Someone once quipped that we spend the first half of our lives struggling with the sixth commandment – Thou shalt not commit adultery – and the second half of our lives struggling with the fifth commandment – Thou shalt not kill! There’s a truth here worth examining.
In the Catholicism I was raised, there was a heavy emphasis on the sixth commandment. Sex and issues related to sex were singled out as being particularly salient in terms of sinful behavior. All sex outside of marriage was seen as sinful, but so too was sexual fantasizing. If you entertained any sexual fantasies you were required to confess them to a priest in confession. In the vocabulary of the time, this was termed as “having had bad thoughts”. Given human nature and human hormones, assuredly most everyone had “bad thoughts”.
As I grow older, I have come to believe that sexual fantasies (which in fact can have a moral element to them) are not the real danger in terms of bad thoughts. As we age, the bad thoughts we most need to confess have more to do with another commandment, thou shalt not kill. The bad thoughts that most separate us from love, community, and the banquet table have to do with who we are angry at, who we don’t want to be in a room with, who we don’t want to be at table with, who we want revenge on, who we can’t forgive, and people whose energies we cannot bless.
Henri Nouwen once suggested that long before someone is shot by a gun, one is shot by a word, and before one is shot by a word, one is shot by a thought – She is so full of herself! I hate her! I can’t be in a room with her! We kill each other in our thoughts, in our judgments, in our hatreds, in our jealousies, and in our avoidance of each other. These are the bad thoughts which we most need to confess.
Moreover, that is only the crasser way we violate the commandment that demands we not kill each other. We have “bad thoughts” in much subtler ways. We also kill each other whenever we indulge in fantasies of grandiosity, fantasies within which we are the superstar, the one set apart, the one above, the one superior to others, and the one who sees others as lesser than oneself. Like sexual fantasies, these fantasies also come upon us with a power that makes them very difficult to resist. Like sexual fantasies they beset us instinctually with a warmth that is self-gratifying.
But why are they wrong? What’s wrong with indulging in fantasies within which we are the special one, the hero, the one above others?
In short, they are not morally wrong in themselves. It’s not a sin to think of yourself as special – particularly since you are! God makes everyone unique and special, and it’s not wrong to recognize that inside oneself. Moreover, for a good part of our lives, this can even be healthy. The issue arises later in life, when we reach that time in our lives when we need to begin to scrutinize ourselves more rigorously and courageously vis-a-vis what things inside us are obstacles to our becoming one with everything. Don’t let the Hindu or Buddhist sound of that phrase, become one with everything, put you off; that’s also what we, Christians, believe will constitute our final state in heaven – oneness with everything – God, others, the cosmic world, and our true selves.
Hence while they are not wrong in themselves, fantasies that massage our separateness from others, our standing apart from them, and especially our superiority to them, are, at a the end of the day, a blockage to the unity in love to which we are called and destined. They are also a way in which we kill others, leaving room for only ourselves at the head of the table.
We spend a good part of our lives struggling with the sixth commandment. However, most of us end up with an even bigger struggle with the fifth commandment. The Gospel parable about the Prodigal Son throws light on this. The father (God) has two sons and he is trying to get them both into the house (heaven). The younger, prodigal son leaves the house because he is struggling with the sixth commandment. Eventually though he returns to his father and enters the house again. The older brother, who never leaves home but is just as effectively out of his father’s house, is struggling with something else – anger, bitterness, jealousy, and judgment of others. He is struggling with bad thoughts. He is killing his younger brother with judgment, jealousy, and with fantasies of his own moral superiority.
It’s noteworthy how this parable ends. It doesn’t end with the celebration for the younger brother and his rejoining the household. It ends with the father (God) standing outside the house gently and lovingly trying to coax his jealous, bitter, judgmental, older son out of his bad thoughts.