The Old Testament story of the fall of humanity contains one of the best lessons we can carry with us through life. That of our imperfection.
For those who don’t know the story, I’ve linked the Wikipedia entry below. Biblical stories are subject to a variety of interpretations, ranging from literal acceptance of them as being about real people and events, to fully psychological treatments that delve into theories of mental states and conditions. I am interested in what I see as the practical value of biblical lessons for human flourishing.
There are lots of treatments of the Fall’s meaning, such as disobedience, loss of innocence, dangers of knowledge, etc. In other words, the first or original sin. Whatever one interprets that sin to be, it is thought to be embedded in human nature and so we each have it at our core.
The story points to an important insight into each one of us, that we are imperfect. I think there is a very positive and valuable message in this.
The value is the understanding that imperfection is our starting point. This means we can expect to get things wrong, to make mistakes, to be unfair, mean, cruel, stupid, biased, etc. The entire litany of human foibles is embedded in our core imperfection.
We lament these challenges and want them not to be the case. This is because of the other side of this important story. That of our original state being innocent perfection from which we have fallen. It is to this positive state of perfection that we compare the negatives. We aspire to an ideal called perfection despite our obvious lack of it.
So the important and valuable feature of this is by accepting our imperfection, we can fully express and focus on our aspiration towards a previous state of perfection.
Of course, we can debate whether such a perfect state ever existed or is possible to attain. But that is not the point. Rather, it is the aspiration that is inspired by the possibility of moving beyond imperfection to something better.
Once I have fully accepted the idea that I am fallible while working to be otherwise, I can take a lighter view of my mistakes and go easier on my efforts to improve. Rather than wallow in guilty self-condemnation for imperfections, I know they are an inevitable part of being human as is the urge towards their alleviation. This dynamic of the imperfect aspiring to the perfect moves within us constantly.
I think we’ve gone wrong when the emphasis is placed on guilt due to the idea that one should not be imperfect. In this case, imperfection is thought to mean one is a low-quality person. This is a terrible psychological burden that I hope is incorrect. I prefer to think we are works in progress. In my view, accepting our imperfect state as a starting point from which to express the desire for perfection is a healthy, positive way to improve one’s life.
So when you hear about the inherent guilt of original sin, consider this acceptance and aspiration idea. Thinking of it this way gave me a whole new appreciation for this bible story. Whether the authors intended this to be its message or not, I will never know. But I like to think they too were moved by the desire to be better and live better.
All of this is of course, merely my interpretation of the Fall. But I have found that accepting myself as imperfect while experiencing the inner urge towards a better state of being is an uplifting and energizing way of conducting my life.