Root of All Sin: Selfishness? UPDATED

My column at First Things today is about walking on The Diamond Path, a road some of us learned about as children, after a brazen caper:

Flashback, forty-some years: as my friends and I prepare to make our first confessions God is very much on all our minds, as are the notions of sin and shame and forgiveness.

Contrary to modern thinking, we six year-olds are not little dopes incapable of comprehending moral concepts. Knowing that we will soon be kneeling in a confessional and facing up to all of our smallish venial sins (“told a fib, fought wit’ my bruddah, used the good spoons for diggin’ up moss) we decide that for the whole exercise to be really worth while, we will need an honest-to-God mortal sin on our souls.

We settle on theft, anticipating additional penance for follow-up lies, and proceed to steal a large bottle of grape juice from Mrs. Garfinkle’s fridge.

We’ve stolen juice, and even as we drink it down under a shady tree we are preparing our lies. We know exactly what we’re doing, and how wrong our actions are. In fact, the knowledge that we are both stealing and planning to lie gives the whole endeavor an added patina of glamour and sophistication. We are edgy little mavericks, brazen in our purple-lipped defiance.

You can read it all here.

That was not the first time — nor the last — that I came to see how selfishness has a deep connection to all of our sins; it is a lesson I keep needing to relearn, unfortunately. Nosing around over at Deacon Greg’s this morning, I found another story that brings the lesson home, but I suspect it would be politically incorrect — or mean, or something — to mention selfishness in its context:

Laura Ashmore and Jennifer Williams are sisters. After that, their relationship becomes more complex.

When Ms. Ashmore and her husband, Lee, learned a few years ago that they could not conceive a child, Ms. Williams stepped in and offered to become pregnant with a donor’s sperm on behalf of the couple, and give birth to the child. The baby, Mallory, was born in September 2007 and adopted by Ms. Ashmore and her husband.

Then the sisters began to ponder: where would the little girl sit on the family tree?

“For medical purposes I am her mother,” Ms. Williams said. “But I am also her aunt.”

Many families are grappling with similar questions as a family tree today is beginning to look more like a tangled forest. Genealogists have long defined familial relations along bloodlines or marriage. But as the composition of families changes, so too has the notion of who gets a branch on the family tree.

Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. Some schools, where charting family history has traditionally been a classroom project, are now skipping the exercise altogether.

It is not a perfect correlation, of course. We stole the grape juice as a caper, but the fact is it belonged to someone else, and that person had plans for it; when she went to use it, it was not available to her.

Infertility is a painful reality for many people, and it would be ignorant not to recognize that fact. And because we live in a culture that doesn’t merely encourage us to pursue the things we want but insists that we must be denied nothing — that we’ve a right to “have it all” — questioning the morality or social impact of the complicated, unnatural and exorbitant (material and emotional) expense of acquiring a baby of one’s own, by any means necessary, is a no-no.

So, I suppose suggesting that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae more or less predicted days like this, would be a no-no, too.

Some will say that it was not selfishness but a mature adult’s quest for power and personal autonomy that made artificial birth control so popular. Really, it was the desire to enjoy sex without having to risk giving up anything of one’s life or one’s self. It was a “something for nothing” gambit that allowed men to use women, allowed women to consent to being used in the quest for personal empowerment, and opened the door for the casual abuse of abortion when the contraceptive failed.

Something for nothing is a sucker’s bet,
but we are prone to falling for it, because we are selfish, and we want what we want, and do not want to hear that perhaps we’re supposed to have something else. All that contraception, all that abortion has contributed to our current rash of fertility problems; there aren’t enough adoptable babies to go around, anymore — and everyone wants the baby/toddler experience (very few couples seek to adopt older children) — so artificial birth control spawns artificial birth, via borrowed uterus or busy petri dish. And to mention that is, I will be informed, a cruel thing. If God “loves us all into being” and these babies are conceived in this way, then God must sanction it, right?

I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But we do know that God loves life, and life wants to happen. Think of all the women you know who became pregnant while using birth control. But it is not always expedient. When we try to suppress life, it costs us something. When we try to force it, it costs us something, too.

Something for nothing is a trick; it is not real. The Catholic Church has been calling into the wind for decades now, trying to get people to slow down in their pursuits to “have” everything; she keeps serving up those outmoded suggestions that maybe each of us must do without something, and that not everything is coming to everyone.

The church has been consistent in this message, even though it’s difficult to hear in the tumult. Catholics keep talking about “calling,” and asking people to stop yakking about what they “deserve” long enough to seriously ask, “is it truly for me? Is it what I am called to? Is there a possibility that I am not supposed to have this, in order to open my life up to something else? What might that be? Am I being led somewhere I had not imagined?”

Those might seem like I-centric questions, but really, they are I-and-Godcentric. They are questions that suppose our lives are meant for more than we might allow; they open up possibilities that move beyond the conventional wisdom. Because they wonder beyond our own desires, they are the opposite of selfishness, and to ask them is not cruel; it is merely to invite enlargement.

Genies don’t go back into bottles. The only way people will end their harried pursuits for the perfect lives they’re convinced they’re supposed to have (and as recently as 60-70 years ago, no one believed their lives were meant to be perfect, or that they “deserved” perfection) will be if all of the avenues of contraception, abortion and techno-pregnancies are closed to them — which will not happen.

Selfishness has gripped the human heart since Eden. It’s not going away, anytime soon.

I wrote earlier that the correlation between the stolen grape juice and the tangled genealogies of expedited children was imperfect. But it might be better than I realized. When the woman wanted to use the grape juice, she found it was not there. After abusing and de-naturizing our means of reproducing, we find that when we want to use them, they are not available to us, either. In both cases, there was theft (from a homemaker and from God) born of selfishness, and no juice, when it was needed.

UPDATE: “Mum to have dead son’s baby”:

“A woman is set to fulfill her dream of becoming a grandmother — using her dead son’s sperm. […]

But before his life slipped away the divorced 44-year-old controversially asked to harvest his sperm . . . Missy, of Austin, Texas, said: ‘I told the court that I wanted my grandchild. The judge gave me the sweetest look and nobody objected.'”

I can’t imagine the pain and grief of losing your child. But does that come to this? Are we become such slaves to sentimentalism that we all put a sweet look on our face and say, “aw, someone wants something, really wants it, so he/she should have it!”

Read it all here

Our sentimentalism is truly running amok

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About Elizabeth Scalia