Sloth, lust, envy, pride . . . the vain search for a sin a second

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The Independent Online
TWO and a half billion sins in a lifetime? Two and a half billion sins in an average life? That's what the list section in the Sunday magazine said, along with those interesting statistics - how much the MoD spends on cheese, how many holes to fill the Albert Hall, the Independent on Sunday's magazine nominates how many sins people commit in their lives, and it's . . . one a second, isn't it? A sin a second every second from the moment you are born to the bed you die on, including the second you die. It's relentless.

But I sleep a lot, and sin less when asleep; wouldn't it be harder to sin when unconscious? Of course for the four or five hours of sleep that I don't really need I would be committing the sin of sloth every second, but even so there are four or five hours when I'm not dreaming that must be relatively sin-free, perhaps a sin only every five seconds, a sin a minute. And there must be moments of virtue, flashes, instants of life when not sinning. I am hardly a saint but there must be some let-up in the rate, mustn't there?

And these all have to be compensated for to keep the average up. The real rate of sin when awake and operating normally - going to work, going to church, donating to charity, paying one's debts, going to see Kiri Te Kanawa singing Cosi fan tutte - under these conditions we must be racking up two or three sins every second. They must be overlapping, or coexisting as in a kaleidoscope, or intermixed as on a painter's palette into complicated chiaroscuros of sin.

It's easier to see on one of the stolen days you bunk off from work before lunch and don't go back. You stay out drinking all afternoon, trying to talk one of your colleagues out of her clothes and into a short-let hotel bedroom. All day you are living in a rolling continuum of sloth and drunkenness with flashes of wrath, lust, envy and pride bumping up the average.

Two sins a second is the underlying reality, with sudden breaks where you dramatically increase the average with 'Why won't you sleep with me, you have with all my friends]' In the time it takes to utter those words, perhaps three seconds, you have a full tally of wrath, lust, envy and pride coexisting with the sloth and drunkenness. In three seconds you have committed 18 sins (all of them deadly). Five bottles a day, six deadly sins a second. With the additional sin of despair at the end of the day when your colleague returns to work, fully clothed and inviolate.

But what about those of you who live better lives than this, who resist intoxication and defy debauchery - you who have responsible jobs, rewarding careers, settled circumstances and steady relationships? Surely you'd be entitled to assume that your souls are in better condition?

'Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not neither do they spin . . .' Nor do they travel to work by tube in order to pay the mortgage on a house they want to sell to move to a more enviable neighbourhood. No, lilies toil not, they study inaction, contemplating the universe; they do not damage their souls by earning money to buy ribbons for their children's hair. Every deviation from the condition of lilies is a deviation into sinfulness.

Hindus believe it too, this is an ecumenical view. Every impulse we follow which attaches us to the world's flux binds us ever more closely to the cycle of death. Every halter-top we notice in the street, every glint of lip-gloss, every plane flight, every insect splashed on your windscreen, every winning bet, every menu with tasselled knobs we pick up, every late lunch - every lunch - every expression of feeling is sinful. Every emphatic thought or doctrinaire statement is sinful. Italics are sinful.

No wonder death-bed repentance is harder than it sounds. How do you start unpicking the stitches in the 70-year tapestry of fretful acquisition and envious retaliation? You couldn't confess them quickly enough without indulging in the sin of talking about yourself too long.

Two and a half billion sins, how do you start atoning for that?

No wonder they invented the idea of eternity.

Miles Kington returns on Monday.