Sunday, November 26, 2006


The American Heritage Dictionary (online version – but of course) defines damnation as:

1. The act of damning or the condition of being damned.
2. a. Condemnation to everlasting punishment; doom.
b. Everlasting punishment.
3. Failure or ruination incurred by adverse criticism.

Damned is defined here:
1. Condemned, especially to eternal punishment.
2. Informal. Deserving condemnation; detestable: this damned weather.
3. Used as an intensive: a damned fool.

The idea of damnation is that you could commit and act so egregious as to take precedence over all other counterbalancing acts. A damning act is one that defines us.

That a single act could define us relates to both the concept of shame, and subsequent cognitive dissonance regarding a behavior we might initially have seen as uncharacteristic of ourselves. Though I might believe myself to be a good person, I might commit an immoral act that violates my assumptions about who I am. When faced with such a conflict, my choices are to either alter my behavior [redemption] or alter my belief about myself [damnation], or the act I committed [rationalization].

If I commit murder, I might first look for mitigating aspects of the situation, so I am not left considering myself to be a “murderer.” I might have killed on the battlefield (good soldier), I might have killed by mistake (unfortunate accident), or for self-defense, or when my capacities were diminished by emotional strain, intoxication, or psychiatric condition.

Without a situational mitigation, I am left with an unfortunate dilemma – I can either alter my beliefs about murder (e.g. I’ve released their soul to heavenly splendor) or myself (I’m a rapacious bastard, and I like that I’m a rapacious bastard – makes me the meanest mutherfucker in town). In the former of these two, I’ve sacrificed my connection to reality in an attempt to preserve positive self-concept – implementation of psychotic reasoning. In the latter, I’ve damned myself; I’ve disowned the greater part of myself – my self-conceptualization prior to the act – and forced instead a self-definition that excludes my core morality.

We all behave in uncharacteristic ways at times. In fact, it’s one of the inevitable aspects of correcting ourselves. When I behave in an uncharacteristic manner, I’m challenging the manner in which I’ve previously been defining myself. Optimally, this represents a growth experience – I explore a previously undeveloped aspect of myself, and then subsequently find some way to integrate this into my larger self-concept. In this way, I broaden my repertoire of adaptive responses. Should I stray too far, however – lock my children in the car and push it down the boat ramp, for example, or kill my ex-wife and her lover in a fit of jealous rage, then I’ve not broadened my repertoire at all – I’ve limited it. Once I’ve damned myself, and forced a schism between where I am now and where I was then, I’ve lost access to those things that were previously rewarding – that seemed to define me. The gulf between the aspects of myself seems unbreachable.

Other people, of course, also play a role in this process. Once I’ve committed an uncharacteristic, and potentially damning act, I might consult my friends. If they are good friends, they’ll attempt to reflect me in my entirety – both the person I have been, and the person who committed the act, and help my find ways to reconcile the two conceptualizations of myself. Less true friends, however, will sacrifice my best interest for their own emotional comfort. They will respond to the vicarious shame by either minimizing what I’ve done, or by damning me for it. In these instances, they are refusing to provide me with a reflection of myself that encompasses both the before and after, because some aspect of the act has made them so uncomfortable, they cannot go there with me.

So, the process of redemption then, from this framework, involves an integration between aspects of myself that seem irreconcilable, while damnation involves reinforcement of a schism between my self-concept before and after I committed whatever egregious act. The role you play, in either the damnation or redemption of others, depends on the degree to which you are able to avoid projecting your own feelings of shame onto a person in a specific situation, and your ability to communicate a unified impression of that person back to them.

We must tend to our own gardens, before we can offer assistance to others.

For ourselves, then, redemption consists not on reinforcing the schism between the seemingly irreconcilable aspects of ourselves by denying one or the other, or withdrawing from the conflict, but by actively attempting to reconcile the two. We must tend to the entire garden, not allow part to become fallow while we direct our attention exclusively elsewhere*.

[This same framework also applies to the process of countertransference in psychotherapy.]

*This conceptualization seems to fly in the face of traditional (ie. Catholic) views on the subject, but I believe its closer to the original conceptual intent than what is traditionally purveyed. It seems we're always at the mercy of people who are unable to bridge the gulfs in themselves, and are therefore unable to assist us in our attempts to do the same. It's a very unchristian view of the matter, however, from the perspective of new testament philosophy.

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