In the mid ‘80s, I attended my fair share of birthday parties at ShowBiz. Before all the fanciness of fancy rooms at children’s museums or movie theaters and extravagant goody bags for guests, celebrating one’s birth before the age of 13 involved smoky arcades with larger-than-life-size animatronic robot bands and sub-par pizza. What I liked most about ShowBiz was skee-ball, of course, my next favorite game being Whack-a-Mole.
The game of Whack-a-Mole is pretty self-explanatory, but for those of you totally unfamiliar with this retro, pre-PlayStation pastime, it basically involved whacking plastic moles that popped up randomly from various holes as hard as possible with a big, padded mallet. The more you hit, the higher your score. And I don’t mean to boast—well, maybe I do—but I had pretty quick reflexes back in the day, despite my nearsightedness, corrected with scratch-resistant lenses, encased in comically oversized frames, and scrawny stature.
I’d efficiently send those mole popper-uppers straight back down to where they came from by remaining alert and poised for action. If I snoozed, I’d loose out on valuable ShowBiz game tickets, redeemable for all manner of cheapo junk, like wax lips, adjustable rings, or neon rubber bracelets. And I sure did love me some neon rubber bracelets, as many as I could shove on my toothpick of a forearm. I loved them almost as much as I loved friendship pins or Hello Kitty anything.
I’ve not played Whack-a-Mole in decades, but I bring it up presently because it’s the most accurate illustration I can think of to describe my historically preferred method for keeping irksome and unflattering self-realizations at bay. When proofs of my imperfection inconveniently reared their far-from-sightly heads, I kept from dwelling on them by whacking them, not with a big, padded mallet, but rather busyness, entertainment, and general distraction techniques, such as internet surfing, shopping at Target, and making to-do lists.
It’s a lot easier to think of myself, maybe not as Mother Theresa or anything, but certainly above-average in the principle department, when gawking at new stories about serial killers and reality television personalities. By above-average, let’s face it, I mean better than others or more worthy than some of the blessings I’ve received but so often take for granted.
Last week, however, I found myself 30 minutes into a two-and-a-half-hour road trip in which everyone along for the ride was tired and therefore unusually quiet. I didn’t have a book with me for some reason, and was too zoned out anyway for reading or talking. I just sat there in silence, staring out the window. Before long, my mental defenses shut down and the yuckiness I’m usually efficient at suppressing took advantage of the opportunity to frolic out in the open, all unimpeded.
“You are stingy with your time and money,” it started. When I didn’t defend myself or divert my attention, it continued. “And you’re vain. You’re undisciplined. You’re lazy, and whiny when you don’t get your way.” Still I stayed put without protesting, so those difficult truths, they started flooding in. My eyes were wet behind my sunglasses. “You’re inconsistent as a parent. You’re flighty and absent-minded. You talk a good game about prayer and fasting, but you’re inconsistent with those, too. You love most those who are easiest to love.”
My soul ached as it hadn’t ached maybe ever before, with profound shame. This aching continues to pulsate undeniably and render me tearful at any given moment, not from despair, honest to goodness, but from a poignant comprehension of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness, gifted to me via an all-out painful assault on my smugness and pride. It is scary and uncomfortable as all get-out to submissively absorb without remonstration the ubiquitousness of my sinfulness.
It burns to swallow excuses and genuinely apologize when I’m wrong. It stings to be criticized, corrected, disagreed with, misunderstood, disliked, or denied vindication, and yet—oh, the freedom to be found in dying to that me-first, my-way, I’m-okay part of myself, the part that muffles what is unfathomably healing about salvation. By salvation I absolutely do not mean a get-out-of-hell-free pass, but rather an ongoing chipping-away by way of continuous repentance of those frustration-inducing vices that make life suck, quite frankly.
“A true Christian is made by faith and love towards Christ,” wrote St. Herman of Alaska. Our sins do not in the least hinder our Christianity according to the word of the Savior himself. He deigned to say, “Not the righteous have I come to call, but sinners to salvation.” There is more joy in heaven over one who repents than ninety righteous ones. Likewise, concerning the sinful woman who touched his feet, he deigned to say to the Pharisee Simon, “To one who has love, a great debt is forgiven, but from one who has no love, even a small debt will be demanded.” From these judgments, a Christian should bring himself to hope and joy, and not in the least accept an inflected despair.
Alas, my primary aspiration for this fleeting earthly existence is not to be good, but thankful. Thankful enough to accept willingly, as eternally medicinal, both the joys and the sorrows that rain down upon me. Thankful enough to turn the other cheek when necessary, and to speak ill of no one. And thankful enough to remain always and forever, from minute to minute, aware and in awe of being loved—warts, sores, diseases, and all—by Christ, my Savior.