“Live as though dying daily.”
-St. Antony of Egypt, as recorded by St. Athanasius
We have almost no viable perspective from which to evaluate our past actions or decisions. We are, after all, products of those choices, and the perspective from which and the values against which we would measure the things we have done are themselves the results of the choices we have made.
Our own perfections most often seem to be the consequences of the lousiest choices we have made. Most of my best progress comes from serious reflection on the unpleasant consequences of my past actions. More than regret, a kind of helpless fatalism can seem the most reasonable response to experience. I see now that what I did was not best, perhaps, but I didn’t see it then, and I only see it now because I actually did it. Who am I to say that I would have this perfection, this knowledge, this robust and conscious capacity to choose rightly in any number of analogous future cases, if I had not done it?
And yet, how often on shallow reflection do those choices seem wrong that after more experience and deeper consideration turn out to have been for the better? “#$%(# this diet!” “I hate the piano, Mommy, do I have to?!” Choices like these yield little immediate fruit; we find that we are only in a position to see them in their full light, to appreciate enough of their good consequences to make peace with their pain, after one, two, or three years. Why should we not begin to suspect that we might find ourselves grateful after all for the pain of our past actions in the twilight of happy old age, a lifetime’s journey through the humanioria that that has filled out our inner depths and given us insight into all aspects of ourselves, and that even the perfection of insight we once thought we possessed was itself just a zig to be zagged, a yin to be yanged, another path our Selfgeist had to traverse in its quest of self-discovery?
All of this is to say that we are unable to see ourselves sub specie aeternitatis, seeing what we can see through lenses colored by what we have done, unable to peer past our present into the working-out of all our past actions that will go on for years to come. Even if we try, we cannot begin to suspect the impact of the smallest choices we once made on the people we have become, and left to ourselves we are quite powerless to determine whether those choices were ultimately for good or for ill.
We often see how God has led us through our sins back to Him. Providence works wonders that way. In that light, even for the Christian it is obscure whether some truly regrettable past action was right or wrong for him. The Church sings of the felix culpa of Adam; seeing such incomprehensibly good consequences from the Fall, She finds it difficult to believe that it was wrong at all, since God’s redemptive power has put everything so right.
The same can be seen on the natural level. Beloved children are born to fornicators and adulterers, and even if one repents of the sin, it is difficult for him to regret having done what he did; on how many lustful glances, impure touches, rapes, forced marriages, incestuous unions, and the like does our own existence depend? Shall we regret every sin ever committed? Shall we regret thereby our own existence? Every child coming into the world is a new basic locus of moral value; doesn’t he give some value to the actions that begat him?
Life is not for the naive. We cannot simply regret our pasts, wish that we had made every decision rightly, and lament the happiness we have lost as a result of those choices. Inevitably when we do so we imagine some great “Undo” button on life, which we press and then the picture isn’t there anymore, and we start over. But we never start over, not even in MSPaint. We never imagine ourselves back at square one along with the bitmap. We imagine ourselves redoing the painting in light of our mistakes.
We like to imagine our lives, our experiences, our memories, our happiness, as something separate from ourselves, as a drawing which we stand back from and are creating. They aren’t. Our lives are ourselves in process, and it is our eternal self, which exists in its most finished form in this present moment, and which will stand finished for good or for ill in the eternal moment, that is the drawing. Undoing our experiences would be tantamount to trying to correct a mistake we do not remember making.
At the same time, we cannot let our faith shrink. We cannot simply resign ourselves to the fact that God has worked with us in our failures, shaped us into what we are in spite of and in full consideration of our sins, using even these as He can to bring us to perfection, and conclude sola fide, that it is just as well for us to have sinned as not to have sinned. We must have the faith to acknowledge that it would have been better for us never to have sinned, and what is most painful, to realize that we cannot ever see how. Objective right and objective wrong mean nothing less than that, although I cannot see all of the consequences of my actions, and even though I can see the good that God has brought out of my wrongdoing, I can still affirm that it would have been better for me if I had not sinned.
And so in bliss we will be perfectly happy, even in the knowledge that there was yet more that God was calling us to be, if we had but answered Him. But God seeks us where we are, and He will make us all that we now can be, if only we let Him.