One of my greatest shortcomings is that I believe in people. It’s comical, really, in the classical way – evoking Shakespeare or epic “comedies” of errors. I suppose even saying this, that my greatest weakness is believing in people, is funny in and of itself. It’s the kind of thing we say when we are being interviewed for a new job and are nervous. “Tell me your greatest weakness,” the future employer says.
Umm… okay… Well, I will, but you should know my greatest weakness is also my greatest strength… as well. Am I repeating myself? I feel redundant all of the sudd- (echem) Err… Can I get a glass of water?
Over the last few months, I have been enduring what feels like a hundred different flint knives being shoved into my back. It’s changed how I see people, how I “give myself away” to people, and (if I am being thoroughly honest) has shaped how I see my faith, and God.
A few weeks ago, after a deep emotional blow, I went radio silent. I turned my cellphone and laptop off, got in my car and just drove. Just started driving with no destination. Just drove around town. I think at one point I went to buy cigarettes, maybe? Or did I go to a bookstore? I’m not even sure anymore. I was lost in a fog of disappointment with some of my friends who, for lack of a better way to explain it, just… weren’t good friends. I think what made it so painful for me was that I still loved them – really loved them, and wanted them to come around to their senses. But somehow, the part that threw me off the most was that I felt myself losing confidence in them. I loved them, but I was coming to terms with the fact that they just didn’t want to come around. They knew what the right thing to do was, and were consciously choosing not to do that thing.
It’s a scene that has repeated itself a few times in the last decade.
- The father-figure who got caught molesting his stepdaughter.
- The churchpeople who “heard from God” to do something entirely ungodly.
- The pastor who stole money.
- The friend who moved and dropped me from their life.
- Or the time I was contemplating ending my life and my father, once again, said he was “Too busy with work, son. I just… I want to be there for you, but I just can’t. I’ve got to stay here with the store.”
I mean, really. Who tells their suicidal son, “I can’t be there for you right now. I’ve gotta work” ? And so it is, the list going on a mile long.
Last year, I went to therapy just to talk through some of what had happened. I didn’t go with the goal of “fixing” anything, and was upfront with the therapist about that. I didn’t expect him to make it better; I just wanted to talk and have someone who had never met me take a critical position, to notice whether any kind of pattern existed. Maybe it was my fault? Maybe I was doing something to attract bad people into my life? It was in our ninth session that he hit the nail on the head. I had finished telling him another “chapter” of my life and his jaw had dropped. He was stunned, and all he could do was shake his head and say, “I’ve ever heard this level of betrayal… It’s a wonder you’re still alive.” I hadn’t told him about the suicide attempt yet, but he was right. It is a surprise I’m still around, I suppose.
After that, I started retracing my steps. What was it about me that gravitated towards unhealthy relationships? Was I actually seeking out people who would hurt me? Maybe there was some truth to that thought. I had already begun to map out all of the relationships and relational patterns by talking about them, from the father who took me “bear hunting” and exposed me to pornography when I was six because it would “make [me] a man” to my friends in high school and college on through to…
I’m never sure what to call her…
Laura. The one who damaged me the most.
And, yes, this was a productive exercise. Very productive, in fact. I sketched it all out, seeking to find the common denominators and seeing them appear as the numbers and traits kept appearing. But, rather than blame people, it was during that time that I also came to terms with the way I had hurt others. I made several phonecalls and wrote several letters telling people that I hadn’t forgotten about them. I remembered them and I remembered what I had done. I was sorry. Maybe they didn’t want to forgive me, and I accepted that. I wasn’t writing to excuse my behavior or even seek forgiveness. I wrote only to say, “I fucked up. I hurt you. And I live with that regret. I still think about, years later. And I’m sorry.” But… Whether that was the right thing to do or not, it didn’t change the second thing that came out of that period of intense self-examination. I didn’t heap coals on my head and wear sackcloth every day for 40 days (okay, maybe I did, but I stopped at 41). No, I began to articulate to people how much they had hurt me. Not everyone. But I began to make small changes, to assert myself, and to go to people and say, “Look, I’m carrying this thing inside me… I don’t forgive you. And that sucks. I take responsibility for not forgiving you, but wow, you screwed me over.”
One catch: I didn’t say anything to the people I was living with, working with, or socializing with. I believed the best in them, and with all of these changes going on inside me, I felt confident they wouldn’t hurt me like the people in my past had hurt me before. I felt things were different now, that these people would never hurt me.
Was I wrong.
Now, I don’t share these pieces of my life as a way of lamenting. I share it because I want to use it as a marker of sorts. The same degree of disappointment that happened then is the same degree I feel currently. What do we do when people fail us? When systems of belief fail us; when God fails us? For many, this means a realignment of thinking. A “paradigm shift” where our worldview is altered. For me, this has historically meant digging my heels into denial. I have refused to “fall” and give up hope on people, believing that humanity is, in the final analysis, good and worth saving, worth hoping, worth believing in.
Have I been wrong.
I returned to California in January and pretty much since the moment I stepped off the plane, my life has been sliding around like a lunchbox in the back of a pickup truck on a curvy road. My hopes and dreams have been rattling around, getting thrown from one side of the bedtruck to the other as I have questioned over and over whether people are, in fact, good or whether we are – even the best of us – destined to damage others. It is a legacy for humans that I have not wanted to allow for or believe in. Until now. I have begun tiptoeing at the precipice.
There’s a story about Jesus that I’ve been ruminating on. One time, he said some pretty challenging things. The community he was in at the time, his “family”, drove him to the brink of a cliff and were about to push him over. “Miraculously” he escaped right through them.
And Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and as was his custom, he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. The reading for that day, in the book of Isaiah, was handed to him and he started reading, The essence of God is here with me, because I have been chosen to speak good things to the poor, to release those held captive, and to recover sight for those who cannot see as much as liberate those who are oppressed. For this is the time that God wants these things done.” And with that, he closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. Breaking their silence, he said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
All had been speaking well of Him, but were now wondering about him, thinking about what he had read and ruminating on what he had meant by all this. They were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”
But that wasn’t enough. Jesus continued, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well’… The thing is, prophets are never welcome in their hometown.
“Here’s my thoughts – there were many widows in Israel when you had a political voice like Elijah speaking for you, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow – someone who wasn’t religious the way you are. Who didn’t live under Elijah’s influence in Israel.
“Or, another thing, there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and yet none of them were cleansed, except for Naaman the Syrian.”
At this, the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things. How dare Jesus say these kinds of things, implying that Israel wasn’t as holy as they said it was. They got up and drove Him out of the city, corralling him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, with every intention of throwing him down the cliff.
But passing through their midst, Jesus went his way. He turned up in Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and was found teaching the people there on weekends, and they were amazed at his teaching, for he spoke with authority. (Luke 4: 16-32)
That’s where I am at right now, at the cliff, about to be pushed over and give up hope on people. I want to believe the best in them, but my heart is so devastated, so miserably devastated, that all I can really do (other than lay in bed, miserable) is sit on my small porch in a quasi-catatonic state and revisit every decision I’ve made with the people I once trusted. I am weighing our friendships and relationships, trying to wiggle between the names and dates and move on to a place where telling the truth won’t get me killed or character assassinated.
Again, this isn’t about me. It’s about the truth of religion. Religion is messy and bloody, and pretty people do ugly things. We hurt others when they won’t give us the safe and “right” religion that we want, the kind of religion that will entertain us and make us clap out hands with glee. In short, religious people, “good” people, can and will try to kill you if you ask them to be responsible.
The New Rabbi by Stephen Fried frames this same conversation in a Jewish perspective. When esteemed rabbi Gerald Wolpe retires, the congregation of Philadelphia’s Har Zion Temple goes into an uproar. The congregation begins to turn on one another, to defame one another, and really damage the integrity of their faith and the G-d that they share. All kinds of wild behavior comes up, and Fried, as the journalistic observer of all of this, almost loses his own faith out of disgust with what the people are doing.
I remember reading this book a few years ago after Laura and I broke up. The almost-fiance (we broke up the day I bought the ring) had invoked God in our breakup (ex: “I had a nightmare, and I feel like it was God telling me to…”) and I just couldn’t understand how people could say and do such horrible things in God’s Name.
Turns out, she was cheating on me. Everyone knew it except me. Even her best friends contacted me, apologizing for her behavior because “she’s not the girl we grew up with.” More, even though she kind of apologized last October, the lemon-like acid of that breakup, what hurt the most, wasn’t that we broke up. It wasn’t even the embarrassment of returning the engagement ring. It was that she did it in the name of God. We couldn’t have a disagreement, or even breakup, without her bumper-stickering God’s Name on it. Which is what has been happening (again) with my current circle of friends. People have been acting abominably and, when they’re called out on it – hey! that’s not okay! – they use the God Card to excuse their poor behavior. God told me… or I’m just trying to do the right thing… or I think it’s Biblical to...
That, above all else, makes me lose hope. When you’re a shitty friend or betray a lover and, rather than own up to it, you play the God card and screw everybody up, you’re not just a shitty friend or a bad lover. You’re a bad person. Worse, you defame God and something sacred like people’s belief and trust. It’s in situations like these that we have to step back and ask, Isn’t it enough that people lose faith in you, without you causing them to lose faith in God too?
Still, having worked in and around and with churches and religious organizations for years, I can tell you – whether it’s Christianity, or Judaism, or Buddhism – religious push people will push you off cliffs. Not because it’s God, but because they are pissed or frustrated and don’t know how to deal with it. Instead of processing, they pull the God Card or higher maxim to shut down the argument. So they hurt people. I hurt people. Religious people hurt people. And whenever their conscience comes a’knocking, they/we/you/I invoke some higher maxim. “I’m defending my manhood” or “God told me” or “I want us to have American values.”
We make others lose hope because we are unable to talk things out like a human being, and treat people like human beings. Which I think is the part that upsets me the most, because it is so seductive to return fire under that same umbrella – You want to dehumanize me? Make me out to be the bad guy? Well, honey, you haven’t seen how evil I can be!
Here’s my thought: Don’t lose hope. If any of this resonates with you, don’t return fire. Make a conscious decision, in your heart and mind, to pursue the third way – the quest of peace, the path of love, the road less travelled. Make the decision now, before it gets out of hand, to do the right thing and to love this person instead of dehumanizing them. Believe with me that, though we may do bad things, humans can still be good people when they choose to be. And prove this by being a good person yourself, whether or not they choose to meet you there or not.
Don’t lose hope. Don’t stop believing in a better reality.
Yes, I can say from experience – and so can you – that we have every reason to give up hope, to throw in the towel, and write people off. We can do that. Yes, that is an option. But I suspect that, having read this far, that’s not what you really want to do. You don’t want to give up on these people. You want to continue believing there is a better way. Idealistic and flawed as this notion may be, you want to believe it, and I am asking you to choose to believe the best about people no matter what, and to remember in those times of distress that they are the ones doing it, not God. Using God’s Name doesn’t mean God is behind it. It means they are misguided, and we must continue to hold out hope to people like this because we too have used God’s Name in shameful ways and must be forgiven ourselves.