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?