* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Human Condition: Why Making the Same Mistake Over and Over Again Doesn't Mean We're Broken

Leading from the idea that there are discrepancies in the narrative of the Bible, Genesis 20 is an excellent case in point.  Back in Genesis 12, Abraham lied to the Egyptians, claiming that Sarah was his sister instead of his wife.  Although Abraham prospered for a while because of his deceit, he was ultimately driven out of Egypt, and the lie cost him a great deal of comfort and security.  So it seems a bit odd when, much later in his life, after it is already declared that Sarah is an old woman and no longer able to bear children, Abraham lies to another group of people and claims that Sarah is his sister.  Quite honestly, it seems that this is just another version of a story about an important event or lesson in Abraham's life.  It seems unlikely that a man would make the same huge mistake twice, especially considering the level of maturity Abraham is supposed to have reached by this point.

The stories do end a bit differently.  Not only did the lie in Egypt cost Abraham, it cost the whole world a great deal of peace and security, if we take the story at its word.  One of the things Abraham gained in Egypt was Hagar, the Egyptian servant with whom Sarah suggested Abraham sire a child.  This was not only acceptable in the culture of the time, it was justified between Abraham and Sarah as following God's will.  Well, according to the story, Sarah winds up getting pregnant in her old age as well, and she winds up resenting the Egyptian servant woman and the boy that Abraham fathered with her.   So, Hagar and Ishmael are eventually sent away, and this Ishamel is the forefather of Muhammad, and thus is an important figure in Islamic culture.  Meanwhile, Sarah raises her own son, Isaac, a patriarch of the Jewish people.  No one can say what would have happened if Abraham had simply told the truth in Egypt, or if he hadn't slept with Hagar.  The end result of Abraham's first lie about Sarah has been centuries of conflict between the descendants of his two sons.

Of course, that conflict hadn't become an issue when Abraham lied the second time about Sarah being his sister.  It's worth stating again that the story seems unlikely as an accurate historical record of Abraham's life, but there is something that rings true about it on a deeper level.  Abraham indicates that it was habitual for Sarah to be portrayed as his sister and not his wife.  It had apparently been the practice in their relationship to deceive people out of fear for Abraham's safety.  Fear is a powerful motivator, even if it leads us to make mistakes we have made before.  That is the aspect of the human experience that makes the story plausible.

People do sometimes make the same mistakes over and over again, even when it costs them a great deal.  Some may look at that trait and determine that human beings are hopelessly broken.  That isn't the most helpful perspective.  Deciding that a person is incapable or that a situation is hopeless denies a deep truth about personal responsibility.  When we believe that we have no real power in our own lives, it's easy to keep making decisions that yield different results than what we want.  When people realize their own responsibility in a situation, they also recognize their own control.  If a person sees the realistic power to change, then the possibility for making decisions differently becomes an attainable option.

People make decisions for all sorts of reasons.  Fear is often a huge factor.  In fact, just about every decision we consider to be a mistake is the result of fear in one way or another.  There is something to learn from those decisions.  We might make similar choices many times before we fully understand our power to do something different, but once we reach some measure of awareness about our own power and responsibility in our own lives, we have many more options than what fear allows.  When we acknowledge the deep truth and beauty and creativity within every person, we open the door of possibility. 

People are not broken.  People are not hopeless.  People are not incapable.  Some people have more apparent challenges than others, but all people embody the capacity to do good in the world.  Even as we make the same mistakes over and over again, the possibility always exists to recognize the deep truth and beauty and creativity within us.  It is not out in the universe somewhere, pulling strings or watching and listening and judging.  It is immediately accessible within our own beings.  Our mistakes (no matter how many times we have made them) call us to recognize the falsehood of our fears and to acknowledge the truth about our own personal power and responsibility.

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