Perhaps you’ve been there: out with friends having a drink, having a nice time, and you decide to order another. A little later on, one of your friends shows up who just nailed a big work presentation and wants to celebrate by ordering a round of shots.
You feel fine, and you’re having a good time — why stop now? The night goes on, and things get a little hazy. Next thing you know, you’re waking up on your couch, nauseous and with a throbbing headache.
Hangovers are no fun. In fact, they can be bad enough to make you question even the most fun night of drinking. “What was I thinking?” “Why did I think I could handle all that liquor?” “Why didn’t I just…not drink so much?”
There’s not necessarily an easy answer to any of these questions. There’s something about drinking alcohol that can sometimes produce the perfect storm: the drinks taste good, you’re having fun, everybody else is doing it, and throw in a little absent-mindedness, and it’s enough for even the most scrupulous to over-indulge.
And that just might be why it’s a useful metaphor for sin.
Very few, if any, of us ever wake up in the morning thinking, “You know, I think I’m going to sin today. Yep, I’m going to get good and sinful. Let’s do it!”
But, of course, we all sin anyway.
So why do we do it? And what can we do to avoid it?
One time when I was hungover, I thought to myself, “What if all sins came with a hangover? I bet I would sin a lot less!”
And I think there’s something to that.
Imagine if every time you gossiped or were overly judgmental of someone, you woke up sick. Or if every time you lied, your nose grew longer. I’d imagine that once you realized the connection, you’d stop gossiping, judging people, or lying so much. You’d probably become a much better person, and the world would suddenly be a much better place.
But then again, what if you sinned just as much as before? A lot of people who get hangovers go right back to hard drinking again, sometimes even the very next day.
I know I’ve definitely thought, “it’s just not worth the suffering that comes the next day.” And then at some point, I did it all over again.
Did I forget? Probably. But then again, maybe not. Either way, I definitely didn’t learn my lesson.
Which, in fact, is basically what happens when I sin. After all, it was St. Paul who said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15).
When I really think about it, much of my sin is profoundly irrational. I know it’s wrong, and I do it anyway. Of course, that’s not necessarily going through my head at the time.
Much like how you end up with a hangover, much of our sin is some combination of good intentions, bad habits, peer pressure (intentional or not), absent-mindedness, and impaired judgment. But every sin also comes with some sense that I knew what I was doing was wrong, and I did it anyway — otherwise, it wouldn’t be a sin.
What if all sins came with a hangover? Yeah, I would probably sin less. But I would also probably end up with a lot of hangovers. Like every day. And I would probably rationalize them.
If I am serious about wanting to avoid sin, I’m becoming more convinced that the solution is not to hope I’m punished for them or maybe even punish myself for them.
It’s much more important to take proactive steps, like trying to understand what led me to that decision and what I can do to avoid it in the future. Perhaps that means I try to surround myself with different people, or I try to be more intentional about small decisions throughout the day, or I just simply try to develop better habits.
It’s not a quick and easy solution, but most times, real change is slow change anyway, as much as I’d prefer otherwise.
Now when I go out, I come up with a plan for the number of drinks I consume before I order even one. I might even tell my buddies too, so they can keep an eye on me.
It helps to be proactive in other areas, too. For instance, I try to make plans ahead of time to get to Sunday Mass and not just hope I make it there. I’ll even go into a date thinking about what sort of physical intimacy I want to happen — and what I don’t want to happen.
I’ll never be perfect, but by actually being proactive to make the changes I want, and by the grace of God, I know that I actually have a chance to overcome sin — and ultimately grow into a better version of myself.