The Seven Deadly Sins
by Ed Friedlander, M.D.

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This short essay reviews the traditional Christian list of the attitudes that make people do wrong. "The seven deadly sins" is a list from the early middle ages, more properly "the seven capital vices", or roots of misbehavior. You will not find the list in the Bible. But it has been popular since the Middle Ages.

I will try to make a brief case against sin, based both on my reading and my own experience of life. Although I am a Christian, you may find yourself agreeing with much of what I have to say regardless of your own background and beliefs.

This is not an essay on the theology of sin, repentance, or forgiveness.

If you are a radical liberal, you will be "offended" by most of what I have to say, and if you read any further, you will want to write and tell me that I am "pathetic", "pretentious", "racist", etc. Please leave now.

If you are a religionist (Christian or otherwise) who is not tolerant of those who differ from you, then I am one of the people you have heard so many horrible things about. Please leave now.

Many of the world-faiths provide lists of good and bad deeds. The Buddhist sangha has a long literature of lists which were passed on as an easy-to-remember oral tradition. The Jewish Bible lists the ten commandments, and the Paul of Tarsus's lists of behaviors "that will not inherit the kingdom of heaven" continue to generate much discussion.

The theme of "The Seven Deadly Sins" has been a part of our culture. Marlowe's Faust is treated to a pageant of the sins which mirrored early popular morality plays. In "Camelot", Mordred sings "The Seven Deadly Virtues", a parody in which the bad knight chooses selfishness. David Niven and Jerry Pournelle updated Dante in their own "Inferno", in which a contrite Benito Mussolini guides the writer though a tour of sin in the modern world. David Fincher's "Seven" was among the most violent of all movies, though the violence was never shown, just as the seven deadly sins underlie all that is wrong in this world even though they are not actions in themselves.

Now, it seems to me that all the rules (guidelines?) in the Bible that don't deal with worship (where the focus is on keeping things simple and reasonable and not trying to engage in magic) deal with how we treat each other. So it seems to me that sin mostly means behavior that actually hurts other people for no good reason. Even somebody who does not believe in religion might accept this.

The seven deadly sins are acutally attitudes which early Christians listed as the causes of human misbehavior -- the actual reasons that we hurt each other. They are not "sins", i.e., actions that will separate you from a right standing with the Good Lord. But they're the underlying causes of actions that will.

The list remains strikingly contemporary.

Traditional name:PRIDE
Better known today as: Ego-tripping

We have a saying in medicine, "Mistakes don't kill patients... egos do."

There is no reason you should not enjoy your own genuine abilities and genuine achievements. "Pride" is not a sin when it merely involves taking satisfaction in a job done well -- nobody ever hurt anybody else over this. But we make ourselves and others unhappy by demanding attention and recognition, or by not asking for help and guidance when we need it. And I've seen this all too often -- and not just because I'm around doctors.

Growing up, we may learn to be vain by the examples of those around us, or especially if our parents and friends seem to love us more if we achieve. It's a fact of life that being talented, good-looking, wealthy, and so forth will get us more attention and affection from those we have just met. Whether this translates into more satisfying relationships seems much more questionable to me -- I think these have a lot more to do with how we treat others.

You got your genes and your family by dumb luck. If you have achieved by your own efforts, be thankful for the opportunity, and don't worry about exactly where you'll sit in the hierarchy of fame. It is better both for you and for those around you.

After all, taking myself too seriously doesn't make me or anybody else happier. It is much more fun to be able to laugh at myself. And I've found this to be the best remedy for "pride".

Traditional name: ENVY
Better known today as: Entitlement

Everybody knows how miserable we make ourselves when we compare ourselves unfavorably to others. Perhaps we learn to do this when our parents try to influence our behavior by making comparisons with kids that they want us to be like. And it's human nature to want what others have, especially when we consider ourselves better-qualified and more deserving.

But in today's egalitarian times, envy has a more subtle face. I think that most Americans will tell you that much of what's wrong with our country comes from people demanding things for which they are not willing to work.

Genuine oppression and injustice still exist, and we do not have to accept this. And accidents of birth place one person in a more favorable position than another. But our world is far more full of opportunity than ever before. Today's street losers, and even "cultures" (I won't say which ones), define themselves in terms of resentments and past injustices rather than work and achievements. And the rest of the world is right to despise this.

Envy is always painful (unlike pride), and it's caused many people to do horrible things... and even to be pleased that they have done so.

If I have the grace to rejoice in somebody else's achievement or good fortune as well as my own, I'll be far happier. Or the examples of others can spur me on to achieve by my own well-placed efforts. If I'm still envious, I can try simply passing out genuine compliments. This is what I've found most helpful.

Traditional name: WRATH
Better known today as: Abuse; Violence; Racial / Sectarian Hatred

We all get angry. We need to be able to do this in order to survive and to communicate.

Much of the skill of relating to people is knowing how to manage anger. Life's taught me that there's nothing to be gained, and everything to lose, by b-tching a family member out for more than 60 seconds. (And do this in today's job setting, or in a friendship, and you've lost your job or your friend.) To get somebody to do what you want / what's good for him or her, simply present the facts (including how you feel) as accurately and dispassionately as you can. You are much more likely to get the response you want.

Wrath, like envy, has a lot to do with what's wrong in our world. And it's not confined to egalitarian societies. Now, communities do not have to be passive when they are wronged. Usually there are laws to help us, and democracies seem to be respectful of the legitimate interests of their minorities. But people may define themselves in terms of their individual or group hatreds. (I've even heard it taught in college that people should define themselves in terms of their grievance-groups.) Criminals often focus on this -- America's criminals baffle the world by their shouting-and-pouting.

People may wrong us out of weakness or stupidity, or out of actual malice. In the latter case, I'll think about making a conscious decision to turn my revenge over to the Good Lord to handle as is best, while I pray for that person to find a better way of life. Find somebody who has tried this, and ask what happened. You may hear an amazing story. (It's called "Christian's revenge" or "hot burning coals." I think that all experienced Christians know about it.)

Traditional name: SLOTH
Better known today as: Whining

Traditional depictions of sloth are laziness, the person who doesn't do his or her job or attend to the household needs.

Ill-health can be a factor, and of course this is not a sin. The stereotype of the "lazy American sharecropper" had a lot to do with iron deficiency caused by hookworm, so much that the disease came to be known as "the germ of laziness." And depression will make a person seem lazy, which is part of the tragedy of the disease. There are many jobs, especially stoop labor and jobs in extreme or dangerous environments, which most people are unwilling to do, especially for the low pay which they usually offer. My own summer as a field laborer was among my worst experiences, though I think it would have been much more bearable if I'd been among friends or received even half of what was then the lawful minimum wage.

One of the things about today's developed world for which I'm most thankful is that pretty much everybody can find satisfying work. Not everybody is willing to do the same kind of work; for example, I won't garden, no matter what, even for five minutes. But I'll put in a 100-hour week doing medicine, and enjoy it.

We can know we have a problem with sloth when reasonable people start telling us to "Get a life." We do not have to work constantly. But the world is full of people who simply complain and do not take advantage of the many opportunities which life presents. And if you've been around ordinary criminals, you know how typical this is of their attitude.

I'll be a lot happier, and more fun to be around, if I grab some of the real opportunities that life offers. It's only hard for a few minutes.

Traditional name: AVARICE
Better known today as: Greed; Materialism

A free market has proved to be the most effective way to make a nation prosperous. The profit motive, which medieval Christianity distrusted, is not the sin of greed. In fact, when Gordon Gecko proclaims that "Greed is good", he's merely proclaiming (though for a bad purpose) this fact of life.

We get into sin when we equate our worth as people with our financial assets. There is no reason to go without the basics that you need to live a healthy life. But today, entire cultures (I won't say which ones) define your worth in terms of your possessions and earning power, and reject you if you're not making money. On my psychiatry rotation, I was shown examples and told that "A ______ man who fails in business can expect to be completely rejected even by his own family." There are enormous profits to be made in illegal businesses, where "business people" kill each other as part of the job. We all hear stories of children being killed for a jacket or piece of jewelry. This is yet another root of crime -- both white-collar and street-crime. And it makes people miserable.

I went to college with a lot of really rich, really spoiled boys and girls. Believe me, their parents weren't doing them a favor.

Traditional name: GLUTTONY
Better known today as: Addiction

In the 1980's pop psychology, everything was "addiction". However good a description of human misbehavior this might be, our world is full of people who are distracted from ordinary work, ordinary play, and ordinary friendship by preoccupations that take the balance out of life. Some things (alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, opiates) actually enslave the brain, so that one cannot be happy without them.

There is no need to explain how addictions of all kinds hurt those around the addict. The usual cure for an addiction is another addiction. I suggest Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, good religion, exercise, skydiving, or whatever doesn't hurt others.

The good addictions are as much fun as the bad ones, and are much better for me and those around me.

Traditional name: LUST
Better known today as: Many synonyms.

In Dante's story about the ascent to heaven, he discovers that some souls avoid some of the deadly sins, but that every adult does at least some penance for sexual misbehavior.

Especially in the Episcopal church, the limits of suitable behavior remain the subject of controversy. Frankly, I don't think it's the church's business to tell consenting adults what they may and may not do in private. You might not agree. My own conservatism in these matters just reflects my taking the Golden Rule as the norm. I don't see that the world's a better place, or that people are really happier, for all the stuff that goes on. If your own experience is different, you will need to decide that I'm wrong.

Only a few religionists insist that all sexual expression be within marriage and only for the purpose of bearing children. But many (not all) forms of sexual expression are likely to hurt people. Today we're told (wrongly, I think) that we're not complete, fulfliled people if we do not "get our loving", or that we do not need to love responsibly.

Even today, some people approach others with the understanding that they're not looking primarily for sex, and would not even consider sex except in the setting of an established, quality relationship. This makes for quality friendships, and (I'd imagine) the highest-quality romantic life as well.

Last Notes

In accounts from visionaries who've though they've glimpsed the afterlife, the "punishment" for sin seems to be the sin itself. This has been a theme in fictional accounts even before Dante's famous poem. And I've actually heard a couple of these directly from friends and acquaintances (surprisingly numerous) who've seemed to have experiences of the supernatural. One described hell as a place, much like our own world, but populated by souls who were utterly preoccupied with the particular bad attitudes they'd had in life. This is a perfect match for many other accounts I've heard.

Even if there is no afterlife, my own experience has satisfied me that we are happier even in this life when we decide to turn away from the seven deadly sins and the misbehavior they cause. If you want to do this, there will be others who'll help you. Don't hesitate to ask.

The seven deadly sins illustrated.

    Russian postcard
    Gilligan's Island -- explanation here. The professor is pride, Mary Ann is envious of Ginger, Ginger is lust, Mr. Howell is greed, Mrs. Howell is sloth, the Skipper is gluttony, and Gilligan is the angry devil who always wears red. Ingenious.
    Bosch's painting of the seven deadly sins and four last things.
    The Seven Deadly Sins on the Internet
    The Mountain Retreat -- FAQ's about Christianity
    Whitestone Journal
    U. of Leicester -- FAQ
    The Straight Dope
    Henry Fairlie -- evangelical, intended to help people recognize their need for moral reform -- comedy site, no mention of how your behavior make life rotten for those around you

    Gandhi's list of societal sins:

    • Wealth without work

    • Pleasure without conscience

    • Knowledge without character

    • Commerce without morality

    • Science without humanity

    • Worship without sacrifice

    • Politics without principle

    If you are interested in ideas about sin, there is much, more more both online and in the library. You may find it even more helpful to talk to others. Even in the Christian faith, there's disagreement about what "sin" actually is. In the Old Testament, sins would be punishable, but would be forgiven by God's mercy, and might be symbolically transferred to an animal (the scapegoat) in an annual ceremony. Sometimes these were community sins, sometimes (notably Ezekiel) each person was dealt with individually. In the New Testament, the usual word is hamartia, which actually means missing the target. Both community sins (calling of towns and nations to repentance) and individual sins (from the Baptism of John to the anecdotes of Jesus's dealings with individuals) receive attention. Martha worked in the kitchen while Mary talked with Jesus and was told she had chosen better; I think Mary must have been having a long talk with Jesus about how she herself could live a better life. In Paul's writings, sin seems to be a spiritual power which dwells in him and is at war with the Spirit of Christ; it is not he who misbehaves, but "sin that dwells inside him". In contrast, conservatives have told me that sin is nothing more or less than specific acts of disobedience (for example, using profanity, having an abortion, having an illicit affair). From the start, the theology of the cross has made it certain that Christians would never expect to free ourselves of sin entirely by our own efforts, that we would not kill animals to try to obtain forgiveness, or that we could be free of the burden of sin simply by trying to live well. Yet in my experience, the people most likely to reach out to others -- and who reached out to me during the years I was in the greatest need -- have almost without exception been strong professing Chrstians. If your own experience of life has been different, you must conclude that I am wrong.

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