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Daily Sin

Over the years, Christian theologists have spent a lot of energy debating "Orginal Sin" -- the idea that each and every one of us is tainted by sin, because our ancestors Adam and Eve sinned and passed that sin down to us. The implication, of course, is that none of us are able to avoid Hell by our own efforts; we have to appeal to God and Jesus Christ to forgive us and wash away the moral stains we inherited.

It is an interesting argument, I suppose, but for most of us I think the question is moot. Independent of any sin passed down through our genes, most (if not all) of us do plenty of wrong each and every day -- more than enough to send us to Hell, probably.

To answer your questions: no, I am not Christian, and I am not necessarily trying to convert you. I don't subscribe to any particular religion, although I believe that all faiths are based in some truth, and I try to learn the truths that these faiths teach. However, I do not believe that religion is the same as morality, and I do believe strongly in morality. Having said that, I am not so sure that there is a universal rulebook that determines good and evil actions for all of us. I think that morality might be dynamic -- actions that are good today might have been evil if we had committed then ten or a hundred or a thousand years ago. Furthermore, I suspect that morality might not even be static among individuals living at the same time -- a particular action might be evil if I commit it, but good if you commit it -- even if we live in the same culture with the same moral values at the same time. Those are unpopular notions, and to be sure they are dangerous; it is hard to coerce a society to behave "well" without a consistent set of rules that applies to everybody, and inconsistent rules can quickly degenerate into easy (and evil) justifications for doing bad things: "Most people would not be allowed to rob a bank, but I am different and it is morally okay for me to rob this bank so I can be rich." I don't have easy answers to these criticisms, so I appeal to our consciences: most of us have a conscience, and most of the time our consciences correctly distinguish good from evil. The more we listen to our consciences, the less likely we are to stray.

Are our consciences perfect? Probably not. They undoubtedly let some of us do evil things without remorse, and prevent some of us from doing good things because we believe they are evil. It is also true that our consciences are influenced by our culture and surroundings. Overall, however, I think our consciences do a pretty good job of guiding us. I know that ignoring my conscience has gotten me into trouble many times, and that listening to it has paid off as well.

Unfortunately for me, I am not so good at obeying my conscience. Every day I delude myself into thinking that wrong is right, and every day I add to my growing list of little sins. Yesterday, for example, I had a rough day. Maybe I was just more aware of my misdeeds than usual, but besides the usual sloth and lies I distinctly recall committing the crimes of thoughtlessness, theft and murder:


My attitude towards personal automobiles is well defined: I don't like them. I do not drive, and I don't accept rides from others. I agree that internal combustion engines have their uses, but I do not think personal transportation is one of them. I think that cars are a waste of resources, that they lead to a host of psychological, social and environmental problems, and that most of the people who choose to drive have made a poor decision.

Nonetheless, people who choose to live with the consequences of choosing to drive have made their choice, just as I have made a choice to live with the consequences of not driving. I have a lot of trouble respecting the decision to drive, and that gets me into a lot of trouble.

Yesterday, I demonstrated that disrespect by behaving thoughtlessly towards car drivers. In the morning I was walking to some friends' house to borrow a bike trailer. The street on which my friends live is old, and only has a sidewalk on one side of the road. Yesterday that sidewalk was blocked so that some neighbours could cut down a tree. I had to walk on the road, so I did. When I got to my friends' house, I crossed the road. Naturally, I did not look behind me, and naturally a car almost run me over. Fortunately the driver was not going so fast, so she was able to stop in time. She was not happy, though. I don't blame her now, but I did at the time. My attitude was full of pride; instead of realizing I had goofed, I blamed the driver for being on the road and honking at me.

Somewhat fortunately, the driver and I did not exchange words. If we had, I might have made the situation worse. But the damage had already been done; I had acted stupidly, was unrepentant for my error, and I made somebody's day a little bit worse. It may not seem like much, but these little annoyances contribute to our daily stress in an already stressful world. Those stresses build up, and we lose our temper at people who do not deserve it. Perhaps one of that driver's co-workers felt the brunt of my error later on in the day. Maybe nothing happened, and the driver worked out the morning's stress by meditating at lunch. It does not really matter. The point is that my proud attitudes and disrespect helped add to the stresses of the world. I tagged another sin to my soul.

Of course, that infraction was not enough. I ticked off car drivers at least twice more yesterday, both times by crossing the street when they were preparing to turn. On both occasions, I consoled myself by telling myself that I had the right of way. In reality, I have no idea who had the right of way, and it did not really matter anyways; I was just trying to justify my pride and my dislike of the automobile's dominance in my society. This dislike does not give me the right to antagonize drivers and make the lives of my fellow humans worse. Waging my passive-aggressive war on cars will not convince anybody to drive them less. If anything, it will just tarnish the collective reputation of pedestrians in my area. How does that accomplish anything? It doesn't.


Of all the crimes I committed yesterday, this is the hardest to write about, because I betrayed people who trusted me.

It happened at the end of the day. I was dead tired, and annoyed because I was running late (thanks, sloth!), but I had to return the bike trailer I had borrowed in the morning. Once again, I walked down to the house where my friends lived. The tree-cutters were gone, so I walked down the sidewalk to the house. My friends weren't home, but that was okay; they knew I would be coming to return the trailer. I let myself into their yard, and rolled the trailer to their shed. So far, so good.

Then I got myself into trouble. Instead of letting myself out of their yard, I sat down on my friends' front porch to rest for a while. I knew this would not be a problem either, even if they happened to come home while I was resting. I sat and looked out at their tree-lined yard and sprawling garden, enjoying the green space and resting my sore legs. Then I got the idea of trespassing into their garden to see how their crops were doing. I walked through the garden, admiring the yellow potato plant flowers and the radishes I had helped plant and the pretty red flowers in the herb garden. Then I looked at the strawberry plants, and temptation hit.

My friends have five or six strawberry plants growing along their garden wall, and they are beautiful. This is the first year the plants have produced any fruit, so the strawberries are a big deal. There aren't that many strawberries -- the plants will likely not produce more than a quart of berries. I saw that some of the strawberries were still whitish and immature, but about a dozen berries were lush and red and ripe, perfect for eating on a muggy hot summer's evening. At the same time, my conscience was screaming at me. Taking any of those berries would make me a vegetable thief.

There are worse crimes in this world than vegetable thievery, but there aren't that many. At some community gardens last year, I have been accused of vegetable thievery, and that accusation hurt. First of all, the accusation was false -- I was dropping compost off at the gardens, not stealing other people's produce -- and secondly, vegetable thievery is a terrible crime. People spend months of time and love to grow vegetables in their gardens. How demoralizing is it to put in all that work, only to have nothing to show for it in the end because other people stole your vegetables? It's really demoralizing. If that happened to me, I would not want to garden any more.

And here I was, lusting after this luscious fruit that I had not grown. Surely taking a single berry wouldn't hurt? And that berry down there is sitting on the ground -- it will rot soon if nobody eats it. What a waste that would be! No.. I shouldn't. It will be okay! Nobody will notice a single missing berry..

You know how this debate ended as well as I do: I broke down and stole a berry. It was bright red and soft and sweet; its juices stained my fingers. I picked it and ate it and felt like a heel. I cast the stem into the garden. Then I walked home and bought more strawberries at the grocery store two blocks from my house.

It was only one berry, right? Well, no. It was a forbidden fruit, a covenant of trust that is incredibly important to me. My friends trusted me enough to let me into their yard, and I broke that trust by stealing their belongings when they were not watching. Maybe if they were there, they would have offered me a berry. Maybe if I had asked later on, they would have let me eat a berry or a handful of fruit. That would have been completely different from the cowardly act of stealing food from their garden -- especially this food, a berry from the first crop of berries ever grown in this garden.

What really disgusted me were my reactions to this crime, the ways in which I thought I could atone. Maybe I could just pay them for the berry? Maybe I could offer them some of the berries that I had bought from the store? Maybe I could just keep the secret to myself? Feh. How does money help the situation? How do store-bought berries compare to the fruits you grow in your own garden? What does it matter whether they know that I took the fruit or not -- I know, and that is indictment enough.

So how do I atone? My feeling is that I can't. I can and should learn from my weakness, and I must be more careful than ever to respect the trust others put in me. Confessing my crime to my friends is not an option; it is a necessity. I have to accept the consequences of my actions. Maybe my friends will forgive me, which would make me feel better and more guilty all at once. Perhaps they will be angry and revoke my privileges. Perhaps I can't atone, in the end, but not accepting the consequences of my actions would just be another sin. Mind you, it is easy for me to say that, because I don't think the consequences will be that severe. If I was facing a life in jail or the death penalty I would probably behave differently.

Incidentally, this is a prime example of how an action that would be evil for me would be okay for another. If I had been given permission to eat as much as I wanted from the garden, then there would have been no problem. I had been given permission to trespass into my friends' yard; trespassing into other people's yards without permission would usually be discourteous and wrong. Furthermore, in some cultures taking fruit from somebody's garden would be no crime, because it is social convention that you can stop and refresh yourself at any garden you encounter, so long as you do not carry food away with you. In our culture, though, you do not take food (or anything else) without asking first. I think it boils down to expectations and courtesy and need. I may not have been depriving my friends of much by taking that berry -- it would have been far worse if I had stolen all the ripe berries in the patch -- but I was being discourteous, and I broke the trust they showed in me. That was the real sin.


Because I don't drive or ride a bike, I end up walking on sidewalks a lot. Much of the time those sidewalks are surrounded by seas of concrete; nothing grows there, and nothing ventures out onto the sidewalk. Sometimes, though, the sidewalk borders grass or other plants. Then you have to be careful, because on wet mornings you sometimes encounter snails and slugs and earthworms, and in the summer you run into swarms of ants. Ironically, sidwalks bordering heavily pesticided lawns are the easiest to traverse; such lawns are essentially dead, and no earthworms seem to live there. But some people don't put pesticides on their front yards, and then you have to mind the wildlife. You have to keep your eyes to the sidewalk and watch where you step, because innocent creatures die otherwise.

Some people dislike snails or slugs or earthworms or ants, but I don't mind them, and I hate stepping on them. I especially hate stepping on snails -- I will be walking along staring off into space, and then I will hear that sickening snap that tells me I carelessly snuffed out yet another life. Snap, crunch, snap. All because I don't watch where I step, and because we humans had the arrogance to suffocate the surface of the earth with strips of concrete and coal tar.

Sidewalks are death to earthworms and slugs and snails. They wander out on the sidewalks in the rain, to escape the flooded soil. Then the sun comes out and burns their delicate bodies, and they dry up. It must be a horrible death. Sure: they are "only" slugs and snails and earthworms, but we are only humans, and I still cannot see why humans are so much more important than everything else on the planet.

In any case, I stepped on three snails yesterday. Each time, I was not watching where I walked. The third time I was walking on the lawn in front of my house, and -- snap. That made me feel the worst, because the snail had not even been trespassing on the sidewalk; it had been minding its own business.

Again, my responses to this carnage disgusted me. I reasoned since that I had moved two earthworms from the sidewalk to the sidewalk, I had partially atoned for my sins. But saving two earthworms does not bring crushed snails back to life, and there is no evidence that those earthworms lived. Trading off life for life is a fool's game. Maybe I shouldn't care so much for the life I snuff out with my shoe. Maybe people are much more important than other life -- and certainly, my actions would support that position, at least for First World upper-middle class humans. (Third World people don't count as much, which is why it is okay to let them work under conditions we would never allow here.) That position doesn't feel right, though, and in my eyes I am guilty of unintentional, unnecessary murder.

So what have I learned? I am not sure. Maybe I will recognise drivers as people with their own problems. Maybe I will stop abusing the trust others place in me. Maybe I will be more careful about respecting life in the future. Even if I made these improvements, though, I would find other ways to mess up. I can't help feeling that the best service I could do for myself is to grow more sensitive to the voice in my head, and to avoid the temptation of desensitizing myself to these little sins. I am going to keep messing up -- none of us will ever be perfect. Maybe that means I am going to Hell unless I embrace Jesus Christ with all my heart. Who knows? Who cares? I can see the negative effects of my sins in this world, and in my eyes that is reason enough to try and improve.