You’ve seen those one-off posts, right? Varied slices of insight on navigating your ideals alongside the awareness of shortcomings in yourself, in others, in the media you love (often featuring use of the dubious umbrella term “problematic”) because — because on the one hand, everyone is “problematic,” you shouldn’t expect anyone or anything to be perfect, you need to make peace with that, but on the other hand, you need to have standards, don’t use that as a flippant excuse to dismiss valid critiques, don’t use that as an excuse to throw your hands up and shrug, there’s a line somewhere, but on the other hand, you don’t need to burn yourself out in pursuit of the impossible and it’s okay to like something even if it has its shortcomings as long as you’re aware of and acknowledge them, but on the other hand, don’t get complacent, but on the other hand, be realistic, but on the other hand, on the other hand, on the other hand–
All these other hands. All this effort to extrapolate lines and boundaries and reasonable expectations based on a given value set and a conscious rejection of the oppressive and wrong, to reconcile the ideals you pursue with the inevitability of imperfection.
To me, it kind of… comes across as struggling to reinvent the wheel.
This conversation is ancient. And the reframing of the conversation in newer terms, in the vocabulary of CRT or feminism or disability activism or what have you, doesn’t make it any less so. You don’t have to treat it as a new quandary.
And, um. When I say that… I’m not expecting everyone on the internet to have studied philosophy and the history of ethics or anything. But, c’mon. I know a lot of the English speakers have at least a passing familiarity with Christianity.
So I have this horrible tendency to see those posts and think, “Come on, we’ve already covered this.”
But then again, apparently we haven’t.
So. Here we are. This post is going to meander around how I answer this conundrum for myself, involving a lot of Christian rhetoric as well as not-specifically-Christian translations. These thoughts/frames/conceptualizations are (clearly) not exclusive to Christianity, but the way I write and think about them is colored by a Christian background, and I’m not going to dance around that. On the flip side, not every Christian approaches the subject the same way as I do, so don’t take any of this as a claim to Homogenous Christian Opinion.
I hope that gets all the necessary disclaimers out of the way.
The place to start, then, may as well be with the concept of sin itself. As I have… mentioned, before… I think the word “sin” has been given more melodramatic connotations than it deserves. What I was taught is that what “sin” really means, technically, is to “miss,” as in, to miss the target, to fall short of perfection. It doesn’t mean Terrible Doom Depravity of the Vile. It just means… subpar. Even… “problematic”– with all the same attendant issues of being so vague as to avoid naming the specific problem at hand.
i.e. feel free to translate “sinning” as “doing something problematic.”
So when people make assertions about how “humanity is naturally sinful” or whatever, that’s pretty much no different from saying “nobody’s perfect.” Literally. That’s it.
The latter of which, I would think, is not too controversial.
But what do you do with that? Where do you go from there, knowing that hard work and good intentions can never elevate you to a more untouchable level? That you can never run fast enough to outrun the inevitable?
I don’t know about for y’all, but that’s frustrating for me to think about, sometimes.
Well. It helps, I think, to try and abandon the sorting system of ranking people as good or bad. There’s no point in wishing you could reach a better “level” when you trash the idea of distinct cohesive levels altogether. And it can be really hard (for me, but I know I’m not alone in this) to let go of that impulse.
What I try to replace it with is harder to explain.
So, instead, I’m just going to show you Jay Smooth’s “having tonsils” vs “dental hygiene” metaphor (which is from a speech about racism, so it’s already translated). Here’s some excerpts (although I recommend the whole video):
The problem with that all-or-nothing binary is it… causes us to look at racism and prejudice as if they are akin to having tonsils. You– you either have tonsils, or you don’t, and if you– if– so if you’ve had… if you’ve had your prejudice removed, you never need to consider… [audience laughter] So– so if someone– if someone says… if someone says, “I think you may have a little unconscious prejudice,” you say, “W– No, I– My prejudice was removed, in 2005!”
So we need to move away from the ‘tonsils’ paradigm of race discourse towards the ‘dental hygiene’ paradigm of race discourse… […] Being a clean person is something you maintain and work on every day. We don’t assume that, uh, “I’m a clean person, therefore I don’t need to brush my teeth.” And when someone suggests to us that we’ve got something stuck in our teeth, we don’t say “W–wha– What do you mean? I have something stuck in my teeth? I’m a clean person!”
The idea being, being “good” isn’t a point you reach and then you’re done. It’s something you work on continuously, learning, changing, growing.
In the Christian framework, this is why we emphasize the concept of repentance a lot. It’s not about beating yourself up over your mistakes. It’s about recognizing the “problematic” thing, pushing it away from yourself, and starting over. It’s about giving yourself second chances and permission to try again. It’s about looking down at the path you’d set yourself on and saying, “…wait a minute. This isn’t the way I want to go.”
There’s no illusions, within that, about the process being anything other than ongoing and dynamic.
In terms of actions, the ideals may be pretty fixed in place, depending on which subject you have in mind. But in terms of people, I think the ideal should be instead of achieving a state, more about developing a skill set. And there’s never going to be a standardized way for you to turn that into a measuring stick. You live each day with what you have, and you do what you can.
Well, that’s what helps me to tell myself, anyway.