Towards the end of last week, I watched the film The Indian Runner, which is itself based on the Bruce Springsteen song Highway Patrolman (the details of which, and its connection to the film, are outlined in this article, which had inspired me to give the film a try in the first place). Without wanting to give too much away about the plotline, the main themes within the film are the closeness of family ties, responsibility to family and obligation to the Good, and the tragedy that some choose to follow up on those obligations and responsibilities whilst others take a more destructive, self-centred path.
Through these themes, and the way they are played out in the lives of the main characters, there emerges from the film a powerful commentary on the heartbreaking consequences of Original (and actual) Sin. The central characters in the film are two brothers, whose lives are juxtaposed throughout – their basic disposition and outlook on life, the way they respond to circumstances – to provide a sharp sense of how Original Sin plays itself out in the world. By showing two people from the same background, with the same upbringing and opportunities in life, make different choices and develop radically different outlooks, the viewer is given a vivid impression of the reality that we encounter so often in life – that two essential choices ever lie before us.
Furthermore, one is also shown that, despite the many momentary satisfactions and setbacks that can be experienced on either path, there is only one that leads to any lasting happiness. The choice to follow the self in contradistinction to the path laid out for us by God (which is what characterises Original Sin) is revealed to be one that ultimately results in sadness, betrayal (both of the self and of others) and despair. The film is very honest about the fact that there is tragedy, pain and evil in the world, and that we have to deal with this whether we choose the path that leads to life or not. But it is equally insistent that choosing the path of rebellion and self-assertion only serves to add to the pain of this life, as well as diminishing one’s capacity to see any good in the world.
For the reality is that life is often distressing, painful and unfair, but it is also filled with many moments of tenderness, goodness, truth, beauty, love and joy as well. The fundamental tragedy of the choice made to give in to the disposition we all have to prefer the indulgence of our own will, is that gradually one only sees the bad things and either cannot appreciate the good or just will not let it in for fear of its disrupting the warped sense of self-control we have cultivated. Neither does this rid us of the natural sense of guilt that comes from the bad choices we have made, and eventually, for the one who chooses to continue down the path of self-will, that guilt becomes not only repressed but converted into a sense of resentment, as well as a strong feeling that it’s not my fault.
It is indeed true that life often isn’t fair and things sometimes happen to us when it really isn’t our fault. But one of the main consequences of Original Sin in general, and something intensified by the choosing of more and more actual sin, is to give up any sense of responsibility – nothing is my fault; it is either other people or the world at large that is to blame. What then often follows is the supposition that because nothing is my own fault, then there’s nothing I can do about it anyway, so I may as well carry on doing what I like. This sort of capitulation confirms the sinner in the belief that they are only doing what’s due to them – the world is unfair and I’m just playing by its rules – and thus compounds the blindness they have towards the pain they cause.
Another tragedy here is that choosing the path of sin, of self-will, does cause grief and pain for others – at some point down the line, the irresponsibility and the lies do not only feed back into the guilt and despair of the sinner, but spread out and begin to impact upon the lives of those they encounter, particularly those that love and care for them. It is a heartbreaking thing to see someone you love become trapped in the self-created and self-perpetuating imprisonment that habitual sin creates, particularly the sense of powerlessness that comes with knowing that the solution must come from the loved one in question themselves, and that as time goes by it becomes increasingly hard for them to choose any other way.
Original Sin is, as Chesterton said, the only Christian doctrine that it is possible to prove without invoking special revelation – we just have to read through a newspaper. Unfortunately though, we often don’t even have to look that far – we just have to take an honest look at ourselves; at the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves to justify what deep down we know to be behaviour that falls far short of the right thing to do, and at the lies or half-truths we tell ourselves about others, so that we might conveniently shift the focus from our own sins and avoid the need to examine our own culpability. So many tears flow because of our inability to face up to our own weaknesses and recognise that we have strayed from the good path laid out for us, and have done so simply because the other way is easier.
The other path though, the one we so often ignore, continues to offer us the promise of happiness, and not just for us but for all those (should we follow the path consistently) around us. There are many scriptural texts which describe this path, but one that comes to mind at the moment as being particularly relevant is Galatians 6:2 (‘bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’) – to take responsibility not just for ourselves but for the other, to place the good and well-being of the other first, to pass on our love to those around us instead of harbouring it and turning it in towards ourselves; this is the way of Christ, that He urged and urges us to follow, as He knows it will benefit everybody.
The problem of course is that this path requires renunciation, sacrifice, selflessness, and that these are things that do not come naturally to us. It is indeed easier to follow the path of self-will; but the long-term consequences for us and for all are disastrous. The way of Christ however – the Way of the Cross – is difficult at first, but has good short and long term consequences for us and the world, many of which Saint Paul outlines earlier on in his Epistle to the Galatians. This slightly paradoxical situation was summed up for us by Our Lord when He said ‘take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:29-30).
The ‘light’ and ‘easy’ yoke He spoke of was precisely that way of self-sacrificial love which we are called to follow – the Way of the Cross. Yet, whilst it may seem daunting (and not only because of the difficulty we feel in renouncing the self, but also because it requires giving up the idea that we are in control of things), we are told that it is not only easy but that it will give us ‘rest for our souls’. It will do this because to renounce the self in this way is to renounce an illusion – we never were in control, our sins were, and every time we chose to ‘do our own thing’ we were just allowing ourselves to become ever more enslaved to them.
The Way of the Cross is a way of liberation, because it is a way that is firmly tied to reality – we never were masters of our own destiny, and to accept that is to open up a fresh new way of seeing things. Living from the perspective that God is in charge, that His very life is Love, and that the only way to truly embrace life is to love as He does, will immerse us deeper into what is utterly real, will help us enter into Real Life. That happiness can come from such a path is not something easily accepted by our age, prizing as it does the path of self-possession and self-control that we are counselled to renounce. But the results of that way are there for all to see, and they are not encouraging. The question we must all ask ourselves then is: do we choose that way, or do we choose Life?