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The sin-guilt-fear dynamic located

I made what feels like an important discovery a couple of days ago. It relates to a central claim of the Course. The Course describes a psychological dynamic that is central to its thought system but hard to find elsewhere. This is the sin-guilt-fear dynamic, in which we first believe we have sinned (by attacking someone else). Then we feel guilty, which means we think there is a stain at the core of our being, making us deserving punishment. Then we fear that punishment coming to us.

This dynamic is central to the Course’s account of the physical world, for this is why the world is so attacking—it has been dreamt from this place in our minds, the place that says “I have got it coming to me.” This is evidenced in the near-universal belief that God is working through the negative events of our lives to bring to us our just deserts.

What has nagged at me for years about this dynamic is this: It is given huge significance in the Course, yet you can barely find it anywhere else, and where I have found it (for instance, in psychoanalytic writings), it is one small dynamic among others, hardly the responsible-for-everything-we-see monstrosity that it is in the Course. Indeed, I’ve never been very successful at finding it in myself. I’ve caught sight of it in bits here and there, but that’s about it. It’s like Bigfoot—there are the occasional sightings and footprints, and that brief, shaky film, but not enough to assure you that it is really there.

You can see why this has been bugging me. The Course seems to me to be going way out on a limb here with a very large and weighty theory. Can that limb support the weight?

This brings me to what I discovered the other day. I feel like I located this dynamic in myself, in just the kind of size the Course would suggest. Here’s how it goes. See if you can find it in yourself.

First, there is a constant observer in me saying, “I’m doing something wrong.” Variations on this include, “I’m not doing it right.” “I ought to be doing it better.” “That’s OK, but I should be doing it more perfectly.” This is not frequent; it is constant. It’s a background hum that just goes on all the time.

It criticizes what I do from any and every angle. But it is probably centered on what I call failure to love. Indeed, most of the criticism seems to trace back to that. For instance, “I could use my time better, which means I am not being sufficiently responsible to others, which stems from my failure to love.”

Second, there is a quieter voice which says, “Something is wrong with me.” This is the direct result of the first statement, “I’m doing something wrong.” The wrong thing I’m doing, in other words, is direct evidence of a wrongness in me. My identity is flawed, warped, tainted. After all, why would I be doing something wrong unless that wrongness came from something in me?

Finally, there is an even quieter voice which says, “And I fear the penalty.” The previous statement “there is something wrong with me” implies I don’t deserve to be happy. Rather, I deserve to suffer. The fact that I am warped means I deserve a warped experience. That I am tainted means I deserve a tainted experience. More specifically, it means I should pay for what’s wrong with me. And then, quite naturally, I should fear that penalty. It’s on its way, so in anticipation of that, I should feel fear.

The result is a subtle sense of a shadow cast over my life, my day, my experience, a shadow cast by the wrongness in me. This shadow says “everything has been tainted by the wrong in you.” It says, “some kind of penalty is on the way for the wrong in you.”

And the result is that I’m anxious. By this point, it probably sounds like I live in terror. You probably know that this isn’t true, and it isn’t. I am a pretty calm person. I have a basic trust in life. And yet there is this low-level anxiety that is always there. Now I think I understand that anxiety much better. It’s composed of these three statements:

I am doing something wrong.

There is something wrong with me.

And I fear the penalty.

This process is just humming along, underneath and behind everything else that is going on. It is so subtle that I haven’t noticed it before. Like I said, the second statement is quieter, and the third statement is quieter still. So it’s been very easy to overlook. “OK, so I’m a bit anxious. I’m not sure exactly why but I’d sure like to get over it.” It’s been easy to see no further than that.

The great thing about noticing this and seeing it very plainly at work in me is that I feel like I can to some degree turn it off. Here’s what I’ve been telling myself:

I am just making a mistake.

There is nothing wrong with me.

I am free of penalty.

The key is that second statement. I’m drawing on the Course idea, of course, that even if my thoughts and actions are flawed, that doesn’t affect my fundamental nature. My personality may be my own construct, and thus saturated with error, but my being is God’s creation, and thus impervious to anything I do.

Because I can now see those three statements actually in me, not just as abstract ideas, when I say to myself now, “There is nothing wrong with me,” it has quite an effect. I feel that whole sense of anxiety momentarily drop away.  Everything, at least for a brief time, feels OK, even bright and clear. I feel surprisingly free. Of course, when I turn back to what I was doing, the hum resumes. It is so entrenched that it is the default setting. But this gives me hope that with more practice, I could actually turn it off, and therefore live free of anxiety. Which would really be something.