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You can't always get what you want

It has been several weeks since COVID-19 upended our lives. The strain of practical lock-down is taking its toll on most of us. For many, it has presented countless inconveniences and numerous setbacks. There is a danger that looms above us in our mind. The ever-present fear that we might contract the virus ourselves, and be forced to endure a great amount of suffering. Once simple trips to the grocery store have become more desperate, where the essentials, like bread or eggs, become all the more scarce.

Over the past few weeks, I- like many others- found myself with much more time to myself, to my own thoughts. Society as we know it seems to be coming to terms with a reality we have long been ignoring- that our "control" over nature, over biology and technology, is not as great as we had thought. Sure, we have some semblance of control regarding the field of medicine, but no doctor lives up to the super-human expectations that we as a society place on them. However, our impatience and unjust, misguided expectations only serve as a detriment to true progress in fighting this disease. This issue, like many others facing humanity, find their root in hubris; in pride.

In Purgatorio, Dante depicts proud sinners struggling up the mountain of purgatory carrying great boulders upon their backs- boulders that lower them to the ground and make them small. Dante's literary embellishment aside, it serves as a good reminder of what we all have to face at one point or another. Addressing pride is central to the thought of Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the lights of the early Latin Church. "He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud," Augustine writes in his Confessions. Death is viewed as the Great Equalizer throughout history. Rich or poor, black or white, christian or pagan- death comes for us all. In pride, we separate ourselves from life, from God. The language of sin bringing death into the world is, understandable confusing and distressing. Nevertheless, it is a hallmark of early Christian thought- from creation to eschatology, or study of last things. Our reticence at the correlation between sin and death in our post-modern society is, ironically, a symptom of that very phenomenon. Sin- namely pride- is what drives us to turn in on ourselves, to seek not the counsel of the wise, but those with whom we share opinions so as to maintain our fragile ego. Doing so puts us at risk of not only further pride, but ignorance and incompetence as well, which can be just as deadly in our day-to-day.

Ultimately, however, the correlation is biblical. It has its roots in the book of Genesis, where the story of humanity's fall into sin is told. It starts, of course, with the creation of the world- where God speaks reality into existence. Eventually, after the creation of the earth and the life upon it, God made man in His image and likeness. Mankind had been imbued with intelligence, with reason. God had also given us free will, which is made apparent in the verses to follow. Man decided to turn from God, seeking counsel of the serpent in the garden and seeking that which was not theirs to seek- to grasp at godliness. The original sin was abandonment of God, abandonment of the source of all life. Because of this, we are marred by death and inclinations to sin. It is not hard to turn one's back on God, one's loved ones, one's country. It is often the easy thing to do, in order to protect ourselves and our reputation. We become our own masters, viewing everyone else as, more or less, a pawn to be used to our benefit and at their expense. There are, of course, more subtle forms of pride- those instances which occur often in our lives. Putting ourselves before others, bragging about our accomplishments, obsessing over ourselves in front of a mirror or before a crowd. These bring death because they cut us off from what gives us life, namely relationships with others, but especially with God.

Pride is the root of all sin, from greed and envy to licentiousness and wrath. Our hubris, our arrogance, proves this daily. We are not the masters of time and space. We are not the masters of nature, free to manipulate and destroy for our own selfish desires. Nor are we the masters of our own nature. We cannot continue to use and abuse ourselves and each other. Treating persons as specimen, fodder, or simply a means to an end is a grave evil, and is at the root of both personal and societal, or systemic, sin. Foreign aid contingent on a nation's acceptance of our secular doctrines is rarely talked about, but is nevertheless an affront to human dignity and the west's so-called respect for religious freedom. It demonstrates that hypocrisy and hubris have become the trademark of capitalist liberal democracies.

This point in not a political one, but a spiritual one. In a society where religion is replaced by a bland, vague spiritualism about individuality and self-fulfillment, everyone becomes their own god. Pride and egotism become the primary virtue, success a creed. We are our own gods in America. A society that proclaims itself as God is one that has abandoned all reason and virtue- falling ever more into the crowded abyss where Brutus, Judas, and Cassius reside. Society qua society simply cannot last if virtue is replaced by evil; if holiness is replaced by self-serving arrogance. If it is not built around and for the common good, then it cannot last.

The mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, has beguiled humanity from the beginning- and as much as it has been addressed by theologians, it remains a mystery. Societal evils do not start on their own- they find their origin in the corrupted hearts of men who seek not the good, the true, or the beautiful, but the power to make the world as he sees fit- and to crush any who oppose him. The fall of Satan is much the same- he sought that which was not his to take. So it is with us. If we continue to claim ourselves the prerogatives that belong to God, it will not be long until we find ourselves at the end of a long road, before the dreaded vestibule, and words that echo throughout time appear before us, "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate."

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