I told two lies yesterday and avoided disclosing one significant truth to my assistant, which is almost the same thing. Now I wake up at 4:00 a.m. and ruminate about it. I decide to follow my train of thoughts, which initially seem disconnected, but which actually circle around one theme: This century is going to be hard to manage. We’re all going to sin a lot unless they improve the design of our Palm Pilots. Stress tonight is keeping me awake, keeping my muscles taut as I recognize that my uneasiness (what used to be called “sin”) is mostly a combination of guilt and resentment. Those bad feelings bear some examination. Why, exactly, did I lie? And how should I manage my resentment and guilt?
I won’t go to church this morning. I’ve not been getting much out of it lately. The terminology doesn’t relate to my condition. When we say, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” I scrounge around in my recent memory looking for sins to repent, but I can’t find any. I haven’t stolen or abused anyone lately. If instead of “sins” they use the biblical translation that refers to “trespasses,” I can dredge up even fewer offenses that require forgiveness. But I heard a Calypso song on the radio yesterday that said something like, “forgive us our unsatisfactoriness as we forgive the unsatisfactoriness of others.” That comes closer.
Unsatisfactoriness and dissatisfaction do require forgiveness and the intention to change. I can think of lots of my unsatisfactory deeds that I’d like God to forgive, on behalf of the human beings in my life. And yes, I’ll forgive them too, and try to stop griping about how they treat me — which has been pretty damn unsatisfactory lately, to tell the truth. I have plenty of complaints, but it’s better to keep them to myself, since it makes others feel bad if I point out their failings, and then I’d feel guilty about doing that.
Sartre was right: Hell is other people. But that epigram needs to be teased apart to get at its meaning. If “sin” is unsatisfactoriness, it’s really the failure to meet the requirements of other people. I doubt that they will point that out in church this morning, but I need to think about it so as to deal with yesterday’s lies.
Once I took a three-month trip around the world by myself and never felt a moment’s guilt or frustration. I was completely at peace. If I missed a plane, that was okay. I’d spend another day in Singapore and catch a plane tomorrow. I thought I had discovered the secret of happiness, but I hadn’t. It was just that nobody was expecting anything of me. When I returned home and resumed my social relationships, I began feeling pressure again, and guilt for letting other people down.
Today’s two lies were both contrived to hide my failure to carry out major obligations. The truth that I withheld from my assistant was that he had done a favor for me that had been unnecessary in the end. I preferred to let him feel good about having been helpful. That was a minor, benign deception, but the two out-and-out lies were different.
I don’t lie all the time about my failings. Usually I just apologize, but today I had completely forgotten some really important obligations. Everyone would have questioned whether something was wrong with me, and I wondered too. My memory isn’t what it used to be, yet I dread being considered unreliable or half-senile. So I lied. I tried to minimize the magnitude of the lie by not concocting a huge, elaborate falsehood. Still, I’m awake now, feeling guilty over having let other people down and over having lied to cover it up. (Don’t ask for more details, please.)
I have other things to regret as well. Eight e-mails from Burmese refugees are unread in my in-box. I had promised to help them organize a conference but I’ve been busy, so I haven’t opened the messages, since I can’t address that particular unsatisfactoriness right now. Maybe tomorrow.
But my guilt is mixed with resentment about the unsatisfactoriness of others. At least a dozen of them have not been answering my e-mails and I feel frustrated. Four of them are among my dearest loved ones and I find myself taking their neglect personally, considering it an index of the waning of our friendship. I wonder: Does this mean they care about me less than before? (Nonsense. I forget to return their calls sometimes, yet I love them as much as ever.)
Dissatisfaction and unsatisfactory performance mostly reflect, not intentional neglect, but merely the mismanagement of to-do lists. In fact, I remember now why I missed one of today’s major obligations. My Palm Pilot’s date book program is so inconvenient that I had postponed entering that appointment, especially since I believed it was so important that I wouldn’t forget. If my Palm Pilot were easier to use, I’d have avoided the failure that I lied to cover up. I could blame my moral unsatisfactoriness on technological unsatisfactoriness.
But I don’t. Such an excuse sounds absurd. Besides, blaming doesn’t solve problems and it poisons relationships.
Take my relationship with my publisher, for example, which is the other reason for my insomnia tonight. To complete my own to-do list, I needed some information from him. But I never got my issues onto his to-do list, though they were gnawing at me. Now time is so short that some photos may have to be left out of the book. Who’s to blame: him or me? That’s not a helpful question. Unwisely, I griped and now he’s feeling bad. Dissatisfaction and unsatisfactoriness are a reciprocal pair of sins, usually yielding resentment and guilt respectively. Spiritually, both are corrosive. At worst, they even lead to lying.
Yet unsatisfactoriness is inevitable. Everything we do in this world takes time, energy, matter, space, and information. The first four of these are conserved. We cannot violate the first law of thermodynamics, the conservation of energy. Whenever we fulfill one obligation, we have less resources for fulfilling others. We have to choose between possible actions, leaving some people dissatisfied. Information is a little different. It’s not conserved. If I give you my information, I still have it and you will have it too. But to use it, we may need a perfect memory (which 74-year-olds lack) plus time and energy.
Life is unsatisfactory; that’s the Buddha’s first noble truth. Bearing in mind my recent unsatisfactoriness, I can forgive some of the people whose unsatisfactoriness I have resented. And finally go back to sleep.