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How Our Sins Ripple Out, Touching the Whole World

May 23, 2019


Our memories are things that are ours alone—even when we share memories with friends or siblings, we each take away our own perspectives. They tell us that we are alone, yet not alone; vulnerable, yet resilient; much sinned against, yet much more capable of sinning against others than we would like to acknowledge.

Personally, when I remember those I have sinned against I am humbled—particularly when I consider how my sins have rippled out to touch the lives of others.

Toss a pebble into a pond, and watch the concentric undulations that fan out, until the earthy edge is touched. That’s how our sins work: we are focused on one thing, one need, one appetite we want to satisfy, and we think whatever the consequences, they redound only to ourselves—and yet in truth, they go out in waves.

Here is an example: When I was about nine years old and taking a shortcut through the woods, I came upon a group of teenaged boys who had been oogling a copy of Playboy, or some other smutty magazine—and there I was, a girl. Energy and appetites previously focused on the magazine became focused on me, and I was assaulted, although I managed to scream and escape before the worst could happen. What occurred was bad enough. It was only years later, though, that I considered that ripple effect of sin:

The pebble: Someone focused on making money conceives of a product that promotes unchaste thoughts and behaviors. The product is launched with no further idea of sin, perhaps, beyond making money through the objectification of women, and the exploitation of human need and weakness.

The first ripple: Someone conceives of a notion to exploit a human being for the sole purpose of making money.

The second ripple: A woman (who perhaps has been a victim of earlier abuse herself, or who is in dire straits economically and feels desperate) agrees to pose for lewd pictures for money. It’s unlikely she thought of doing so at age eight—at least not in that era—but here she is, at age eighteen or so, possibly feeling too put-upon to have a choice. If she’s thinking of her own behavior as sinful at all (and she might be) she’s likely not thinking about:

The third ripple: The seller who, motivated by greed and thinking only of profit, makes such magazines readily available to members of the public, including:

The fourth ripple: The family man who, perhaps sheepishly, buys the thing because it is tempting and “sophisticated” and the world is changing, but who is not planning on:

The fifth ripple: His sons getting their hands on the product, and becoming seduced by a false sense of power and tempted into objectification and against chastity, and then:

The sixth ripple: The sinful mauling of a young girl, who—like the woman in the picture—has ceased to be human, and has become a mere object and means to an end.

Pond edge reached.

And who is to say where else those particular ripples wandered, from how many directions, for how long, all due to that initial, focused pebble-toss of sin?

I was sexually abused too frequently in my youth to say that this specific incident could have rippled further through me—I certainly hope not—but am I aware of some of my own iniquities sometimes being informed by those confused and distorting sins? Of course. And if I did sin, it likely rippled.

And while the memories are painful, recollecting them is what has helped me to realize that we are “alone but not alone,” and that everything matters. It has made me more mindful of my own behavior and the consequences of negligent pursuits that are all about me, and what I want. It has made me more eager to listen to what God might be trying to say to me, every day, through the persistence of memory, and how it forces us to relive and re-examine if we can stand it.  These are the first two jobs of memory: to relive, and to reexamine, and if they are attended to, they lead to the third: inclusion.

The good thing about reliving and reexamining is that you can’t but come away from it feeling humbled, because you see your faults, you see the faults of others, and—if you’re very lucky—it all fills you with a sense of pity for poor old broken humanity, which tries to convince itself that it is free, clever, and wholly together when in fact it is bound to its egos, trends, and social sicknesses, often stupid beyond belief (I once had a priest-confessor call my sins “stupid,” and I never agreed more), fully broken and in constant need of rescue and repair.

I wouldn’t presume to say that this is why God permits so much that is bad to happen to us, or to come from us, but I do wonder if we are not all meant to look at all this and consider that, in the end, and all illusions aside, we are all of us in constant danger of sinking into a vast darkness—beings sucked into a mudpuddle while looking heavenward. If we understand ourselves thusly, it becomes very hard to think better of oneself than of another; it becomes very hard to comfortably hate another, because we’re all in the thick, together.

In that case, it should be easier to look at each other with a measure of compassion, and to extend a hand outward—to include, rather than swat away.

That becomes another action of memory—realizing that someone is blue and sending them a card to cheer them up. That says, “I am thinking about you; I am remembering that you are out there, in the world, with the mud sucking you down, and I am telling you that you matter.” That simple act of inclusion can help stop a ripple and totally defeat the mud, for at least a little while, and that means it is a powerful act.

Just as our sins ripple out, so do our generous actions, although they’re perhaps not as easily recognized.

My best friend’s mother is a hoot; I love her, although I don’t see her often. When I know my friend is going to visit, I always say, “Remember me to your mom.” It’s the inclusion thing. It begs a little inclusion of me into her awareness, but it also tells her that I remember her.

To do these little things—to enact inclusion in small ways, or bigger ones—is to say to others: “You matter.” Or, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “It is good that you exist.” Communicate that message through remembrance and you can almost hear someone being pulled up, and the encroaching mud being defeated with a gurgle.

Remember to celebrate, remember to mourn; remember to do seasonal, responsible things that involve others even if you are, like me, rather shy and introverted, and prefer to do it from home rather than in a crowd.

All of it counts. All of it matters because all of it affirms others, and is thus joined to the huge, creative affirmation first uttered by the creator (“Let there be light!”)—the great affirmation that even today continues the growing of creation, beyond time or space.

This piece is a follow-up to Mindful Optimism is a Danger Worth Dancing With