To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
BY Jennifer Fulwiler
I’m doing Christmas cards this week, which means that all my spare time is spent repeating the process of writing a note on the back of our family picture, tucking it in an envelope, peeling off an address label, and affixing it to an envelope. The only thing that breaks my flow is when I catch sight of a certain person’s name and address, about half way down the third page of labels. Every time I see it, wince. That name is a reminder of just how unsaintly I can be sometimes, and how very much I am in need of God’s mercy (and other people’s mercy as well).
You see, it’s the name of an acquaintance I originally met through a local playgroup when my first child was an infant. Shortly after we had gotten to know one another, a friendly debate (read: vicious catfight) about parenting philosophies erupted on the playgroup email list. Some of the things this new friend said ruffled my feathers; I strongly disagreed with her stance on a couple of issues, and I felt personally judged by one remark in particular. A few days later she sent out an email that was basically friendly, but touched on some of the things that had rankled me. I was exhausted and in a bad mood, and so I forwarded the email to my husband, along with some snippy commentary.
Later that afternoon, I saw this friend’s name in my inbox. The subject was RE: her earlier subject…which was weird since I hadn’t sent anything to her. I opened her note, and a horrible feeling descended upon me as I realized: OH MY GOSH I HIT ‘REPLY’ INSTEAD OF ‘FORWARD’! I looked down in the email thread to see my words that had arrived in her inbox. And I thought: Wow. I was really being a jerk there.
Naturally, I immediately sent an apology, which she graciously accepted, and we moved on. But all these years later I still remember that moment every time I see her name.
As I was thinking about the situation while writing up her Christmas card earlier this week, I wondered: Would I have had such sincere remorse for my sharp words if she’d never seen the email? I might have felt vaguely bad about it, but the truth is that I probably would have forgotten about it pretty quickly.
It’s an interesting illustration of how sin works: If you had asked me if I thought it was okay to make a hostile comment about someone, I would have said no. I wasn’t Catholic at the time, but that kind of thing was certainly against my personal moral code. And yet, as long as I thought that no one besides me or my husband had seen what I’d written, I didn’t feel all that guilty about having done it. When I thought of my remarks, I immediately thought of all my excuses for making them (which, perhaps incorrectly, I assumed that my husband would understand as well): I was tired, I was in a bad mood, I’d felt hurt by something she said previously, etc. I saw my bad behavior through the lens of my rationalizations for doing it; and through that lens, it didn’t seem all that bad.
But something changed when my comments were dragged out into the light for my acquaintance to see as well: Not only had someone else now been hurt by my remarks, but all of my justifications suddenly lost their potency. I didn’t even bother typing out my tale of woe that I was tired or in a bad mood or whatever, because I knew how lame it would sound. I was faced with the stark truth that excuses that sound awfully compelling when they’re confined inside your head can sometimes turn out to be pretty weak when you have to say them out loud for someone else to hear.
I often thought of this situation a couple of years later, when I was about to become Catholic. Other people in my RCIA class struggled with the idea of confessing their sins to a priest, but I never had the slightest problem with this practice. Especially after that experience with the mistaken email, it made perfect sense to me that God would set up a system like this; since he knows us better than we know ourselves, he understands that we tend to keep our sins carefully wrapped up with rationalizations as long as they’re confined to our heads. And, sure enough, before I had access to the sacrament of confession, when I would confess my sins in the form of silent prayer, they didn’t often strike me as being that big of a deal. But when I later sat down and spoke those same sins to my priest, everything changed. Some of my excuses were legitimate and worth explaining as extenuating factors for my bad behavior…but most weren’t. And I had to go through that painful but cathartic moment of seeing what I’d done, stripped bare of hollow excuses, and just admit: Wow. I was really being a jerk there.
As I affixed that old friend’s address label to the Christmas card envelope, I was reminded once again of my own sinfulness, and thus my need for a Savior. I thanked God for his mercy, for kind friends, and for giving us a way to understand the weight of our sins, without having to wait until we accidentally hit Reply instead of Forward.