Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On the Not-So-Still Voice Within

1. the inner sense of what is right or wrong in one's conduct or motives, impelling one toward right action: to follow the dictates of conscience.
the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.
-Webster's Dictionary

I've been wondering exactly what a conscience is. Especially because mine seems to be faulty.

When I was really young, mom made some kind of corncake patty thing that was nasty. It was chunky, bland, and I could not stomach it. I watched as Berea was scolded and made to sit until she had finished the meal, and instead of refusing to eat it as she had, I stealthily slipped it into my pocket. Later, while gardening out back, I dug a hole and buried my poor dead tasteless patty. And I felt absolutely no regret for doing so.

On the other hand, I had a vicious sense of justice. When my cousins came over and were instructed not to leave the backyard, it was me who convinced them that the neighbor's house was much more fun. (the boys were easily convinced, I learned, growing up. They are all fine men now; but as boys I think I got them into more than their share of trouble.) The moment they left the yard, I rushed in to tell grandma.

Many of the rules my dad enforced were met with much hostility. Wearing dresses always, even in winter? God, how awful would that be!! Leaving the church where all my best friends attended for a remote home-church, on a farm, with about 40 kids who acted far superior than me? He had to be loony. I never felt a bit of regret for hating every rule he made, and for arguing with him constantly until he was in tears and I was enraged.

Somehow, the only time I remember actually feeling guilt in my childhood was around my mom. My mother was a total saint in my eyes, the example of selflessness and holiness. With several children suffering from a hereditary bone disease, she continued to faithfully have children as God led her to do. She inspired me to be a dutiful daughter and she encouraged me when I felt as though I had no strength to please my step dad or to take yet another baby under my wing. I protected my mother fiercely, and so I was crushed whenever she was upset. When she would refuse to talk to me, or when she yelled, I cowered in total shame and disgust at myself. I would bear the criticism of one night for weeks on end, hurting myself out of despair for my soul. It was from these experiences that I came to truly sympathize with Martin Luther. "
As an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther bore the guilt of his sin. He saw God as a just God who must punish sin. As a result, Luther often starved himself and whipped himself in an effort to cleanse himself of sin."-Staupitz

Fast forward a few years. When I turned 18, I was sent to Colin and Nancy Campbell of Above Rubies. There I was trained to be a beautiful, godly young woman, and to bless others in everything I did and said. And it would have been a very fruitful time of my life, had my conscience not kicked in at that point.

My entire childhood had been a lie that my parents had supported. I'd lived to tell others how blessed my life was, when in reality I had a life from hell and I resented it. I hated my step dad and his special attentions to me. I hated that whenever I gained a friend, ties would quickly be severed from her and I would be torn. I hated the standards that left me in long pioneer dresses and with long, curly hair past my waistline. I hated everything about my life except one thing. I never held resentment against my siblings.

So when I began to enjoy the constant encouragement and energy of the Campbell sisters, Serene, Pearl and Vangie, the pain that had lay frozen for over a decade began to thaw. And I felt guilty for lying about my childhood. I also ached for them to know that my life wasn't all joy and love and happiness. I cautiously began to drop hints about the torture I endured at home. And I was met with utmost sympathy. I started to find a hidden side of me at that place; a me that could sing and enjoyed to. A girl who could create a paradise with her imagination and keep children transfixed for hours with stories. And then my family found out what I'd been saying, and the whole world collapsed.

I became nothing, living inside a shell of someone who was racked with pain. I tried once more in the following year to tell the truth to my dearest friend, a dear older lady I met at church. And she promised that she would believe me no matter what, but I was a fool to believe that. My mom swept in again, this time traveling up to Tennessee on her whirlwind of justice, told the people of Franklin the 'truth' about my step dad's honorable reputation and my lying nature and attention-starved personality. Once again I was left with absolutely nothing. This time I felt no shame. No guilt.

Actually, I felt nothing whatsoever, until six months later. Mom had brought me home, but my step dad said he didn't want me in the house, so she lovingly left me at a park in town to find myself a place to stay. I stayed in the park for a few days, not caring about anything, until my mom's best friend Lynne learned of my situation and took me to her house. Lynne was my savior. Not only did she love me when my own mother couldn't find it in herself to do so, but while mom was out running around with her new boyfriend, leaving step dad angry at me and howling to Lynne about how I wrecked the home, I told her the truth about my step dad-and she believed me. Instantly, she said that she had no doubt in her mind that he had hurt me in unspeakable ways. That was the day I began to live again. Three weeks later, I met Aaron and thanks to Lynne, I was able to smile at him and begin our beautiful friendship that is now my life.

When all of that happened, in the fall of 2007, a new conscience was born inside me. A new sense of justice, as well. Now that I had permission to be very angry at my step dad, I chose to forgive him. The one person who inspired so much in me, my mom, now inspired some things that I'd never felt toward her-anger. Betrayal. I felt so hurt by what my mom had done to me my entire life. I still felt protective towards her, as she appealed to my old heart strings and pitifully told me how in pain she was, but I no longer viewed her as perfect. I felt sick knowing she had known that her kids were racked with a disease that she carried, and yet she kept bringing more disabled kids into the world to suffer. I felt a lot of other things too, a bit at a time, as I became truly aware of details I had never paid attention to in my lust for love from her.

Now? Now I have a sense of conscience that's nothing like it was, but it's stronger when I feel something is truly wrong. One day in the mall, I tried on an outfit that cost way too much and regretted it instantly, because it looked fabulous. I thought how it would feel to just walk out of the store wearing it under my clothes. My first reaction was of guilt that I had even thought of such a solution. I ended up leaving it, of course, and Aaron, my sweet man, brought it home to me that night, having bought it after I left. Win-win!!

But things that seemingly inspired guilt for my parents don't affect me. My conscience hasn't bothered me now that I wear jeans almost every single day-and not jean skirts, either. I didn't feel a single pang of guilt when I cut my hair shorter than my husband's, and highlighted it too! When people ask if I plan on having a big family too, I can groan with a clean conscience, roll my eyes, and announce, "God, NO. Two at the most, and my anklebiters are going to public school!!!" while my husband nods enthusiastically.

So what is conscience? What makes some things so right for some people and yet a sin worthy of hell for others? Why can I drink alcohol with no regrets but some can't? Is conscience an innate instinct that knows what is good or bad for you, like whether you could become an alcoholic or not? Is it truly a moral compass, or is that a compass of societal pressure? Does it really become impossible to hear, like my step dad said, when you choose not to listen to it? Or is it that things that made you feel guilty simply don't apply anymore when you're grown?

Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner. Conscience makes egotists of us all. -Oscar Wilde


W. Lotus said...

In my experience, it is completely normal for one person's conscience to allow what another's will not allow. Just like we each have unique personalities, we each have a unique sense of what is right for *us* to do to be the best person we can be in the circumstances we are in.

The problem comes when we try to force others to live their lives according to our consciences. Just like someone else cannot have our exact personality, someone else cannot have our exact conscience. Life isn't that black and white.

W. Lotus said...

P.S. Your conscience doesn't seem faulty from what you wrote in this post. It's just different, just like you are different, and that is OKAY. :-)