“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
I’d read East of Eden a couple times before my great personal exodus away from Christianity, but this line had not stood out to me as anything particularly pertinent to my life until I came across an image of it somewhere on the internet, taken out of context, in the midst of my current post-church phase. Of course, the novel is overflowing with words so good they’re hard to handle, so in a way it’s no surprise that one particular line from a brilliant 600 or so pages would go unremembered. Regardless of how it finally found its way to the forefront of my mind, though, I am so struck by how acute a description it is of the relief I felt when I managed to emancipate myself from the shackles of my old religion.
It was a relief that looked like allowing myself to believe that I’m not inherently sinful, but in fact quite miraculous. It also looked like realizing, happily, that no one cares if I’m the best, or if I follow all the rules, or if I sacrifice my happiness for the sake of imposed expectations. Somewhat paradoxically, I am both a good and wondrous thing, and almost entirely insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. This, I quickly found when I let go of God, is freedom.
The Christianity I grew up with taught something incredibly heavy to the heart and mind when it came to goodness (or lack thereof): that each human is born with a “sinful nature”, which means not just that you’ll inevitably screw up but that those screw-ups really piss God off; and, that each person is incredibly, individually important to God, so much so that He is at one’s beck and call 24/7. In other words, you’re a bad person, and God is watching. The conclusion that Christians often draw from this “logic”, quite understandably, is that because they are bad and God is watching, when negative things happen or positive wishes go unfulfilled, it's as a result of them somehow not doing enough. They didn’t have enough faith, or didn’t ask ‘hard’ enough, or simply weren’t close enough to perfect, overall.
You see, Christians think of perfection as an option. We’re taught the world was perfect when God created it--and, guess who screwed it up? Humans! We’re taught that God is in a state of perpetual desire for a perfect world, so much so that when people sin, there is no automatic forgiveness from God. None of this friendly, ‘It’s cool; I know you’re inherently sinful and you can’t help it.’ Rather, God, being so pure, or something, can’t stand sin so much that he had to become human and get himself murdered (or, murder his own son depending on how you look at it) in order to be able to forgive humans every time they break His rules.
On top of all of that, perfection is also available at the end of the line in the form of Heaven. Some Christians believe that Heaven is a supernatural location that exists, invisibly, in this moment, and will exist for eternity, kind of like a parallel universe. Others believe that Jesus will, at a future date, return to the planet Earth, judge everybody who’s ever been on it, and then turn Earth back into the paradise it once was. Either way, add all of this up and it’s a lot of fucking pressure.
Once perfection becomes an option, once perfection becomes the bar--even if it’s just as a vision of the future that one knows only God can bring to pass--it automatically makes one’s goodness not good enough. A person can’t enjoy simply being. A person feels guilty for everything; and I was done with it. Though I was told by pastors that non-Christians were very sad on the inside (being separated from God and all) they appeared, in general, to be enjoying life more than I was. Yes, crappy things still happened in their lives all the same, but they seemed to be able to shrug it off so much faster. There was no sense, as far as I could tell, that the world was supposed to be anything other than what it was--that some higher being could have stepped in to help if He had wanted to do so. I coveted that mindset, and I took it.
I am a good person--not a perfect person, but a decent one. I always knew that, I think, and I wanted to believe it (funny how belief can be so different than knowledge) but it’s not something one’s really allowed to admit, let alone celebrate, in the tradition that raised me. Also, it seemed pointless to be so disappointed with the world; the standards were impossible to fulfill and thus caused so much grief. Yes, there are injustices that need to be addressed, and I do not want to diminish the experience of legitimate suffering, but it helps no one--especially not the beings who suffer--when those of us who have opportunities to help start feeling sorry for ourselves because we can’t be the ones to fix everything. Add on to that the frustration and anxiety that build up in a Christian when the God she cries out to, who is supposedly all-powerful and all-loving, refuses to just make everything right.
What’s easier than all that? Accepting that the world wasn’t meant to be anything other than what it is. It wasn’t meant to be anything at all, in fact. This life is a beautiful accident, and unfortunately sometimes we really hurt each other, but if you know that you’ve done what you can to be fair, take a deep breath and smile if you feel like it and know that you’re good enough just the way you are.