Sunday, November 26, 2006


The idea of damnation is that you could commit and act so egregious as to take precedence over all other counterbalancing acts. A damning act is one that defines us.

The American Heritage Dictionary (online version – but of course) defines damnation as:

1. The act of damning or the condition of being damned.
2. a. Condemnation to everlasting punishment; doom.
b. Everlasting punishment.
3. Failure or ruination incurred by adverse criticism.

Damned is defined here:
1. Condemned, especially to eternal punishment.
2. Informal. Deserving condemnation; detestable: this damned weather.
3. Used as an intensive: a damned fool.

That a single act could define us relates to both the concept of shame, and subsequent cognitive dissonance regarding a behavior we might initially have seen as uncharacteristic of ourselves. Though I might believe myself to be a good person, I might commit an immoral act that violates my assumptions about who I am. When faced with such a conflict, my choices are to either alter my behavior [redemption] or alter my belief about myself [damnation], or the act I committed [rationalization].

If I commit murder, I might first look for mitigating aspects of the situation, so I am not left considering myself to be a “murderer.” I might have killed on the battlefield (good soldier), I might have killed by mistake (unfortunate accident), or for self-defense, or when my capacities were diminished by emotional strain, intoxication, or psychiatric condition.

Without a situational mitigation, I am left with an unfortunate dilemma – I can either alter my beliefs about murder (e.g. I’ve released their soul to heavenly splendor) or myself (I’m a rapacious bastard, and I like that I’m a rapacious bastard – makes me the meanest mutherfucker in town). In the former of these two, I’ve sacrificed my connection to reality in an attempt to preserve positive self-concept – implementation of psychotic reasoning. In the latter, I’ve damned myself; I’ve disowned the greater part of myself – my self-conceptualization prior to the act – and forced instead a self-definition that excludes my core morality.

We all behave in uncharacteristic ways at times. In fact, it’s one of the inevitable aspects of correcting ourselves. When I behave in an uncharacteristic manner, I’m challenging the manner in which I’ve previously been defining myself. Optimally, this represents a growth experience – I explore a previously undeveloped aspect of myself, and then subsequently find some way to integrate this into my larger self-concept. In this way, I broaden my repertoire of adaptive responses. Should I stray too far, however – lock my children in the car and push it down the boat ramp, for example, or kill my ex-wife and her lover in a fit of jealous rage, then I’ve not broadened my repertoire at all – I’ve limited it. Once I’ve damned myself, and forced a schism between where I am now and where I was then, I’ve lost access to those things that were previously rewarding – that seemed to define me. The gulf between the aspects of myself seems unbreachable.

Other people, of course, also play a role in this process. Once I’ve committed an uncharacteristic, and potentially damning act, I might consult my friends. If they are good friends, they’ll attempt to reflect me in my entirety – both the person I have been, and the person who committed the act, and help my find ways to reconcile the two conceptualizations of myself. Less true friends, however, will sacrifice my best interest for their own emotional comfort. They will respond to the vicarious shame by either minimizing what I’ve done, or by damning me for it. In these instances, they are refusing to provide me with a reflection of myself that encompasses both the before and after, because some aspect of the act has made them so uncomfortable, they cannot go there with me.

So, the process of redemption then, from this framework, involves an integration between aspects of myself that seem irreconcilable, while damnation involves reinforcement of a schism between my self-concept before and after I committed whatever egregious act. The role you play, in either the damnation or redemption of others, depends on the degree to which you are able to avoid projecting your own feelings of shame onto a person in a specific situation, and your ability to communicate a unified impression of that person back to them.

We must tend to our own gardens, before we can offer assistance to others.

For ourselves, then, redemption consists not on reinforcing the schism between the seemingly irreconcilable aspects of ourselves by denying one or the other, or withdrawing from the conflict, but by actively attempting to reconcile the two. We must tend to the entire garden, not allow part to become fallow while we direct our attention exclusively elsewhere*.

[This same framework also applies to the process of countertransference in psychotherapy.]

*This conceptualization seems to fly in the face of traditional (ie. Catholic) views on the subject, but I believe its closer to the original conceptual intent than what is traditionally purveyed. It seems we're always at the mercy of people who are unable to bridge the gulfs in themselves, and are therefore unable to assist us in our attempts to do the same. It's a very unchristian view of the matter, however, from the perspective of new testament philosophy.


Archaeopteryx said...

It's odd that you would post this today--odd for me, I mean. I woke up extra early this morning and was unable to go back to sleep. I began to rehash every bad or stupid thing I've ever done in my life--some small, some quite the opposite.

I have many regrets, but not exactly remorse. I did what I did--sometimes for what seemed like a good reason at the time, and sometimes just out of pure meanness or stupidity. I haven't damned myself, I guess, but even though I usually try to avoid the stupidity, I accept the stupid meanness as a regular part of me. So, is there something wrong with me? Am I a sociopath?

TenaciousK said...

Hmm. So you made some mistakes, felt bad about it, and then moved on – feeling like you’d learned something important: painful (regret, right?), but not interminably holding yourself on the hook. And, you’ve accepted your humanity as part of who you are – that you’re capable of stupid meanness.

If you were a sociopath, you’d be playing out an internal conflict by proxy. Somebody’d come along and remind you of what it felt like to be a powerless kid, or something, and you’d quell your feelings of shame about being powerless by hurting them. That you have regrets seems to suggest a working conscience, so I’d say nope – not a sociopath.

Uhm, if you were using your little reverie to bolster your sense of competence because you’ve got something important and challenging to do, then you’re pulling a common-enough trick to kick your narcissistic defenses into gear. When I was a kid, I used to hear my father berate himself while he was in the shower. Nice to have a little ammunition on-hand, to flog yourself into action - then you can go around feeling like you need to cover something up all day.

Of course, sometimes this process seems to require an escalation. That should be obvious, given the antics of some of the more dramatic evangelical types living in your part of the country. Sucks for your kids too, if they happen to evoke feelings of incompetence, shame, or whatever – they end up being your proxy in that situation too - representative of undesirable Arch, to be overtly or covertly shamed, as you make yourself feel righteous at their expense.

Of course, that you’re able to take inventory of shameful acts without feeling all that threatened suggests you’re not much of a narcissist either. You should work on that.

bite said...


Reading you made me think of how any time I get in a tub where the water is too hot, I start thinking about how I must have bathed my kids in too hot water at times.

and then I remember how I didn't notice that my 22 month old son had burned his finger on the curling iron and I was too busy to comfort him when he was whimpering because we were getting ready to go to the zoo and I didn't notice until I saw the blister.

Then the times I yelled at them, and was impatient because they were too young to understand.

and pretty soon I am in a basket of self-loathing of how I should have never been a mother.

TenaciousK said...


It's ironic you so pain yourself with the manner in which you might have hurt your kids, as though this makes you unacceptably irresponsible, when if that were true, it'd bother you a lot less.

Your job - teach your kids how to cope with screwing up gracefully, without inordinate distress. If you can do that, you'll have done a better job than your parents.

Me, to my therapist: "I'm trying to make an entirely different set of mistakes than my parents did."

Archaeopteryx said...

Sucks for your kids too, if they happen to evoke feelings of incompetence, shame, or whatever – they end up being your proxy in that situation too - representative of undesirable Arch, to be overtly or covertly shamed, as you make yourself feel righteous at their expense.

Eek, TK. Quit hitting so close to home.

TenaciousK said...

Jeez Arch - sorry about that. I had a friend - a therapist, single-mom, who used to keep a "therapy jar" on top of the fridge at home. Like the "cursing jar" in some families, she'd put a dollar in every time she did something she knew would provide a conversation topic in his own therapy some day. She wanted to make sure he could afford really good therapy.
I'm settling for kids with neuroses unique to my family. They'll be deep and complex adults, intriguing to those around them (and their therapists, I'm sure); angst-ridden artists, working through their inner conflicts through external media. As adults, they'll visit Oprah to pander the books they've written about their uniquely distressing childhood, and end up making a fortune out of my parental mistakes.

And put me in a "home", probably.

Besides, what kind of impossible standard would you be setting if you were a perfect parent? Talk about setting the bar impossibly high!

How many people do you know who were raised under optimal conditions?

Dawn Coyote said...

I keep thinking I'll write that post about my brief but instructive journey the criminal justice system many years ago. I did something rash and stupid, and no one got hurt (thankfully), but I ended up wearing that act for about nine months after.

No one was interested in what a sweet person I was, or what a jerk he was whose stereo I threw off our 19th floor balcony.

All the court cared about was that I'd endangered people's lives.

I was, of course, drunk at the time.

My favorite part of the experience was the better part of a day that I spent in the holding cell, waiting to be arraigned with about 8 other women - drug dealers and prostitutes. They were interesting women. They loved my story. That helped, some.

Archaeopteryx said...

Well, I'm not a parent--I was talking about my "kids" as in my students. But still...

But I feel better knowing, that no matter what kind of crap I've pulled, at least I never tried to crush passersby with a stereo......

TenaciousK said...

I think you should write that story.

I had an interesting conversation with someone a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about black and white thinking. His point - sometimes things really are black and white.

He has a point. The brighter you are, the greater your capacity to deceive yourself (if you're so inclined). Had the court treated you with great sympathy, I imagine you might have left with a different impression about the "wrongness" of the act [just guessing, here].

Do you think your involvement with the justice system was helpful to you in any way? Was it helpful to those prostitutes?