Monday, February 23, 2009

Virtues and Vices: Sin in the 21st Century

Cooney was a character, loved and hated in our little Irish village. We knew we'd see him wandering the streets, whether or not it was raining, and it was usually raining. He'd skip down the street, with the umbrella over his shoulder, unopened despite the pouring rain. Cooney loved life, and drink. His habit of wandering into the pub and simply picking up the nearest drink, regardless of whether someone else owned it, caused the pub owner to simply offer him a free pint of beer. Known as a mixed pint, it was comprised of the runoff of leftover beer left in the drip tray of the beer taps. Cooney never seemed to mind.

Cooney was a mirror for us. He showed us ourselves, and didn't pull his punches. He was the beggar, reminding us how selfish we were. He was the happy drunkard, reminding us how ridiculous we could easily look when we thought we were above others. He was the tester, taunting us to debate issues that torment our souls. He owned a home, but often slept in the doorway of his favorite pub. Noone knows why. He was a little touched, but he was harmless.

Most of all, he lifted spirits when we were low. Once, when I was feeling homesick and missing my kids, he saw me gazing out the window at him. He simply lifted his umbrella to me and smiled. He didn't mind being the clown. He knew that despite the silliness of his antics, his life was valuable and his contribution to society, important.

Sadly, Cooney was struck by a car Saturday and killed, just outside his home. We all knew it would happen this way. We enjoyed him while he was with us, and we will miss him, now that he is gone. Cooney hitchhiked into town every morning to attend daily Mass, and often argued with the parish priest, only to humbly bow his head and ask Father O'Shea to bless him. He knew he was part of the fabric of something much greater than himself.

Everyone has value, virtue and vice. People like Cooney show us the virtue of self reflection and humility. Even when we look at the recent events in the financial industry, we see the myth that sin doesn't exist as a lie perpetuated to lull us into complacency. But when greed damages the soul, it often injures innocent ones along the way. In the last ten years, many people have been guilty of ignoring their own greed, resulting in countless thousands suffering. Banks in Ireland falsely reported their balance sheets by borrowing billions from each other, just before finalizing their books for the year. When their share price fell, they coerced 15 of their closest friends to 'borrow' $500 million each to buy up their shares, never to be paid back. Now, the entire country is teetering on the brink of having the International Monetary Fund come in and restructure their budget. All because greed lead others to look away long enough to dip their hand into the cookie jar.

The exploitations are endless, but it has had one positive effect. We now realize that sin exists. Like Cooney, the greed of bankers gives us a chance to reflect on our own greed. It also shows us the end result of the "Me Generation." Selfishness is the inescapable outcome of looking out for number one. Greed is simply a symptom of that. But it results in horrible damage to society at large.

Baby boomers are not all a part of this mindset, but they looked the other way by caving into the thought that all opinions are equally valid. We have now learned they are not. We must learn that there really is evil in this world, and evil thrives when the good do nothing. Right now, it is the evil of greed, but how long before we learn the evil of other vices that we chose to ignore? The evil of other selfish actions, in the effort to make our lives more convenient, will have additional manifestations. We cannot escape the consequences, no matter how much legislation or accomodation we demand. Inevitably, it will surface, and the damage will show, no matter whether we will it to or not.

We can either look in the mirror of these times or ignore them. But if we continue to buy into the concept that sin doesn't exist, or that vice is as valid as virtue, we are destined to feel the pain more acutely each time the consequences of that vice surface. We need a Cooney everywhere to remind us all that humility is a special gift that allows us to see everything clearer.

I watched the Oscars tonight and heard Mr. Sean Penn preach of how ashamed those who voted for the preservation of traditional marriage should feel. No, Mr. Penn. The shame is in caving into the pressure of people like you. Just because you can portray a gay man does not mean you are an authority on all issues affecting the gay community. Just because you were raised Catholic does not mean you understand theology perfectly. You are simply an actor, and you are a mirror of our society. A mirror that is currently very cloudy. With any luck, it will be a much clearer reflection of what Americans REALLY believe,once they speak up and object to the evil of sin.

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