Seeing Our Worst in Others

I am a man of many sins. But a couple of my most serious flaws in life have been an overindulgence in drugs (coffee, yes, but especially alcohol and tobacco, and in my youth, even hard drugs); and a tendency to view women instrumentally (that is as instruments to be used to fulfill my own desires, rather than as human beings in their own right).

Of both sins I am still guilty. Though I am happy to say it is much, much less severe than it used to be, on both counts. Still, I have a long, long way to go towards healing myself when it comes to undoing the damage I did to the integrity of my own soul. And I still have tendencies to worsen the damage now and again, even though I now know better.

It’s a truism that the sins we hate most in ourselves are the same ones that irritate us so greatly in others. When I hate the presumptuousness of another person, it’s often because I am somehow being presumptuous myself (and I can see clearly the other person’s presumptuousness, but consider my own thoughts and opinions to be totally clear-headed and objectively true). When the nitpicking of another irritates me, I’m usually nitpicking by even noticing it. Usually they aren’t even being that bad!

So it’s eye-opening for me to spend time around someone who has my same weaknesses (drink, and not women but “girls”) and who seems to have completely given up trying to fight them.

[Incidentally there is a sort of bon-vivant way that many people portray this kind of embrace of sin. I certainly fell for it, and was very good at propagating it. A cheery sort of wallowing that proclaims (loudly, so all can hear) that this is living. It is, of course, just a way to drown out the pit-of-the-stomach sensation of emptiness and desperation. (Or at least, with me it was.)]

I’ve recently ended up spending extended amounts of time (because of extenuating circumstances, not by choice) with a man who loves to drink, to smoke, and to talk about prostitutes and cheap women.

Did I say “love”? I take it back. He clearly has forfeited all choice and indeed all love when it comes to drinking, smoking, and “girls.” They are compulsions. He needs them, but he no longer seems to even enjoy them. (I’ve seen only the compulsive smoking and drinking. Thank god I haven’t had to witness any purchasing of sex … only have been made to grit my teeth through his excruciating “flirtation” with whatever females are before him.

It’s instructional for someone like me. I realize this sounds hopelessly condescending, and I must remind myself that it is not for me to sit in judgment of this other man’s soul. Nevertheless, I’d be a fool not to contemplate the natural disgust and revulsion I have for this rag-souled person, this pathetic “bon vivant” with the empty eyes of a pack-less hyena.

It’s like my own sins are a book I have been trying to read… I wrote the book myself, and in my horrible chicken scratch handwriting, and the lights are low, and my vision is blurry. I can’t quite seem to make out what the words say.

Then someone comes along and puts the text into neat print, feeds it into a projector, and blasts it right across the wall for all to see in bold letters.

It’s not something to be grateful for, in the usual sense of that word. But it is something to be taken advantage of. Rather than dwelling on this other man’s weakness, rather than muttering contempt behind his back to other people (who I am sure agree with me), I can look calmly at his manifest blackness and see the corresponding blackness in my own heart. I can let it spur me to greater love, greater discipline, and greater contemplation.

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9 comments on “Seeing Our Worst in Others

  1. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful. This has been precisely my experience. The disgust is always strongest against those sins you see in yourself, and the ensuing reminder of your guilt always humbling.

    • outofsleep says:

      You would think I would learn my lesson from this! But of course always it is when we are deepest in the thick of our own selfishness that we have the hardest time seeing it.

  2. Wyandotte says:

    “’It’s a truism that the sins we hate most in ourselves are the same ones that irritate us so greatly in others.” Not so much a truism as a worn-out, tiresome platitude. Sometimes this belief (and that’s what it is – just a belief) is indeed accurate, and other times it’s not. Take my own situation: I’m far from being a clean & neat freak; I just like a bit of basic cleanliness & order around me. My husband, however, wallows in filth and that is God’s own truth. So why isn’t the “truism” at work here? I’m hating a bad quality (love of filth) that I myself don’t have. What’s going on?

    Since when are drinking alcohol and smoking “sins”? Personally, I don’t take alcohol but I do smoke from time to time, and now that I’ve discovered herbal cigarettes, I’ll never smoke tobacco again. The herbal cigarettes are, like the tobacco was, an occasional, non-addictive pleasure. But even if I were addicted, so what. Where’s the “sin”? I would like to know. I have countless acquaintances who take alcohol (some are addicts) but I don’t see these as some sort of “sin”. However, I would view taking advantage of weak women to be sinful.

    Where do you draw the line? What is that “blackness” in your own heart that your licentious acquaintance has causes you to supposedly see in yourself? You haven’t described it and if you have certain behaviours that do indeed blacken your heart, well, I’m mighty curious to know what they are.

    • Anonymous says:

      I don’t get the first paragraph of your comment, Wyandotte.

      “It’s a truism that the sins we hate most in ourselves are the same ones that irritate us so greatly in others.”

      You can still be greatly irritated by sins in others that you do not commit yourself. The quoted statement doesn’t contradict that.

      • Wyandotte says:

        I guess it is a matter of interpretation. I thought that the Boss here was saying that if we hate a behaviour in others, it’s because deep down we’ve done the same thing ourselves or we at least have the same kind of character that would allow us to do such a thing down the line, but don’t have the gumption to own up to it, so instead we point fingers at others.

  3. outofsleep says:

    I should have been clearer. I don’t thinking drinking or smoking are sins per se. We are designed to draw pleasure from being alive, and there are countless ways to do so, from watching the sunrise to raising your children to reading a good book to enjoying a cold beer on a hot afternoon. I didn’t mean it was sinful to smoke or drink, or to be attracted to women for that matter. Far from it.

    Any pleasure can become deranged. Some pleasures lend themselves to this more than others, it seems. I don’t know anyone whose intemperate love of the sunrise caused him to become deranged.

    The fellow in question was clearly suffering a great deal from his need for booze and smokes (beer first thing in the morning… constantly skipping group activities and causing others distress and increasing the work load of others because he needed to sneak off and have another shot of rum) and his disgusting way of talking about women was enough to curdle fresh milk. In my own case, I was never that desperate or alcoholic, thank God, but there was a time in my life that I used alcohol and other distractions to keep me from thinking about how bad I felt. Why did I feel bad? Because I shirked my duties (in work, with family, with friends) and was unreliable and selfish… this made me close my heart more to the world (to avoid the bad feelings)… this made me drink more so I could get a good feeling of distraction… this made me drunk or hungover which then caused me to shirk my responsibilities (both to myself and to others)… and etc.

    There’s a common misunderstanding that “sin” means “being bad” like “being a bad boy” or something. Actually it just means going counter to what we were designed as humans to do, going counter to what makes us truly happy. There’s nothing wrong with a little indulgence; we’re meant to enjoy life. But what brings us lasting happiness is not indulgence upon indulgence to the point of self-seeking. We’re meant to love, and insofar as something takes us farther away from love, it’s sinful in the classical sense. Theologically speaking, sin is separation from the divine. That’s all. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with a nice herbal cigarette, and there’s nothing wrong with your friends taking alcohol when it enhances their happiness and that of those around them. (And I mean *happiness* broadly and deeply considered, not just hedonic pleasure).

    Two of the patron saints of this blog, Tolkien and Lewis, knew well how to enjoy tobacco and alcohol, and their books contain many scenes of jovial, social drinking and peaceful, contemplative pipe-smoking (for example).

    I can’t tell you exactly where I draw the line. Some cases are rather obvious, others less so. It’s not for me to worry about others’ sinfulness nor to sit in judgment of them. I can only do the best I can with my own actions. Certainly there are countless situations where I don’t know where to draw the line. That’s part of what it means to be human. We are constantly confronted with situations where we have difficulty picking the right course of action.

    That doesn’t therefore mean (it should go without saying) that we are incapable of moral choice. It’s *difficult* often, but we must still choose, and we must live with the consequences of our actions.

    I write posts like these precisely because I *don’t* always know what I’m doing. If I was a perfectly moral being with a God’s-eye-view of all moral choices, I shouldn’t even be a human being, still less one in need of a blog.

    As for the nature of the “blackness,” without meaning to sound dramatic, all I can say is: trust me, it’s there. Perhaps I can try to say more about it in a future post.

  4. Matty says:

    I can’t be the only one who feels more hope in this story than despair or judgement. If you could escape that type of life, being a similar person at a time, so could he.

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