In my reading group a while ago quite suddenly, the concept of original sin popped up unexpectedly while reading a beautiful work of literature. The short story we were delving into did not mention it but as we reflected on what we read, a question emerged about the nature of our human condition; are people born good or bad? You would not think that this would come up in a reading group with no interest in theology.
Then someone said something that caught my attention. It was a comment around the fact that as humans we tend to be oriented around ourselves. The perception was that we are essentially egos which desperately search for any kind of attention that someone might pay us so that our needs whatever they are, might be met.
I thought that sounded harsh.
Harsh but true.
In my readings this week I came across an evocative phrase that I had heard once but forgotten.
homo incurvatus in se.
You can guess what it means. We humans have a tendency to “curve in” on ourselves. We orient inwards. Like hunchbacks on the inside we bend over and instead of looking outwards we curve internally and focus on our own needs.
Augustine first used this phrase to refer to pride, Luther extended it and so did Karl Barth. Each theologian gave different nuances to this thought.
Incurvatus in se runs deeper than pride or any of the other deadly sins. My perceptive yet maybe a little pessimistic friend in the reading group, summed it up. We are always thinking about ourselves and this is our human condition. From birth we are focused on “my needs”, “my wants”, “my way”. As we get older we engage in a masquerade around this unpleasant reality because we must learn to function in broader social settings. However, we get glimpses into this incurvatus in se through how we behave online, as we make plans around our comfort and our choices about the future. We see it in the lack of attention we give to the least of those among us. Like Narcissus we are frequently too in love with our own image to look up and around us.
I have been thinking lately a lot about the sort of person I am becoming and as I am confronted by incurvatus in se I try to visualise whether I am becoming this hunchback internally. Am I slowly becoming more and more bent inward and focused on my needs, wants and individual cravings? Will I one day as an old woman forget how to stand straight and gaze outwardly, lovingly towards others who might benefit from my presence, gifts and service? Will I be so hobbled and hardened that I will not allow others to affect and teach me?
As I wonder about this I am repulsed by this inwardness which we all suffer from. This is a fear, a survival of the fittest mentality that whispers to us that in order to thrive we must look out for ourselves first, always. What will counter this human knack for cannibalism, this false promise that feasting on flesh will help us flourish?
This is not who I am becoming. I work hard to make sure that this is not who I am becoming.
Instead, I sense a greater power at work in me that reorients me towards the other. This is a benevolent power that gracefully, mercifully and intimately looks upon my pitiful condition. This Presence calmly, gradually and with strength massages me until I face outwards. This is not something that happens magically, it happens with my cooperation and effort. But slowly, surely, as I trust these invisible hands, my body moves, realigns and straightens up.
This is my daily discipline and cure.