoughtless times
By: Larry McGehee
Our ancestors reveled in iniquities, chewed on inadequacies, and cherished transgressions. Not we. We don’t acknowledge our unworthiness; we don’t make lists of sins of omission and commission. When was the last time an American president apologized for anything his administration did? Surely our shortcomings equal or surpass those of our ancestors, but we have nothing to match their confessions. Scandal magazines, flimsy fabrications of fictionalized sensationalism, are scarcely of the same quality as our ancestors’ memoirs.
We don’t know how to feel guilty. The personal errors we make can be blamed on our society, our times, or our childrearing??and exorcised and excused by amateur practice of Freudian psychology, Marxist sociology, and Darwinian biology — or by plain old demagoguery and sound-bites.
Though he lived to be 76, by the time he was 33 the future?saint Augustine had committed enough errors to write 383 pages of Confessions. Many an apologia pro vita summa (“apology for his life”) can be found in any library. Most of the modern ones — autobiographies from fading screen stars and out-of-office politicians — make no apologies at all.
From time to time, usually around another birthday, prompted by some residual impulse of guilt, I consider writing my own Confessions. But inevitably I wind up with only a single page, my only apology being — by contrast to Saint Augustine — for having so little for which to apologize, things such as these:
Apologies to Miss Stella Dunn for wetting my pants in her second-grade class and having to go home to change — more than once;
Apologies to Mrs. Fitzsimmons for eating the grapes from her backyard vine uninvited — and before they were ripe;
Apologies to Aunt Charlie, our grade school principal, for setting the sage field behind the school afire with a Halloween firecracker;
Apologies to Mutt, a bachelor uncle, for setting the sage gully out at the farm afire with a Halloween firecracker;
Apologies to the night-shift railroad men who tried to sleep while we were riding soapbox cars made of orange crates, 2-by-4’s, and roller skates down the hill behind their homes;
Apologies to the two white rats Tommy Minor gave me for leaving them starving in the basement and driven to feed upon each other;
Apologies to John, the Methodist preacher’s son, for making him cry by winning all his play-money at poker;
Apologies to Frank, my best friend, for lying that I had a cramp in my leg in order that I could move over and kiss his girlfriend behind his back on the Baptist hayride;
Apologies to Mark, a later friend, for never returning the history book, borrowed in 1960, on the shelf just in front of me even as I type;
Apologies to the Babe Ruth League kid in center field whom I shamedby dramatically jerking him out of the game mid-inning for letting two grounders go through his legs.
In the words of the King of Siam: “Et cetera, et cetera.” I could go on, but why be any more boring? Lord knows??and so do I — my shortcomings and sins. But they are hardly the stuff from which comes saints or bishops??or even Oprahs or presidents. Or are they? After all, the sin that led Saint Augustine to scribble his 383 pages fifteen centuries ago, still in print today, was only that of stealing some pears at the age of sixteen.
Why then cannot we confess at such length and in such extraneous strength as he? Where have we lost our sackcloth and ashes and our self? flagellating sense of remorse? Why do we not wallow in guilt as Augustine did? Why are we not wringing wet with the perspiration of profound and profuse penitence such as he suffered — and probably enjoyed?
Well, for one thing, Augustine had a different audience. In the monastery, where everyone was good, the only way to be better than other monks was to out?confess them. But we live among ordinary people, not monks. Our shortcomings are self-evident to each other everyday and so commonplace that everyone has them. Our sins are so universal that none of us judges others or ourselves. Only sanctimonious braggarts, not regretful confessors, stand out amongst us. We have forgotten how to be abject and guilt-ridden.
Despite our manifold individual failings, exceeding those of Saint Augustine a million-fold, we have enormous capacities for forgiving and forgetting one another.
Or are they capacities for ignoring each other? Maybe we don’t care at all. There is a thin line between caring enough to forgive and not caring at all, between responsibility for others on one hand and blatant apathy on the other.
Either way, our greater sins may be collective rather than personal — that with so much acceptance of faults abroad in the land, we fail to face up to our largest and shared failings. Things like trillion?dollar debts, energy depletions, unaffordable health care, drug abuse, war casualties, homelessness, hunger, unemployment, and loneliness are the pear?trees of our modern life together. We must not hide from them in the monasteries of our minds.
Feeling guiltless as we do does not absolve of us of our guilt at all.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com
Published in The Messenger 5.5.08