Take one part carelessness and combine with two parts poor judgment. Add a generous splash of mistaken perception. Sprinkle with resentment. It’s a toxic cocktail that can damage lives beyond repair.

That’s one conclusion to be drawn from the amazing and moving current film Atonement. Our choices—made in a context which includes family members, friends, and acquaintances who may not always understand or benefit from what we decide—can haunt or delight us all our lives. They may harm others just as readily as they help them. And do what we might when indeed we have brought hurt and ruin, we can’t put things right though we devote years to the effort.

How can we live if our best and most worthy sacrifices are not good enough to atone? We might fall into a despair so deep that we render ourselves helpless to do even something that could make a little difference. Or we become disinterested in anything but wallowing in our self-pity. More productively, we might try to do some deeds of sustained kindness—to those we hurt or for others as their surrogates—that will ease pain or bring some other benefit. We can speak words that heal. Even if the scope of our good actions never approaches that of our bad ones, even if our words never fully glue together the broken pieces again.

Atonement reminds us of the power of words (spoken or written, truthful or deceitful) and of actions (helpful, hurtful, indifferent, careless) to affect and effect events in human lives. The Gospel reminds us of the power of words—indeed, a single Word—to bring the reconciliation for which we and all creation long. And of one action, namely the gift of Christ on the cross, truly to bring atonement.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham