Love – Or The Other?

You know when you’re in love. But how? Do you remember the early days of your teenage years when you asked people how it is to be in love, how you would recognize it, and all the people you asked replied was that you’ll see, and you won’t misidentify it, only to learn over a couple of encounters, your first tentative attempts, that it wasn’t so clear at all whether you were in love or not or if it just were the hormones or both, and you’ve still been confused, asking whether you’d love that person or perhaps not, not really? This was perhaps the clearest feeling of all: that you wasn’t sure, that you did not know, quite the contrary to what the people you asked answered to you. They seemed so sure in their smiles, but still, it wasn’t true what they said. You did not know in the instance. You did not.

They had been talking from the vantage point of experience, that is, they already had left behind the doubts and irritations, had grown more secure, and that in itself had made the feeling of being in love become clearer and truer as well. They spoke not from your perspective but from theirs, that is, they didn’t remember any longer how discovering love in the teenage years in itself created that love and by encountering it gave it the form and distinctness it would later so self-evidently betray. They had mistaken their old-established form of love with that which was still about to enter your life. In that sense, their answers had been utterly useless.

This is not about love but about sin. The figure or shape of sin, “sin” quite literally in the old sense of the word, with all its religious and theological connotations. The comparison with love is not coincidental. But as much as we enter love in a way that retrospectively given advice cannot illustrate, very much the same holds with sin. The way we encounter sin – or how sin finds its way into our lives – is not compatible with the tellings of others. Sin, and its sibling guilt, doesn’t have this form. Rather, in committing a sin, in becoming guilty, we discover its peculiar form, its bearing on us, and on those with whom we enter this fateful relation.

Especially if we didn’t have a religious education in childhood, sin may have often lingered in the abstract, seemingly not part of our lives. And I want to add that I don’t have a connotation of “sin” in mind that despises the body or the sex. I mean “sin” in the sense of what the conscience touches and which pertains to actions more than attitudes or thoughts. The feeling of having sinned, of having done something hitherto unspeakable, of something that berefts not only the opposite person but very much ourselves, the sudden and brusque realization that it cannot be undone. Like having told someone that you love him, which likewise cannot be taken back and cannot be forgotten either, at most glossed over.

Like with love, each of us has his particular way of finding his path into sin, into its recognition and the knowledge thereof. [1] Almost like sliding we sense its dreadfullness without being able to stop amidst the motion. Like with love, we initially doubt whether this or that was actually a sin, whether we really did something unbearable. Only later do we recognize that one was sinful, the other perhaps not. The distress we feel is different in each case, and the pondering very much part of it. We thus grope our way to an understanding or sensing of what might be a sin by committing sins and flinching back from them. Until we gain a precarious sense of it.

We cannot redeem guilt as we cannot redeem sins. Both may fade over time, but our memory of them keeps them with us. Even others’ forgiveness cannot alleviate what we carry with us. We didn’t choose to carry it, so we cannot lay it down. (And the one we heroically did choose we accepted to keep carrying it.) The voices keep coming, and only years later, when their distinctiveness reticed into some barely understandable murmur, may we feel, gasping for air, that we’re still breathing.

Sin is love turned out wrong. Or so it seems. It approaches us with the same sparkling eyes. As love cannot be reasoned with, so neither sin. The only difference is whether the sin happened on purpose, with clear eye, or whether it happened to us. And here it parts its propinquity with love. We cannot love someone with intent when in fact we do not love him; but a sin we can commit intentionally. We can shrug it off. We can even laugh about how it damages and changes us. There is only so much sin we can commit, as much, it seems, as there is onyl so much love we can bear. Sin not only is love that turned out wrong, sin can be a particular way to reject love. By making us monstrous we may try to fool love, and suggest that we’re not worth it. Sin is the conscious, but not always intentional, denial of love. Which we can only feel, or sense, because of love.

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[1] For different perspectives on this topic see my Being a Bugger and Strip-Mining the Heart.

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