I wonder if most of us have had this experience. You sin against and/or with someone and soon afterward feel regret. In fact, you feel so much regret that you admit to yourself and to God that you have sinned. And your conscience still bothering you, you set out to do what you can to make the matter right. However, to make the matter right, or at least as right as possible, turns out to be much more difficult and more involved, than you expected.
It soon becomes apparent that to make it right, as right as you would like to make it, will involve admitting your sin to others, others whose opinion of you matters, others who you would prefer not know about it, others whose mouths you have no control over. And coming up against such a social penance more severe than we had bargained for, we decide that perhaps it is better for all concerned to let the matter blow over. “I’ve confessed to myself and God that I have sinned,” we say to ourselves, “and I have made at least some effort to make it right.” We may be spurred, at least for a while, to make an extra effort at prayer or religious observance or even charity. And then in a fit of self righteous justification we may even throw in, “and besides, if God really wanted me to do more He wouldn’t have made it so difficult.”
Some inner reasoning similar to this goes on in the mind of Michael Henchard at the beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Throughout the novel Henchard’s unwillingness to be humbled by the revelation of specific instances of his various weaknesses--although the general outline of such weaknesses are known to all--creates situations in which even greater humiliation is inevitable. Eventually his own integrity, the same integrity that smites his conscience every time he grievously sins, this same integrity nettles him into swings of mood: from volcanic anger to “oppressive generosity” to mopey self-pity and depression. Eventually he sabotages himself, again and again. What was hidden is revealed and the fall is humiliating; though, ironically, it is not viewed nearly so badly in the eyes of others as he supposes.
Henchard is his own fiercest critic. What hurts Henchard most is not what others actually think of him, but his inability to tell the story of himself that he wants to tell. Circumstances, failures, and weaknesses of personality all work to tell a story of Michael Henchard very different from the story Henchard tells himself, very different from the story he would like to tell others.
But one of the beauties of the way the world works is that, from time to time, reality catches up with us. Sooner or later most of us have to confront ourselves as we are. And that moment of confrontation is, if we will let it be, a moment of salvation. It is perhaps necessarily a painful moment, for as it has been noted by many, pain has an amazing ability to get our attention.
I have often said that God meets us where we are, not where we wish we were. Sometimes, if we will not look humbly and soberly at ourselves as we are, then in the natural course of life’s events, who we really are grabs us and makes us take a good, hard look--no matter how much we’d rather not.