When I took physics in high school I found its symmetry and mathematical coherence beautiful. For the first time in my Rhode Island public school education I was acquainted with mankind’s attempt to perceive an order to the universe of which I was one small part. Things didn’t just happen willy-nilly; they were always caused by something else. Like an immense machine, the universe had its own ceaseless Newtonian order, clicking away steadily and predictably since the Big Bang.
But I was also a budding writer, an artist, and while I appreciated this order and physics’ mathematical equanimity, I was already all too familiar with free will and its ceaseless role in my life. Every word that made its way to the blank page was a choice. Nothing and no one could make me choose to write or erase a word. I was free to write absolutely anything. There were days I wished I weren’t free, that there was a button I could press on me somewhere from which perfect stories would flow – but this was not the way creation worked. Nor, I came to see, people. Just as I could write anything, I could also do anything. Take drugs or not take drugs. Argue or agree. The only thing compelling me or stopping me was me. I was free.
With all these free wills bouncing around, a little order was needed, and part of that order was found in the concept of sin, a very serious word for bad behavior. Do these things and you have sinned. If you sin, you are a bad person, because bad people do bad things. Order. And really bad people are broken people. Nazis and pedophiles and serial killers and maybe drug addicts and bullies and certain politicians are a few examples of very sinful people who are clearly broken.
And where scientists fixed broken things where possible, religion forgave. I was not raised religious, and I did not like the idea of forgiveness as I had come to understand it. A forgiving person, it seemed to me, perceived sin but was willing to give the sinner another chance. Maybe you were broken and maybe you weren’t. I forgive you, you little rat, but watch it. Tally up enough sins and the forgiveness well runs dry and you are broken.
It was while working with Sawyer that I first glimpsed the combined power of free will and true forgiveness. Sawyer’s behavior, in its own way, was a sin. Unbroken people did not behave the way he did, and so even though his autistic behavior didn’t hurt anyone, it was still a sin because it needed to change. Except the only way to be of use to Sawyer was to remember that he was not his behavior, his behavior was simply a manifestation of his only perceived route to happiness. Could I help him perceive a different route so that he might choose it? Yes, but only if I saw him as he was, not as what he was doing. That was forgiveness – seeing past the imperfect veil of behavior to where humanity’s unbroken perfection resides.
I do not believe in sin anymore than I believe that humans are machines. Of course, I’m no saint, and I forget what I believe all the time, and when I do, I behave accordingly: I fume, I pout, I curse, and I judge, judge, judge. Fortunately, though it always seems like a good idea at the time, such behavior leaves me feeling worse than before. Fortunately, I am free to make another choice, free to find my way back to where everyone is actually headed.