On Wednesday I went with a friend to see “Atonement: Stories About Confession, Redemption and Making Amends,” at the Jewish Community Center–part of their preparation for the High Holy Days. A group of storytellers from Speakeasy DC came and performed true personal tales of childhood shoplifting, hit-and-run car damage, and dishonorable Scrabble.
All of the stories were interesting and for the most part well-told–but literally none of them followed the form I was most hoping for: “I sinned, I realized I was wrong, and I made amends, here’s how.” Several of the stories explored related questions of conscience: Ritija Gupta turned the story of how a bad-girl friend persuaded her to steal sixty cents’ worth of beads, at age seven, into a sharp little parable on how we misunderstand the gravity of our actions, condemning ourselves for peccadilloes while assimilating huge ongoing sins into our sense of what’s normal and acceptable. The host, Amy Saidman, did a funny shtik about the war between “Citizen Amy,” whose conscience would never allow her to damage a car and not even leave a note, and “Spray-Tan Amy,” who can’t stop because she is receiving an award that night, who is special and above the rules.
Some of the stories skimped on the sin. In at least one case I just wasn’t sure why the story was in the program at all, since it didn’t seem to include any wrongdoing or even minor negligence–so it wasn’t surprising that it also didn’t include any amends. One story did include actual sin and then actual repentance–but it was amends made to the narrator, not by him, which it turns out does make the inner movement of penitence and atonement pretty opaque. Several stories described real negligence, cruelty, or pride (and all this stuff was quite funny most of the time!), but the atonement part, which to me was by far the most interesting bit, got tacked on in a final line or never quite happened at all! I know that the line between “the best amends is leading a better life” and direct atonement for a specific act can be fuzzy, but this program really did feel way too light on the penance.
The most powerful story came from the most intensely compelling storyteller, Colin Murchie. He’s someone I’ll be looking out for at future Speakeasy events. I don’t want to tell his story for him, but it was about a night when he was forced to completely reassess the motives which had led him to become a volunteer firefighter in a very tough Maryland suburb. It’s a story which could easily seem disingenuous (my problem is that I just wanted too badly to help people!) but Murchie absolutely took me along on his journey of soul-searching. There are times when we have to confront the level of spiritual pride which fuels even some of our seemingly selfless choices, and those times are often among the most humbling moments, when our sense of self is all but shattered.
One reason this story affected me so powerfully is that Murchie’s face changed so dramatically while he was telling it. At first he looked just like the protagonist of the beginning of his tale: a young, white, probably overeducated and kind of self-conscious, callow guy, an “emerging adult” I guess. But at some point, maybe when he described getting his EMT card–so, before the story has really begun to head into grim territory–his face changed. Maybe this was just a trick of the light. But I felt like there were new hollows and deep lines there. You could see, for a moment, that something wasn’t all there, some crucial support was missing; he looked older and unheimlich.
I wonder if atonement is especially hard to talk about–harder than sin, rationalization, or realization of wrongdoing. I’m doing this series on portrayals of penitence and it’s easier to find examples of artworks which should include penitence but don’t than to find artworks which include compelling, non-cliched portrayals of penitence. I’m not sure why this would be so hard to illustrate, which is why I’m posting this: to see if you people have any thoughts on whether atonement is harder to depict than other related topics and if so, why.
My own guess is that atonement requires us to make some kind of attempt to figure out what justice fully demands, which is difficult if not impossible to know, and the answer is always going to be more than we can give. You and I can’t actually atone or make amends. We can accept Christ’s atonement for us, entering into His suffering and death, but we can no more atone fully than we can simply avoid sin in the first place. (If you doubt this, go ahead and try it! I’ll wait.) Sinning is something I am fully capable of doing! Rationalization, ditto. Gaining self-awareness and beginning to grow something resembling a conscience: tough, but yes, people can do that. It’s only atonement which is impossible for the literary character or storyteller.