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Friday, June 3, 2011

Character Defects: "The Seven Deadly Sins"

As at best an agnostic by natural temperament, I was taken aback (as I suppose many others were) when I first read the characterization of my defects of character as "sins" in Step Four of The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Not surprisingly, of course, my objection was one that had been anticipated by Bill W.

With foresight in writing the Step Four essay, Bill presciently observed that "(s)ome will become quite annoyed if there is talk about immorality, let alone sin. But," he reasoned, "all who are in the least reasonable will agree upon one point: that there is plenty wrong with us alcoholics about which plenty will have to be done if we are to expect sobriety, progress and any real ability to cope with life."

Thus, in writing the Step Four essay he settled on the "the Seven Deadly Sins of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth" as "a universally recognized list of major human failings" that could be used as a yardstick by which we could measure our "shortcomings." (Bill observed elsewhere that there was no distinction in meaning between "character defects" and "shortcomings," stating simply that he did not like to have adjoining sentences ending with the same words.)

Meanwhile, I remained quietly and silently opposed to this characterization of my "shortcomings" as "sins" until it was explained to me by an old-timer, who unbeknownst to me was a retired nun with a Ph.D., that the word "sin" had its origin as a term of art in archery, denoting when an archer missed his target. Thus, when I was beset with one or more of these "deadly sins," it was explained to me, it was a most definite indication that my thoughts rather more than my morals were askew.

Later, in reading "The Gnostic Gospels," by acclaimed biblical historian, Elaine Pagels, I came across the following explanation:
"The New Testament term for sin, hamartia," she notes, "comes from the sport of archery; literally, it means "missing the mark." New Testament sources teach that we suffer distress, mental and physical, because we fail to achieve the moral goal toward which we aim: "all have sinned, and fall short of the Glory of God." (Romans 3:23).
 Thus, when prideful, greedy, angry, etc., it is a clear indication that once again I have lapsed into and identified with my egoic, "self-consciousness." My thinking, centered in "self" or ego, has once again "missed the mark," so to speak.

Note, however, that these "Seven Deadly Sins" are all associated with feelings, emotions and sentiments, rather than with thinking per se. One doesn't think angry, one has thoughts that arouse feelings of anger, which is a subtle but important point.

When entertaining a resentment (which is just the manifestation of a lasting anger), for example, one thinks again of the person or situation that angered him or her in the first place and then re-experiences the same feelings, emotions or sentiments that were aroused before. (Thus, resentment is a re-experiencing or 're-sentiment' of old feelings sparked by entertaining one's old ideas or thoughts.) Similarly, when thinking about how much better or less one is compared to others, one feels pride; when thinking how much one wants something he or she lacks, one feels greedy, etc.

An even more subtle tool for examining our character defects, and one that goes further in helping us understand the root cause of why our thinking "misses the mark," is the list of "the Nine Capital Sins" (sometimes referred to as "the Enneagram") that are compiled in Fr. Richard Rohr's book, "The Naked Now." These consist of:
(1)  The need to be right.
(2)  The need to be needed.
(3)  The need to be successful.
(4)  The need to be special.
(5)  The need to perceive.
(6)  The need to protect self.
(7)  The need to avoid pain.
(8)  The need to be against.
(9)  The need to avoid.
Each of these can breed a fear that the particular "need" will not be fulfilled, thus threatening the ego; and such self-centered fears - "primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded" - are, we know, "the chief activators of our defects."

[The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, page 76.]

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