At an intimate dinner party some while ago, close friends and I were discussing the trials of city living, common enough in a number of locales but especially troublesome here in New York. New Yorkers recognize how easily their nerves can get frayed, and I am no exception. Over dinner, I recounted a particularly illustrative incident involving another woman and myself in an express elevator at Macy’s in Herald Square. She behaved quite badly when she got in, but I think I evened the score by behaving pretty badly in response. It was not a pleasant ride for anyone headed to the top floors, least of all me.
In a confessional mood, I told my friends, “Ah, well – I’m just a sinner. We’re all sinners.”
“Come on!” one of my oldest friends said. “You don’t honestly believe that we’re ‘sinners’. We don’t believe in those kinds of things.”
“Maybe we don’t,” I replied, “but I definitely do. I know I’m a sinner; I won’t deny it for one minute.”
Unfortunately, sin has fallen out of favor these days, despite its being so blatantly present in the world we inhabit today. Sin is a far more nuanced concept than it seems at first mention. On some rudimentary level, sin appears to be related to either doing wrong or doing right. Yet sin also helps us to see that we can do what we think is right in an obviously wrong way. Case in point: the incident in the express elevator at Macy’s.
Macy’s has been a fixture in my life since childhood. A favorite holiday film of mine is Miracle on 34th Street, starring the young Natalie Wood. As a girl, I was brought to the mammoth department store to see the enchanted window displays at Christmastime. I watched its glorious Thanksgiving Day parade with my family. I even got my wedding gown from the Macy’s bridal salon on the 8th floor.
When I finally opened my private psychotherapy practice, I was pleased to have an office only a block away from this place that I knew like the back of my hand. At lunchtime, I would get a bowl of soup from the café, or change my battery at the watch repair stand upstairs, or occasionally, stop by Macy’s very own post office. Macy’s was a sort of civilization unto itself, but truthfully, it wasn’t always so civilized.
This particular afternoon, a woman racing to catch the express elevator at the far end of the line came barreling into the crowd of people as the doors were closing, pushing several of us aside with considerable force. Now, each of my public altercations with strangers is tightly regulated by a strict personal code: I don’t use curse words and I don’t call people names. I never have. But I have outsized attitude like you would not believe, and adopting it, I told her, “Excuse me!”
Meaning: “You really ought to excuse yourself. You owe us all an apology.” Everyone in that elevator could decode it.
“Well,” she huffed, clearly intending to not apologize, “you shouldn’t stand around blocking the way.” City dwellers will probably recognize this stock urban ploy of meeting complaints of rudeness with countercomplaints of still greater rudeness. It is horridly ineffective and worse, usually leads to escalation.
“We weren’t blocking the way,” I maintained, in a somewhat civil but increasingly strained tone.
“You were!” she shot back. “A person should not have to push her way into an elevator. I have as much a right here as anyone.” She puffed up and swung her shoulders around to prove the validity of that.
Floors were blinking by, and as the light worked its way to the 9th floor, I silently seethed. Insult had been casually added to injury. Certainly, I don’t like being bullied, harangued, or shoved. No one does. I wasn’t her only victim in the elevator; my Macy’s comrades also evidenced their annoyance. Righteous revolt arose within me. Mercifully, though, she and I were getting off at different floors. Mine was first. You surely see where this is going…
Exiting the elevator, capitulating to my baser instincts, I pushed past her with my handbag.
“Hey!” she shouted.
“Well,” I answered rather matter-of-factly, my affect flat, “you shouldn’t block the way. A person shouldn’t have to push her way out of the elevator.” Then the door drew shut with perfectly theatrical timing.
There was less satisfaction in this exchange than I had expected. My heart continued to pound in my chest. I did not feel vindicated; I felt rotten. Nearly every inch of moral high ground had been surrendered by me. Had I sincerely thought I was standing up for the downtrodden in Herald Square? If I had succeeded in teaching this woman any lesson that day, it was precisely the wrong lesson, a lesson in how to live in a dog-eat-dog world, specifically: Be sure your bite is as every bit as bad as your bark. That does not strike me as an sufficiently religious message to send.
Caught in a completely honest moment, I’ll admit that I’m capable of being thoroughly awful, and I haven’t committed a small fraction of the awful things that have occurred to me in my lifetime, or more immediately, in the past week. More often that I’d like, I have felt fury and envy and othery dangerous impulses arising in me with alarming velocity. Let’s just say that I have a tremendous potential for sinning and that I take that rather seriously. By my own accounting, there have been too few times when I’ve met others’ aggression and hostility with kindness and compassion.
Sin is the simple recognition that we are – each and every one of us in our hearts – ready, willing, and able to do wrong instead of right, and that we do just this with a frequency can prove embarrassing. In fact, if we are not making a conscious effort to be good and do better, we’re inclined to slide into sinfulness. When we sin most seriously, we miss the mark entirely. I don’t think the total tally of my sins puts me that far ahead of or behind anybody else; I think it puts me in the humble company of the rest of humankind. The only miracle on 34th Street that afternoon was that I realized the implications of this and began to believe that I, personally, needed to start doing better.
Many of us have dispensed with theological language because we have an earnest desire to avoid theological error, a worthy, nay – admirable, ambition. Original sin has indeed given quotidian sin a bad name. In refusing to discuss sin, however, we’ve omitted precious theological insights that I have not heard replicated in alternate discourses, let alone in intimate dinner conversations.
If we want to elevate ourselves – not above others, mind you, or to the top floor of Macy’s Herald Square – but ethically and spiritually elevate ourselves, we ought to have a more accurate sense of how very high the metaphysical bar has been set. As a Universalist, I have the consolation of believing that all our sins can be forgiven us, even as I recognize that we persist in racking them up at a breakneck pace. Why pretend otherwise? It is such a relief to call myself a sinner. I’ve found it gives me hope.