Picture of a janitor cleaning.

An Eighth Deadly Sin: Oblivion.

I don’t mean to be preachy. I wanted to put into words something I find myself frequently aware of. I’ll present this awareness in terms of an “eighth deadly sin.” Perhaps this does not count as a “deadly” sin in the classical sense. Classically, the deadly sins were thoughts or actions which could destroy one’s soul or bring a person to ruin (e.g. lust, sloth, pride). If I thought longer about similarities to classical deadly sins, perhaps it would dawn upon me how this practice might destroy a person. Biblically speaking (my own favorite context), any sin can destroy a soul, because (a) one sin separates us from God and (b) a single sin has a viral/bacteria or yeast-growing effect. Just a small amount grows like dominos falling. This causes that, that causes another thing and before long a community is full of evils.

So; is it time to propose an 8th deadly sin? I’m thinking here of the sin of oblivion? I’ll define oblivion this way: it is the failure to notice things that we would notice if our attention was turn outward toward others and less inward toward ourselves. Oblivion could be seven and a half given that it is easily related to greed or sloth. However, it’s not the same. There are plenty of people who are greedy but not oblivious. In fact their guilt is compounded because they are not oblivious and yet do the things they do. There are likewise many who are not slothful (i.e. they are diligent) and yet they are oblivious. Diligence out of proportion could, in fact, drive oblivion. Obliviousness stems from being turned inward; being selfish; overly self consumed. It is not the same as those things; it is caused by them. Oblivion occurs where one is self-consumed enough, or unconcerned enough about others that they fail to see things they should see. They fail to see things they would see if they had more of a balance between people and projects.

The seven deadly sins each had counterpart virtues. For sloth there was diligence; for gluttony, moderation. What would the counterpart virtue of oblivion be? The opposite of oblivion is some form of other-awareness; an alertness that arises because one is ready to be concerned for others. It is not the mere noticing of things, but a noticing that comes from not being so inwardly occupied. I, for example, regularly thank the janitors in airport bathrooms and the little old lady wiping down carts at Target. They are there; they count. They work hard. They wipe up our bodily fluids and germs. I am not unaware of this. At one point I never noticed them; now I can’t not notice.

Oblivion is not noticing on the first day of school that a kid (no not your kid) showed up late. His class already went to their room and he has no idea where they’ve gone. He’s not your child, but he’s panicking on the inside as he wanders in small circles among other classes waiting to go inside. The aware parent sees this. He also “sees,” in this, that there is a mother at work in that moment who would hurt to know her son was wandering around panicked. He leaves his child in line and goes after the other child. Awareness vs oblivion.

Oblivion is, failing to see the visitor sitting alone, in your church; while everyone else is talking. It is failing to notice the older person, with a walker, making their way towards a closed door they can not open easily. It is failing to notice how much bigger you are to a toddler, and how frightening you might be to them as an adult. It seems to me that oblivion could also involve things rather than people. This is only because people are on the other end of many of the things we encounter.

Oblivion is an immaturity about how our actions will bring about more work for others in terms of the things we use each day. Children are notoriously oblivious in this regard; adults should not be. This summer I taught ten chapel sessions at a youth camp. The teens left the chapel floor covered with trash, scraps of paper torn up, pens, hats, candy wrappers and empty cups. A staff person vacuumed the floor mid week. It took an hour. After two chapel sessions, the floor was filthy again. The campers were oblivious, being youthful and immature. They were unaware of the work they were creating for others. They were unaware of the humans on the other end of the physical objects they used.

Oblivion is the person who attends a church where food and snacks are served each Sunday. Each Sunday they plate for themselves those foods which most please themselves. They go off and chat. Every Sunday they take, eat, take, eat. … as if food lays itself out magically each week. Some people never stop and think that the “mirror action” of their consistent-taking is a small team of people (usually women) serving, placing, arranging…. every… single.. Sunday.

To be oblivious is to remain unaware that certain gestures of kindness on your part might make others feel obligated on their part. Yes, this complicates things. Oblivion is failing to detect how others around you are putting up with your behavior. In short oblivion is not the mere failing to notice things. Only God can not fail to notice things. Oblivion is especially our failing to notice things that we should have noticed if our attention were turned outward toward others a bit more and inward a bit less.

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