My friend’s smug self-satisfaction gave her the look of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat. “I’m giving up peanut butter for lent,” she said.
I shot back, “how stupid,” before I could stop myself. “Why?”
“Because it’s lent!”
My blank expression gave me away.
“You’re not religious enough to understand,” she said.
I assumed she must be right, because we were usually not far apart on our communications. Not sure what God had to do with peanut butter, I tried to cover up the disparity in our spiritual upbringing with…the truth.
“I don’t believe in lent,” I said. She looked smug rather than shocked.
“Of course not. You don’t believe in guilt or repentance, either.”
I conceded. “Actually, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand. I know all about denying oneself certain pleasures. Of course, there’s also that other kind having to do with hair shirts and self-flagellation, but I assume you’re not going that far down the guilt track.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Still, some people use self-inflicted sacrifices to cleanse their souls, or get reparation for other’s sins.”
“You’re giving up peanut butter to smooth my way to heaven as well as yours?”
“Not exactly. I’m not sure where that whole self-denial thing comes from.” She shrugged, looking longingly at the jar of organic chunky peanut spread I’d opened in front of her.
The whole idea of bargaining for one’s spiritual brownie points has always troubled me. I had two friends when I was a little girl, sisters with seriously Catholic parents who denied them meat on Fridays, insisting they confess anything their parents declared a sin. That included wanting things too much (like peanut butter or TV), or being rude.
I remember watching them disappear into a dark church in the middle of a hot, sunny summer afternoon to confess an insolent tone of voice used the day before in a fit of pique. Emerging again only minutes later, they professed cheerily to be totally relieved of all guilt, and therefore ready to commit another sin of like or greater value without building up a burdensome debt. It did seem to instantly lighten their consciences, but left me with burdensome doubts.
With that method of controlling the weight of ethics, I wondered if one might be less prone to self-inflicted ‘mortification of the flesh’, less inner anguish, but predisposed to commit repetitive sin. There was something about this punishment from another source that reduced the suffering. It was not only easier on my friends’ parents, but also on my friends themselves.
I never took this meandering train of thought further at the time, but it crept back recently when I came face-to-face with the potential sale of my overwhelming house in the country. A long-desired change in my lifestyle, the sale should have filled me with ecstasy, yet I lay awake torturing myself with the details of relinquishing my hold on that long-outlived dream. Why couldn’t I simply enjoy the relief it would bring and the potential for a much sought after fresh start? Why, to put it bluntly, didn’t I think I deserved this happiness, and why did I have to torture myself with sleepless nightmares of all that could go wrong? It was much like the way I punished myself as a child for being ‘bad’ when I felt the mental anguish but not the absolution.
I’d bite my arm in a private form of corporeal punishment, never deep enough to break the skin but hard enough to leave a half-moon of teeth marks on the flesh below the elbow. Why? I can’t say now, if specifics are important. But I do remember the incident that taught me more about punishment than any other.
I say I remember it, but that’s a recent event. It was only through the writing of my memoir of my grandmother that it came to light. Hidden in my sub-conscious for over 50 years, it suddenly leaped out of the shadows as I wrote a chapter about shopping with my grandmother at the original FAO Swartz on New York’s Fifth Avenue. The lesson she taught me that day was not the one I intended to describe when I started writing. Instead, it involved her handling of my theft of five dollars from her emergency stash, to buy myself a doll I’d been denied.
My horror at what I’d done to the grandmother I adored ran so deep I buried it even deeper. The pain I felt then came from her silence after giving me ample time to ‘fess up’. She left me to stew in my own filth with no other method of obtaining absolution. It was a most effective punishment. She never let me off the hook, as I never came to that ‘confessional’. Of course, today I don’t feel that little girl was so bad after all. The real ‘shame’ was that we didn’t talk it out so I could have understood I was a victim of my own childish desires rather than a criminal of irreparably evil intent.
I know many forms of organized religion are based on the “evil that men do”, as William Shakespeare would say, but since I don’t believe in collective guilt, I guess it’s time to taste the peanut butter and enjoy every delicious bite. From now on, whenever I find myself awake and flailing about in a tortuous sweat of self-punishment in the middle of the night, I’ll go and smear some of that delicious, high-caloric spread on Saltine crackers to help me get back to sleep. I’m not so bad after all, and by the way, neither are you.