Oops was the first word that came to my mind when I saw the picture. Oops was an appropriate word to describe the scene of a little girl in her pajamas sitting on the floor that was strewn with Cheerios. In her left hand was a relatively large glass that obviously used to be the container for the now-dispersed Cheerios. What else can you say other than “oops” when all your Cheerios jump out of your glass and go a million directions on the floor?
Sadly the way our culture is evolving, it won’t be too long before “oops” will be replaced with a variety of swear words! Oops is such a quaint, cute word. I don’t know whether it is universal, but I hope it is. I hope little Chinese kids and African kids say “oops” when their Cheerios spill. It is so clear, so graphic. Oops announces unambiguously that, “I just made a mess!” I have said it many times.
The little girl in the pajamas was looking up at the camera as if she were saying, “Oops, it’s not my fault.” In the end it might matter whether it was her fault. Perhaps it really was accidental. It could have been intentional---she really meant to throw all the Cheerios on the floor. But in either case, there was a mess. Accidents and intentionality both cause messes. The mess is the fact. Accidents and intentionality only explain how we got the mess.
The image of the little girl sitting on the floor amidst her mess became an analogy for the way life goes for all of us humans. We are no longer little girls and boys sitting on the floor in the midst of our mess. But as adults, we nevertheless are wandering through life and sometimes find ourselves in a mess. Sometimes we caused our own mess. And sometimes the mess in which we find ourselves is accidental---but that does not matter; it is a mess anyway.
I began to think about spiritual messes. We usually don’t call them spiritual messes. But that does not matter too much what we call them. Like all messes, they are fact. In the old days a spiritual mess was called a sin. Most of the people I know don’t really like the language of sin, so they don’t use the word. But that can be an illusion. Just because I don’t like and don’t use sin language does not mean there is no sin. Sin is like a mess. Call it what you want; it is a fact. A mess is a mess by any word you want to use.
Once we accept the mess as a fact, the more important question is what to do with the mess? I am fairly sure the Cheerios surrounding the little girl on the floor eventually were swept up and thrown away. Since she is still probably too little to do it herself, I am sure someone else came to the rescue. Someone else cleaned up her mess. Even if she were at fault, I hope there was no punishment.
Of course, there are times we need to be held accountable for the messes we intentionally make. Accidental messes are fault-free. I can be sorry for a mess I might accidentally make, but I should not be held responsible. Again, I am finally more interested in how to resolve the mess.
Even if our mess is appropriately called sin, there fortunately are some good ways to clean up the mess. If I caused the mess, a classic resolution is to apologize. If I make a mess, the least I can do is to be sorry for making the mess. Even if the mess I make is accidental, I can still be sorry. And if I intentionally caused the mess, then I should acknowledge my fault, be sorry and create some form of restoration, if that is possible.
Again, I would note that most major spiritual traditions have some effective ways of teaching us how to deal with the messes we make in our lives. I need not rehearse those in any detail. What I would like to do is to underscore how important it is finally that our messes be cleaned up.
Messes that are not addressed are poisons to the human system and to the relationships between humans. Oops is not a good word. It indicates something has gone wrong or awry. Oops is a call to attention. Ignoring oops is a bad way to go. Ignorance and ignoring are sure ways to allow the poison to begin doing its dastardly work. Finally the Cheerios need to be cleaned up and thrown into the trash.
The way I like to put it spiritually is to say there is a place for trash and it is not in our human hearts! The spiritual life goes best when it is clean and clear of messes. I am not naïve; messes will come and messes will be made. But when there is a mess, give it attention and get it into the trash, so that the good life can go forward.