“Remember, O Man” first appeared in the March, 2002 issue of Touchstone.
Remember, O Man
Robert Hart on Ash Wednesday
In its emphasis on mortality and guilt, Ash Wednesday offers a two-fold remedy to what ails society. That is, to what ails society because of the prevalent deception that is in the air, and is, like most unthought-out yet strongly held opinions, caught like a virus. Only someone with a Christian mind understands why the thought of our death and our guilt brings comfort. But then, this also suggests why only the Christian can, in the end, be truly happy.
Mortality & Guilt
About death and dying, popular thinking seems itself to be in a state of denial. Perhaps with the beginning of the worship of youth in the 1950s, and the resulting youth culture, people began to seek to avoid death by avoiding age, perhaps by avoiding adulthood itself (after all, the word adult is beginning to mean nothing more than childish delight in things pornographic). If we do not grow up, we cannot grow old, and we can live forever. Viagra can even take away the (to them) greatest disadvantage of age, the loss of sexual gratification.
Maybe we can stay young forever, like Hugh Hefner, who at 75 may still ponder what he wants to be when he grows up. But for now he has nothing more important to do than to score with the chicks, his seven live-in girlfriends. As long as we can sing with Peter Pan, “I won’t grow up,” how can we grow old? How can we die?
The only virtue recognized by the Zeitgeist is that of staying in the best physical shape, having the sleekest and strongest body, and maintaining peak sexual performance. We cannot die. Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall live.
So much for mortality. As for guilt, somehow our society has bought the lie that guilt is no problem at all, unless it is felt. All fingers must point to the professions of psychology and psychiatry for forging this deception, and selling it after the model of the most talented con artists and snake oil salesmen. The feeling of guilt is now a medical disability; the reality of guilt must at all costs be denied.
I recall vividly an experience from some 20 years ago, as I sat eating in a restaurant within hearing distance of two men who had no interest in keeping their comments private. “Look, she made the decision to have the abortion,” the conversation went. “Well, that’s that. Now she feels sad all the time because she feels guilty. The doctor told us that we have to be tough with her for her own good, and tell her to knock it off, quit moping, and get on with it.”
Funny how the doctor knew that would happen. Probably, as my experience of sidewalk counseling has made me know, one of these heroes was the sperm donor who, after a bit of pleasure, had to muscle his girl into making what he considered to be the responsible decision. First the girl was deprived of her child, and now she is deprived of her mourning, her conscience—her soul. Part of her very inconvenient humanity had to be eradicated, of course for her own good, just as the child was exterminated for its own good. It’s always for their own good: “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Prov. 12:10).
The feeling of guilt, even when it is another doing the feeling, gets in the way of sheer pleasure. The feeling of guilt is a malady, and must be treated by searing the conscience with a hot iron. After that, one can sleep nights, if not with peace, at least without painful, annoying distractions.
Thank God for Ash Wednesday. We are reminded by the words, “Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return,” that death is a certainty, and we can cease from endless, tireless labors to stay young and naturally immortal. We can focus on something bigger: the eternity into which we most surely shall enter.
We are reminded also that guilt is not so much a feeling as it is a fact, a fact of our fallen sinful lives. We do not have to eradicate the feeling of guilt, and we can cease from the hopeless struggle to deny it. The feeling of guilt must lead us to God, and that fact of guilt be dealt with by Christ, who alone cures that fact and creates a restful conscience. Our consciences can live quite powerfully, and we should not consider it a sickness, but rather the greatest health of the soul leading us to seek absolution with repentance. When we in faith give our conscience its place of effect and power, we face mortality without fear.
So I find comfort in the themes of mortality and guilt on Ash Wednesday. It is the world, not I, that is mad.