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Dr. Saltzman,

I have been going through quite a dilemma. I constantly find myself surrounded by sin. I don't even have to talk to the person, and somehow can dig the skeletons out of their closet. I have written down many different possible ways to overcome it, but have turned out empty handed. I have had people I dearly care about tell me about their sins. I generate so much emotion when this happens. I get angry and begin to cry. I just want people to do the right thing. People telling me that "we are only human" seems to be a cheap way out and is only an excuse. I have a friend who I care for dearly constantly committing sins. She is used by others to gain sexual gratification when she has consumed alcohol. She tells me these things. Why? I am not the Confession booth. I tell her how disappointed I am in her. I know its not the right answer, but she continues to bring these incidents up. It hurts me. She knows it does. She says they aren't bad people. How can that be so? This is just one circumstance. I have many others Dr. Saltzman. What is making this drive in my mind to see all these terrible things? I can't help but do the right thing. Its the way I was raised. Thank you for your time.

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Hello, James--

Please make clear to me what you mean by the word "sin." Then I will try to reply.


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Basically what I mean, sir, is that when I meet people, they confess their wrongdoings to me. Mostly adultery, lying, engaging in sex with the same gender, list goes on. My problem is I have been surrounded around this for a very long time. Strangers out of nowhere, confessing their sadness and shame for what they did. People confessing to me that don't give a damn, they just wanted to let it out. People that you continually give advice to, but look the other way, and telling you that they have gotten even deeper in their 'sins'. I don't want to shut people out of my life. I am just tired because I am the kind of person who tries to carry the world on his shoulders as it is. I care too much, Dr. Saltzman. That's what people tell me. I worry about things that I can't change.

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Dear James--

Welcome to the club! (just kidding). But seriously, in my profession one gets used to hearing all kinds of sad and painful things, and if one does not handle that kind of information in a certain way, it can become a terrible burden. Perhaps you are the kind of person--some of us are--whom people feel they can trust with secrets, and so you are troubled by information you would rather not have. Further you claim to have intuitive powers which offer insights about other people even when they do not speak to you directly about their problems, and those kinds of insights also can become a burden if not handled properly.

Now what do I mean by "handle in a certain way," and "handled properly"? I mean that when hearing about the lives of others, or even when just feeling some kind of intuitive insight, you must learn not to judge, but simply to become aware of what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling. If you do not learn how to listen non-judgmentally you will continue to bear these burdens which you say are too heavy for you to carry. As long as you keep judging the actions of other people as "sins," you will have to suffer along with them because the very activity of judgment immediately involves you emotionally and negatively in whatever you judge.

I asked you to define what you meant by "sin" because along with your judgmental attitude towards others (and probably towards yourself as well) the idea of sin seems to trouble you terribly. You wrote that "I constantly find myself surrounded by sin," and that leads me to wonder if perhaps you are defining sin so broadly that you see it everywhere. If what you mean by sin is an action contrary to the rules in the Bible, the Qur'an or some other so-called "scripture," then in my view you are not troubled nearly as much by the confessions of others as you are by the erroneous and harmful indoctrination you must have received as a child. To inculcate a child into such nonsense is much more of a "sin" in my view than any of the things you mentioned. It is a "sin" (quotation marks because I don't use that word myself very often) because it leads the child to believe, falsely, that there is some absolute external standard for judging right from wrong, and that someone or something (a book, the priest, whoever) knows what that standard is. But there is no such standard, and often the very people who claim that there is such a standard and that they know what it is are the worst offenders, the worst hypocrites (Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, John Edwards, et. al.)

Each of us is here in the world without knowing how or why, and without knowing what, if anything, is expected of us. Life is a total mystery with no answers, and not even any clues. In the face of that astounding mystery we struggle--if we even care enough to think of such things--to gain some understanding of our ethical situation. (By "ethics," I mean how to treat ourselves and others, including not just humans but any beings which can suffer). That struggle, that work, is the best we can do, as far as I can see. And the ethical work, if one cares enough to take it on, as I say, never ends because circumstances keep changing, and the demands of ordinary life require constant re-evaluation of ones duties and necessities.

You, I imagine from your letter, would like this work to be easy--a simple question of sinful behavior on one hand, and acceptable behavior on the other (between which, naturally, you, James, can easily distinguish, while the sinful people around you continue to transgress and persist in their evil ways). But an ethical life is not easy. It never was and it never will be easy. There is no rule book, and there is no all-seeing presence watching what we do and judging our actions as to our suitability for eternal life in heaven, regardless of the understandable but infantile tendency of some people to continue childhood forever, simply replacing parents with a Big Daddy in the sky who punishes wrongdoing, rewards virtue, and eats prayers for breakfast.

It's all up to you, James. The same behavior can be wrong under some circumstances or when performed by one person, and yet be OK under other circumstances or when performed by another person. If this were not the case, then why would a soldier be honored as a hero instead of reviled as a murderer? And if you are the kind of person who, as I suspect, takes the Bible as a rulebook, then how about "Judge not lest ye be judged?"

The "sins" you mentioned such as "adultery, or engaging in sex with the same gender" are not at all what I would call "sin." To me, adultery simply indicates a lack of real love and real respect for ones mate, which I do not consider a sin at all, but just an indication either that either one is with the wrong mate, or else one is not emotionally disposed to love monogamously at all, neither of which I would ever call "sin." As far as same gender sex is concerned, I consider homosexuality perfectly normal and perfectly human--not a sin by any definition of that word. Indeed, how could it be considered abnormal since it has always existed and continues to exist in a sizeable proportion of the human population (as well as in our primate cousins and other higher animals too)?

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Now if people keep telling you, as you wrote, James, that they are "only human," that suggests to me that must be trying to hold them (and probably yourself) to a standard that is too demanding, too judgmental, too cold, too inhuman. I cannot remember the last time anyone had to tell me that he or she was only human--I already know that. You call those words (only human) "an excuse," but I don't hear them that way at all. Those words, "I am only human," simply indicate that someone wants you to understand that all of us make mistakes, all of us do things which later we regret--unless, like some psychopaths, we are incapable of remorse--or do things which we later come to see have caused unintended harm. And what we ask and what we need is understanding and forgiveness of our errors and miscalculations, not your judgment. Your friend, the one who drinks too much and is a bit too loose with her body perhaps, seems to understand this much better than you when she tells you that her sex partners are "not bad people." Perhaps you should try to learn from her point of view, which has the indisputable virtue of love of humanity, instead of judging her as "sinful."

James, I do understand that you are unhappy and suffering, and I am sorry for your suffering, however much self-inflicted it is. I have been a bit harsh with you I know, but only in the spirit of trying to wake you up from your judgmental, self-righteous dream. As I often say, on this website I don't mince words--I try my best to tell it like it is. If you really are tired of your suffering, as you wrote, then please take this advice:

1. Stop judging! No one made you the arbiter of right and wrong. No one gave you that authority or that knowledge. And there is more than a little arrogance in your self-righteous attitude, which arrogance, as I see it, seems much more of a "sin" than a bit of inappropriate sex, adultery, or a lie.

2. When someone tries to tell you something which you do not wish to hear, simply put up your hand and say, "Sorry, I don't choose to hear about that." If the person continues, just turn your back and walk away. You are not required to be sounding board for anyone. After all, James, you are only human.

I hope this helps.

Be well.

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