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The Ethics of Rigid Moral Standards

The Ethics of Rigid Moral Standards

Thomas Larsen

There was a girl. Her kindness smiled through squinted eyes and dimpled cheeks. She had hair the color of a rainbow and her skin was the color and smell of the desert after rain. She was more beautiful than judgmental, more forgiving than spiteful, and more loving than a flower for the soil. Her gifts were simple and perfect and without expectation. 


I could have loved this girl. I should have loved this girl. And yet, I despised her. She was everything anyone could ever want in a partner in life and I hated her. Not the obvious outward hate of bitter enemies. Not the petty hate of a toddler for his vegetables, or the hate brewed between rival schools, or even the hate of quarreling lovers. 


No, I hated her because I objectified her. Not sexual objectification, but religious objectification. I was Mormon and she was a Christian. We had both just ended short spates of independently bad decisions with independently bad people and found each other at a vulnerable time of hope. I saw her as a means to my salvation, a fellow prodigal returning to the fold, we two slung over the imaginary shoulders of an imaginary Jesus, sheltered under the wings of a misguided dogma. She was to be my Ruth, but I was no Boaz. She was like Mary but I couldn’t turn wood into anything useful. She would be the staff in my hand that would part the rock to reveal living waters. She would be the serpent that could heal me if only I would look at her. She was a means to a spiritual end, and when I failed to achieve that end I blamed her for my failure. 


The rigidity of my morality, my belief that happiness and salvation came through strict adherence to a code of restrictions and prohibitions, led ultimately to the emotional abuse that I selfishly piled on her. I blamed her for my insufficiency. She was MY stumbling block. She tempted ME. She kept ME from purity. She she she hindered ME ME ME. 


I was too immature to see reality and too indoctrinated to try. I was in love with the idea of her and despised her for revealing my weakness. So, I used her. I was imperfect so why not be imperfect with her? I would repent and push her away, then feel imperfect and call her back. I teased a deep relationship but never fully committed. I would tell her I loved her though I really only loved what I wanted her to be for me.


I never saw her as a person with emotions and desires and struggles and hopes and dreams and fears. Fears and dreams and hopes and struggles and desires and emotions as equally present and valid as my own. I saw her only through my selfish eyes, my religiously fueled, shamelessly indoctrinated, and hopelessly, utterly, unshakingly selfish eyes. 


When we broke off what we had and I decided to be a missionary I didn’t even have the decency to see her one last time to say goodbye before leaving with no way to communicate for two years. 


Those two years taught me many things, but I think the most important thing I learned was that no one deserves to be treated the way I treated her. 


She was undeserving of my religious fervor, my pious flames of repentance and search for forgiveness. I burnt her in my puritanical witch’s pyre of morality not knowing that the one I sacrificed for my own salvation was the only one who could forgive me for what was the only real evil between us.


Now, many years later, I’m married happily and healthily to a beautiful woman who I couldn’t love more. My kids tell me about their dreams as they learn to tie their shoes. They trust me with their fears and trust me to teach them how to love. They see their mother and I and know we trust each other and see each other as equals. We disagree, we make mistakes, we argue, but we know that we see each other as fully human, fully autonomous, feeling human beings. I can’t objectify her, not because it would be a sin, but because she is a living being deserving of respect and honesty who I love freely and openly, not for what she does or can do for me but because she is she. 


And yet, I still think about the girl and yearn for her forgiveness. I want her to know how deeply I’ve suffered for the pain I’ve caused her. I want her to see that I see what I did to her and know how insanely wrong it was. I want her to yell at me and tell me she hates me and whip me with her words until I’ve suffered enough for her to forgive me. There is no romantic desire behind this yearning and yet I want to make sure she knows she ought to be loved and if she’s found someone who treats her how she deserves I want to know she’s happy. 


One may be capable of self-forgiveness when the abuse is self-inflicted but the abusers peace can only truly come from the abused. I have realized I may be condemned to suffer with this pain for the rest of my life, but I am committed to never treat another human the same as I treated her ever again. 

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