The cosmic lottery

If I had a vague sense of unworthiness as a little girl in Austin—the niggling discomfort that made the denials of Lent, as explained to me by my schoolmates, sound reasonable—when my mom and I moved to Dallas it blossomed into full-blown shame. I was eight when we packed our stuff and drove up Highway 35 and moved in with my grandma and grandpa. My mom used her brother’s old room and I got the bedroom she had shared with her sister.

I attributed these worsening feelings to our life situation, like my lack of goodness was exactly proportional to the difference between a conventional family and ours. Yet, recently, I’ve begun to wonder if my shame didn’t stem from a more universal source, if perhaps I would have smuggled the sense of being not-quite-good-enough into a perfect nuclear family if those had been the cards dealt to me. The more I talk to people from various backgrounds, the more I realize how many have struggled with similar feelings, and at about the same age. Is it the onset of greater self-awareness that occurs between the ages of, say, 8 and 12 that brings with it a dawning comprehension of one’s own shortcomings? I’ve spoken to some people who, exposed to religion and hoping to please God, became fervent during those years.

Others, like me, pinned their feelings of insufficiency on whatever scraps they could find at that age. What we experienced was the onset of a general level of anxiety, manifested in errant behaviors such as random bed-wetting or compulsive hand washing or other small acts of self-admonishment. Who doesn’t say to themselves at least once during these years—preferably into a mirror with tears welling—“I wish I was never born!”

Could these feelings go hand-in-hand with what Christians call “original sin?” Usually defined as the guilt all humans carry due to the disobedience of Adam and Eve, I’m beginning to wonder if the existence of this concept doesn’t speak to how widespread a sense of shame is (and if it doesn’t make sense that it would strike just as our individual identities solidify on the path out of childhood). Just the fact that this shame is tied to Adam and Eve seems to suggest the feeling has been around as long as humankind and that each of us suffers to some degree.

Perhaps we experience this guilt not because we got here by virtue of human reproduction but simply because we got here. Think of all the human pairings that had to occur since the dawn of human pairings and then within those couplings all the millions of potential seedling combinations. If just one of those had gone a different way: no you. Being alive is like picking the right string of digits in a cosmic lottery. To prevail in the face of such slim odds comes with a sense of responsibility—and, as is the case when any bar is set, there is the likelihood of falling short. We are fearful, somewhere deep inside, of not being good enough, of being unworthy of this life we’ve won.

Is this religion’s most fundamental role? To help us grapple with this particularly human concern?

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22 thoughts on “The cosmic lottery

  1. Thou waxest philosophical, dear Corinna, in the eventide…much to think about here. I always look forward to these and they are an encouragement to me….More anon….

  2. You leave me stunned. I have thought a great deal about shame and its roots. I have also considered the essential role of religion. Never have I combined them as you just did. Plenty to think about here as the above poster commented. Thanks for your insights!

  3. It sounds like the tween year journey in search of self. Who am I? And, why do I feel not good enough? asked in those “tween” years. Years of a kind of awakening from a directed childhood to the opportunity to play with the idea that you have a self apart from the family you were born into. This is also the time when body changes are taking place. Vocal changes begin to take place. Inner stirrings that we haven’t grown wise enough to know how to deal with. There’s a lot going on and a sense of shame could develop at any juncture of behavior when there is a sense of not being good enough.

    The mythological Adam and Eve story provided a ready answer in the Western World: The concept of original sin. It provides a backdrop for saying things like, “Everyone is imperfect.” For some reason we weren’t handed the story of perfection. We get the story of perfection failed.
    Supposing the writer of the story had left out the part about the “fall”….no serpent…no tempting fruit, just the knowing of a tree that introduced the possibility of choice.

    “Not good enough”….”Unworthy”….What fodder for religion. But did the use of religion interrupt the self-growth process that, given time, might have worked through the shame and to the self-realization of one’s own goodness that might feel more authentic than an imposed mythical story written for a different time for a people who believed in an exclusive God. Would shame have entered the picture at all if we had been introduced to an inclusive world. We might have been comforted by a chant like this: “You are the face of God. I hold you in my heart. You are a part of me. You are the face of God and you are o.k.”

    • Frank, your comments make great sense to me. They have a sense of the goodness in human beings who are given a chance to show themselves.

      I don’t intend to offend, but it confounds me and astounds me that rational human beings so blindly accept the Biblical mythology as fact, although Biblical historians are able to tell us otherwise. Writing that is supposedly composed by one person, turns out to be not so. Much was motivated by many other things than the pure teachings of Jesus. What better way to hold power over people than the idea that they are imperfect… Original Sin….but stick with The Church: We will protect you. We hold the answers

      I like the idea of the being handed the story of perfection…….instead of imperfection……what possibilities that suggests.

      • BTW: I did not intend to imply that my ideas were the same as Frank’s…..especially my comments about the political motivations of the early church. I just found interesting the comments he made about perfection and imperfection. Not trying to put words in your mouth, Frank!

  4. Like Gracie, I am stunned by new thoughts. I too have noticed how everyone seems to have shame, no matter how great their childhoods were. As Frank says, there’s a lot going on in growing up, and shame has plenty of chances to develop because there are so many chances to feel inadequate. And I think fear is behind shame. So, did we create religion to help us deal with our fear and shame? And in doing so, created many more opportunities to feel afraid and ashamed, as religion’s rules about our performance and its teachings about our inherent badness, reinforce what we were trying to be free of?

    It seems to me that we have to separate Jesus from religion, because he’s completely anti-shame. Every encounter that’s recorded of him, with lepers, promiscuous women, tax collectors, etc., tells us that God is about taking our shame away, not piling more on us.

    Shelley

  5. Here we go again with Science meeting Religion. And since the Lady Luck and the underbelly of chance and winning big in the collective unconscious– you might have hit the jackpot of receptivity to your words!. Have you heard about the new Maker’s Industry and 3-D Printers? It’s postulated to become bigger than the internet and bring back manufacturing to America. You can design your own shoes and print them in plastic,

    Those heads on Easter Island were precipitated by magicians is the esoteric teaching– war between the gods hurling them at each other. Whether you believe that or not, I wonder if 3-D printing will get so advanced it will be a mechanized way of precipitating our daily bread like Moses receiving his in biblical times.

    Maybe there is a cosmic computer in “heaven” that rendered the exact human genetic code into a physical body. It took Adam and Eve’s state of conscious from the the garden of Eden (as an archetype) and then perfectly matched it into the physical body, perfectly reflected in the genetic code but then injected into whatever genetic code was available in the form of developing family trees.

    You can actually change your genetic code as a co-creator with God. This will be proven some day.

  6. Oh my, what a lot to think about. There have been some fantastic, insightful things said here by all of you, and I don’t think I could get my head together enough to even dialogue on some of them.

    In the only answer I can make to Corinna’s question “Is this religion’s most fundamental role? To help us grapple with this particularly human concern?”, I cannot answer in the affirmative, because, to me as a believer, ‘religion’s most fundamental role’ is to reunite an imperfect human (me) with God’s perfection, through Jesus Christ.

    Having said that, I have thus made a presumptive statement that I do believe human beings are bearers of original sin. And that’s not about theology, it’s about experience. From an extremely young age (4), I had personal cause to understand that goodness does not necessarily reside in all human beings. I was aware of it not only because of things done to me, but of what I observed in others. I knew even then that people were capable of acts that were not kind, not bright, not right, not good. And years of living have not changed my thoughts. (If you want to see the deepest kind of cruelty, watch some small children – a real eye opener in terms of original sin.) As some psychologists and geneticists are now discovering, there is sadly truth in that.

    I remember getting into a rather deep discussion with a Unity minister once (I was a practitioner of Unity at the time) about how there really isn’t anything such as evil, only our perception of it. That was something with which I could not and cannot agree. You can call it what you want, sin, wrongness, bad thinking – I don’t care. It is the opposite of goodness.

    One of the responders to your blog made a very potent point about how Jesus did not use shame to make anyone feel bad. He did not denigrate (except perhaps the money lenders!) the tax payers or the prostitutes, as she said. But he did rebuke and say “Go and sin no more.”

    Instead of the word shame, I would use the word sorrow. I am sorrowed when I ‘sin and fall short of the Glory of God.” I am sorrowed when I know in my heart what is bright and right and I lessen myself and my offering to God by choosing the dark.

    The role of my religion is that there is comfort and healing for that sense of shame. I don’t know if I have even addressed the question you raised in your blog post, Corinna, but I have done my best to describe what I believe of original sin.

  7. There was a girl, one of eight children, who grew up in a very rough environment. Her dad worked hard to support the family, her mother worked hard at home. She never remembers a kiss, a hug or an “I love you” from her parents. The family were nones except her. She attended a holiness church for years where she was taught everything was a sin and any slip would surely send her straight to Hell.
    There was a boy, one of three, who grew up in a very loving environment, complete with one doting mother and two doting grandmothers. The family were devout Catholics, the boy making his first communion at six with confirmation following. He served as an altar boy. But the thing that was imbedded into his heart, mind and conscience was sin and Hell. And in order to “receive” Jesus in the wafer he had to be clean. And the only way to be clean from all sin was to go to confession and be forgiven by the priest. So every Saturday night he went to confession; every Sunday morning he took communion. By Sunday evening he had an impure thought or said something or did something and had to live with a guilty conscience and the fear of Hell for six more days.
    One day the girl and the boy met and a short time later decided to marry, her church warning her of going to Hell if she married him, his church warning him he was going to hell if he married her—We married anyway and the wrestling match began.

    • Last night we watched a program on the life of Martin Luther. What you said about “by Sunday evening” made me think of it. At one point, Luther (who had the same struggle) is shown walking away from the confessional and not even making it to the end of the room before he needed to turn back! I so often think of his struggle when encountering my own. I also think of the light that dawned on him – salvation a gift by grace through faith alone.

      I hope you and your ‘wrestling match’ is alive, well and happy, and I bet it and you are! :)

      Yours in Christ,
      Patti

  8. In my understanding, shame and guilt are related but not quite the same. Guilt says “I did something wrong.” Shame says “I am something wrong.”

    I feel guilty when I break an internal rule like, “You should not steal” or “You should never make anyone angry.” (Notice the word “should”). The rule may be healthy or unhealthy. So, when I feel guilt, I then check out the underlying rule and ask myself, “Is it a healthy or unhealthy rule?” If it is healthy, then I repent. If it is unhealthy, they I push through the guilty feelings and do what is right. Religion is healthy when it helps us sort out the healthy from the unhealthy rules. (Paul, in 2 Corinthians, distinguishes between “worldly sorrow” and “godly sorrow” that I think are the same idea). “Thou shalt not murder” is a healthy rule. “Thou shalt not make a mistake” is an unhealthy rule.

    Shame is the feeling that I am bad, defective, imperfect, stained in some way. Shame is learned very early in life (think 2 or 3). All kinds of criticism, rejection, abuse, etc. can instill toxic shame. So, I spill my drink and, instead of thinking, “that was a klutzy thing to do”, I think, “I AM a klutz.” I wish there was a different word for healthy shame to distinguish it from unhealthy (or toxic) shame. Healthy shame says, “Because I’m not God I’m not perfect, but God has done everything to take away that barrier so that I can enjoy a relationship with Him. He’s God and I’m not.” Toxic shame says, “I am so bad that God can never really love me. In fact, shame makes it so that I can never really love myself.” Healthy churches help people sort out the difference between both kinds of shame so that shame is longer a barrier to walking with Him.

    Many religious systems are actually an obstacle to God, rather than a bridge. Just a few thoughts and I’m sure others will have a lot more to comment on.

  9. There are so many threads to this conversation it is hard to know which one(s) to follow. But the fact is, I have been thinking about the concept of shame all day long. Shame is a word with so many negative connotations for me that I don’t even want it in my vocabulary….let alone in my life! Mark, you used the word toxic in conjunction with the word shame, and I would concur. Human beings are going to make choices….need to make choices…have to make choices. Some…perhaps most….will be positive ones. They will move us along in our lives in a direction that will make ourselves and the world a better place. Some will not. Some will be destructive. But for most of us, we just need to assess and move forward, to put it simply. I am not talking about the dark and “evil” things people do; that seems to me to be different. I am just talking about the ordinary people who go about their lives. I just don’t see that shame has any place in these scenarios. Shame just make people feel defective, like failures. We are humans who are not perfect and will, therefore, make mistakes. If there is a God, it/he/she is all about love. Shame tears that concept apart.

    I am not a believer in sin…original or otherwise, so maybe this colors my viewpoint, but I don’t think it disallows my ability to make the best choices I know how. Not because I don’t want to suffer shame, but because I want to be a good person. That phrase, “Shame on you” seems a most destructive thing to say to a good -hearted person…especially if they are a child!

    I am not certain that all of this conversation is helpful to you, Corinna, but it is certainly good for the rest of us to be able to examine our beliefs and values. Thank you for stirring the pot!

  10. Corinna, your ponderings make a lot of sense and your observations are astute. Here’s what I think you are saying: life is precious; each person is entirely unique – one in a million. Life is a gift from God which we ourselves do not create (although we certainly assist!).

    Here’s just how special each person is to God, according to the Bible. It’s in the form of a prayer to God: “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous — how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” (Psalm 139:13-16)

    So when God has formed us and we are disconnected, it’s like that shame you felt. (or, original sin, if you will — that disconnection in which is a sense of autonomy, that we owe God nothing for this gift of life; that we are in charge of us; that God has no call on us. Thus, we can live like we want and there are no rules or truths except those we make up for ourselves.) There’s something not right inside and we have a nagging sense of it. That’s what I hear you saying, Corinna, as I follow what you have written. I had that sense of shame, too, not particularly from my family of origin.

    Yet God still knows everything about us. More of the prayer reflects this: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me!” (v. 1-6)

    When God knows this much about us and when we live split apart from God, we experience anxiety, sort of like living split from your human parent as a child.

    If shame creates a lot of pain for you, the disconnection is also extremely painful for God, the other part of the equation. We have to come to a point of reconciliation or restoration between ourselves and God. The question is, how does that take place? I don’t want to remain in shame (or whatever word we use). But shame is good if it turns me to seek God. Once we are reconciled, shame is dissolved.

    I need to resist the temptation to define my own god. It’s not about what I would like God to be like, or what makes sense to me, but how God says He is.

    Wow, your depth of thought is stunning, Corinna. I love the conversation and feel privileged to be a part of it. Thank you. I am sure God thanks you and that you make God smile.

    • Some of your assumptions just aren’t true, Ginger, although I don’t doubt that at some point in your life it is how you experienced a seeming displacement from God. I love the scriptures you cited and the modern English translation you used. Some folks that you perceive as “disconnected” are not disconnected at all. They just have a different perception and are as much at peace with themselves without shame as you seem to be. I have read words from, “The Prophet” that are just as compelling and profound.

      • Thanks, Frank. No, I agree with you that not everyone feels shame. Many people are at peace and/or are happy without religion. You have sparked some thoughts. There was a woman who encountered Jesus. She didn’t feel shame, necessarily. (Well, we don’t really know. She did go draw her water at the well at an odd time – in the heat rather than at the cool of the day.) She had her own opinions about religion. Jesus talked to her and offered her living water. What we know is that she was thirsty for water that lasts.

        So instead of saying, “Well here it is! Take it!” he said, “Go get your husband and come back.” He confronted her reality. He knew it; even before she revealed it, he proceeded to tell her her life story. He spoke without judgment; just the truth. It was just like the Psalm mentioned above. The next few verses say this: “I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol (place of the dead), you are there… I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night — but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day.”

        She may not have felt shame at all. She did have to make a decision about the living water and had to recognize it was from Jesus. She could have clung to her reality – or she could “go” with him.(John 4)

        It’s good to think about these things. Thanks Frank.

        • Again, I enjoy your reasonings. They are soft and gentle. Since the gospel writers were presenting the life of Jesus according to their memories they had every opportunity to re-tell it and put whatever meanings they chose that would present Jesus as a master teacher and indeed he was. Other “masters” have similar stories whether written before or after the time of Christ and the appeal is the same. You have found it in Jesus and I appreciate the way you present it. What I’m suggesting is that there are others who present the same message.
          This is another biblical story that reminds us that we have the blessing of choice. The Psalm you quote is a better way to view it and this woman being of Hebrew descent, no doubt, knew it. It was simply a matter of opening her own eyes to see the truth of her well-watered being instead of believing she had to go to a well to be watered.

    • Hi Ginger, I appreciate your comments. Yes, I think each of our lives is even more precious than one in a million. In one way, the odds of our having been born are so miniscule as to be almost incalculable. I think we recognize this on a subconscious level from a very early age, which creates an anxiety until we can somehow learn to be okay with it–if we can learn to be okay with it. But, if we work hard, we can move past just being okay with it…to gratitude and love for ourselves and others.

  11. I love this sentence: “Think of all the human pairings that had to occur since the dawn of human pairings and then within those couplings all the millions of potential seedling combinations.” In Tibetan Buddhism, we call this concept a Precious Human Existence.

    • Among the hills, when you sit in the cool shade of the white poplars, sharing the peace and serenity of distant fields and meadows — then let your heart say in silence, “God rests in reason.”
      And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, and thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky — then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion.”
      And since you are a breath in God’s sphere, and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.

      ~ Kahlil Gibran

  12. Corinna, you have indeed stirred the pot, and I’m guessing that the Father is smiling at what you’re doing here. This is a difficult thread to follow in some ways, but Patti and Ginger and Mark had much of value in addressing the original question from a Christian perspective. I especially liked Ginger’s statement that God is not what we would like him to be but what he says he is. Evil is certainly present in the world: we read of it each day in the papers–I wear a lapel pin made up of an olive shoot and barbed wire to remember the Holocaust.

    What I would like to add to the discussion is this: Whatever one may think about the account of Adam and Eve, an obvious lessons is that God had personal involvement with them–and wanted it so. He still wants us humans to know him, and so he did what he had to do in order to make reconciliation and relationship possible by sending his Son, Jesus so that our self-centered and selfish ways, our sin, shame, guilt–true or toxic–are no longer a barrier to him throwing his arms about us and loving on us–if we only trust and receive him. He did this not to force us to obey his every whim, but to reflect his love in the human community and experience the true inner freedom that that relationship gives. I still cannot do good in the way I might like–definitely not according to any perfect standard God has set–but I am following Jesus as an apprentice (disciple), seeking to live with my Father as a son and enjoying his friendship.

    To answer you a bit more directly, Corinna, you wrote about the “right string of digits.” I certainly didn’t pick them, but I do feel grateful that I’ve been given this life and, yes, I suppose that presents a responsibility–which to me is chiefly to know the one who did pick the right string. I–nor anyone else–can be “good enough” or “worthy” enough of this life we’ve won. That misses the point, I think. Religion does not exist to grind our face into our inability to live truly good lives as much as it may be helpful to realize it–but the point is more about the fact that the one who did pick the string has given us the chance to freely acknowledge him, love him, and enjoy him forever. Obedience to God is not making up for any lack of goodness on my part; rather, as a child does what his daddy tells him to do, I want to do what my “Abba” says (albeit imperfectly), and even when I fall short, there is no shame or fear, but grace.

    Thanks again, for your insightful–and obviously inspiring words.
    Walt

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