Monthly Archives: July 2012

Once on a bus trip I met a recovering alcoholic named Hank. I knew he was a recovering alcoholic because that was practically the first thing he said.

I didn’t know whether to be fascinated by this kind of haphazard self-disclosure, or put off by it. I recorded the incident in my journal; I was about twenty-one and in the middle of a very romantically-conceived bus-and-train trip around the country, and I filled my journal with what I considered to be brilliant, penetrating, and above all poignant observations about my experiences and my fellow travellers.

Hank struck me at the time as very humble; you would have to be humble, wouldn’t you, to go around telling your wounds and weaknesses to some guy you just met on a bus? It was certainly the last thing I would have ever done, concerned as I was with keeping my armor in place at all times, managing my image obsessively; something I still struggle with.

He seemed different from most people: his journey out of alcoholism defined him the way some people seem defined by their conversion stories, maybe even the way the Jews were defined by being liberated from slavery in Egypt.

And well it might define him. I’m not and never have been an alcoholic (if I’m down, booze makes me too weepy to be anything resembling an escape), but I’ve always identified with them: the self-destructive patterns, the feeling of entrapment, the knowledge of your own condition combined with an utter helpnessness to drag yourself out of it.

It is a strange way to look at yourself: always seeing the good thing that you are in terms of the bad thing that you used to be. It reminds me of THE ONLY GOOD passage in a TERRIBLE, NOT RECOMMENDED novel by Chuck Palahniuk, when a recovering sex addict says something like: “My life has to be about something besides not jerking off.”

Of course there is something like this in Christian tradition — aren’t the Psalmists constantly praising God for having pulled them out of this or that pit? Hank kept saying how blessed he was to be out, but I wondered if this was what it looks like to be out of something: if you’re out of it, do you still talk about it all the time? The first part is being freed from something; the second part is being freed to do, or to be, something else.

I once said something imprudent and uncharitable to my friend A., who made a habit of exposing the darkest corners of his soul on LiveJournal.1 It was awful stuff, full of false grandeur and barely-masked self-pity. I didn’t think it was worthy of him, so I posted on his page this poem2 by Cavafy:

As Much As You Can

And if you cannot make your life as you want it,
at least try this
as much as you can: do not disgrace it
in the crowding contact with the world,
in the many movements and all the talk.

Do not disgrace it by taking it,
dragging it around often and exposing it
to the daily folly
of relationship and associations,
till it becomes like an alien, burdensome life.

I love that phrase: “an alien, burdensome life.” Think too much about your life, talk too much about it, and it becomes a dead weight, something to be dragged around.

But just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to say it to your friend. Seven or eight years later, I still remember his exact reply, because of how it stung:3 “What am I to think of a friend who says to me, ‘Stop, this is too much of you’?”

I’m thinking of all this because of the way, for my three or four months of turmoil,4 I buttonholed anyone and everyone who might listen and might help, and spilled out my grief, as much of it as I could dredge up. It was the only way I knew to try to get rid of it. It was okay, I don’t mind, I’m glad I did it, it helped. If my friends wearied of my moaning, they didn’t show it, and if for a short while I turned into an emotional black hole, they don’t seem to hold it against me now. But now that that time is more or less over, I’ve got to be sure I break the habit.

It’s okay to be the center of everyone’s attention when you’re sick, but when you’re on the mend, it’s business as usual. You don’t go on laying on the couch and waiting for people to bring you chicken broth.

1 You can tell this happened a longish time ago, because, LiveJournal??
2 I know this poem because of my father, who once gave me Cavafy’s collected works and said with some kind of half-glint in his eye, “This my favorite homosexual poet.”
3 And because, even when it’s barbed and directed at me, I can’t help appreciating a phrase as well-turned as this one.
4 those months / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

It’s amazing how telling people about your SSA changes your perspective on the matter.

I just reconnected with my old friend J. I called because he had just broken off his engagement and I thought he might be a mess about it. Turned out he was more or less okay; eventually the conversation turned, like they usually do with J. (even when he is not engaged, he tends to have marriage on the brain) to my romantic prospects. “Anybody in your life right now?” he wanted to know.

“Meh,” I thought, and said: “Yeah, not really. I’m gay, J.”

Pause. “I’m — not sure if you’re joking or not right now.”

“No, it’s true,” I laugh, “no joking here. I’m gay.” Man, this is easier than it used to be.

So we talked about that for a little while and then went on to other stuff. That “meh,” as a prelude to telling what used to be my Deep Dark Secret, felt good. Experience has shown me over and over that my SSA just doesn’t matter to the people that I consider friends.

A recent email from a reader1 made me think back to an earlier time and an earlier attitude. The reader, who also has SSA, was considering telling a relative about it, but he wasn’t sure if he should. He said he had to consider his motives carefully, and whether he would only be telling his relative out of a desire for consolation.

I don’t know this reader’s whole story, and I can’t judge his situation. I don’t blame him for feeling as he does, because I remember feeling that way. Besides, the reason he gave for not telling is probably only one of seventy, each of which needs consideration. In other words, I pray that neither he nor anybody else takes what I am about to say as a judgment on them.

But of all the reasons to tell or not to tell, I think this is a very bad one.

One of the first people I ever told was my friend Hilda in college. I remember standing with her in a secluded corner of the campus, wrestling with the decision, knowing she was watching me wrestle without knowing what I was wrestling with. I remember saying, with the intense gravity that characterized almost every second of my life at that time: “It’s just that I wouldn’t want to burden you with this.”

“Steve,” she said. “Don’t you know that you would be giving me a gift?”

You men and women with SSA, if you are wondering whether this knowledge will be a burden to your friends, think of this: how did you feel the last time a friend of yours told you about something awful they were going through? Did you wish he hadn’t? Or did you feel honored? Was it a burden or a gift?

Or maybe you don’t have friends who confide in you. Are you glad that nobody burdens you with the knowledge of what they carry? Or do you wish they would?

Many of us grew up carrying heavy things all by ourselves, usually out of emotional necessity: we just weren’t able to believe that people wouldn’t run away screaming or retching. We were so disgusted with ourselves that we thought everybody else would be, too.

But carrying heavy things by ourselves can habituate us to the notion that we are charged with a unique and terrible cross, that it is our job to suffer in a special way, that suffering is even our calling. Many of us, probably without realizing it, even come to believe that God wants us to suffer, actively desires it.

Not true. Not true, not true, not true. Whatever God is like, He’s not like that. Carefully read Lamentations 3: “The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to anyone who seeks help from him…He does not willingly bring suffering or grief to anyone.”

Jesus didn’t tell the woman with the hemorrhage that it was her job to suffer, and he didn’t tell it to the thousands of other people who came to him all day long for healing. What makes us any different?

I’m not saying to run out and tell everybody everything all the time. Sometimes it’s not their business, and sometimes your motives might really be bad. But consider this: asking help is an act of trust and an act of love; it can sometimes be a greater act of love than giving help. And wanting help, wanting consolation — that’s not bad. That’s human. That’s good.

I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get.

1 I did ask the reader in question whether it was okay to write this post. I hope he’s not regretting saying yes.

Oh, hello. Sorry I’ve been gone. All the driving and the Kung Fuing and the everything else just got in the way. No, that’s not precisely true; I had time to post, I just spent it visiting friends and riding my motorcycle and watching much too much Avatar1 and chatting with my sister and her beautiful family. Sorry to be absent. I needed to.

I’ll be back to my regular [so-called] schedule soon. I’ve just finished moving out of my sister’s house and back in with the roommates, or anyway the roommate; one of them has left. It’s okay, I’m ready: there’s a whole story there, but I can’t tell it right now. Suffice to say…ungh, I feel I’ve spent the last three months being torn apart and will spend the next three being put back together again. I’m very, very glad that the second part has started.

There’s a new guy moving in next month. No more drama, this time, if I can avoid it: I think I’ll be telling this one about my SSA from the start. I think that’s better for everybody. If he wants to run, let him run; but if I know my friends (and my friends’ friends), he’ll be cool with it.

Stay tuned, stay sane, stay hopeful. Peace.

1 That’s the cartoon show, aka THE BEST SHOW IN THE WORLD, not the Shyamalan travesty or the Cameron bloatfest.

…for a post called A Conversation With My Gay Friend by the courageous & articulate Jennifer Fulwiler. Snip:

I knew I was going to have a hard time making my case; Andrew and I had such utterly different worldviews, it would be as if I were speaking through a distortion microphone that warps your voice and replaces every other word with random offensive phrases.

[...]

“Anyway,” I continued, “in this view you are constantly having to make sacrifices out of respect for what this act is all about: If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence. Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”

Highly recommended!

Grave harm has been wrought…by teaching that a man must find the will of God, never his own, in all things. Where we are within reality and there are ten reality choices, it is man’s choice that is absolute, that makes the choice right. There is then no need to be on the perpetual alert to find the one haunting, threatening, objective good thing to do. God wants us to wish. In our wishes is His will.1

It’s easy to see Providence at work in some parts of my life, in the way I’ve just fallen into things. When I graduated from college, I got my first teaching job almost by accident, after reluctantly agreeing to attend a high school reunion.

The job turned out to be the perfect mixture of challenge and protection: a chance to revisit my high school years, heal some of those wounds, and at the same time grow in responsibility and maturity. It all hurt like hell, of course, but growth usually does.

After three years it became clear that my time there was done. After being allowed to wriggle for a little while in uncertainty, I was given a very clear sign about the next step. The same pattern continued for several years. I would come to the end of one thing, and find that the next thing dropped right into my lap, as from the hand of a loving God.

None of the big decisions — teaching at my old high school, moving out of my parents’ house, traveling to Peru, teaching again in Arizona — seemed inevitable at first, and none came without deliberation and prayer and advice. But at the end of each period of discernment, I always felt clear about what to do: the One Right Thing, the Will of God.

Then, in 2010, Providence ran out.

At the end of a year of teaching in Arizona, one of the most challenging years of my life, I couldn’t find the One Thing. Should I continue teaching, even though it was hard, and work out my salvation that way, or did my One Path lie elsewhere? Was I meant to stay rooted in a hard land like Ruth, or to set out like Abraham into unknown territory? Both seemed difficult, both seemed good, and I was utterly stuck.

Because I believed in the existence of the One Thing, it seemed to me that all other things must lead to misery, or at least to the knowledge that I had missed the best path, that there existed some perfect choice and that I had failed to make it. God had a Best Thing in mind for me, but He wouldn’t tell me what it was; and if I couldn’t figure it out, it would be nothing but pathless wandering from then on.

To say that God has a singular, perfect plan for you, and that all you have to do is find it and follow it, sounds a lot like trust. It sounds like the sort of thing a good parent would do: set out the best possible future for you, and make sure you end up there.

But that image implies another. What if you can’t find the plan? What if the parent is terrifyingly vague about what His plan actually is? Suddenly he’s not a good parent at all, but one who’s waiting for you to screw it all up, so that after you’ve made the Wrong Decision he can leap out and blame you for it, saying: You should have known better, and now you’re going to pay.

That’s not a good parent. That’s a cruel, vindictive control freak. But how many of us see God that way?

At the bottom of my belief in the One Right Thing was a terrible fear that I would choose one of the many, many Wrong Things,2 fear that I would make an irreparable mistake, fear that I could get to some point outside of the mercy of God.

When I finally chose to leave teaching, it was exactly that: a choice. Maybe it was the first real choice I ever made, in the sense that, for the first time, I decided what I wanted to do — not what would be least disastrous, not what would be most safe, not what would force God to keep loving me and taking care of me — but what I wanted.

And I found that to do what you desire can be an act of trust. God gave us desires, and our desires can be3 a mode of His will, are the means by which His will is acted out. But that will is not a static thing, and it embraces all the parts of who we are, not only the careful, restrained parts.

To desire, and to act on desire, is to trust in the goodness of God, and in a kind of Providence that, terrifyingly or thrillingly, expects us to do what we want.4

1 William F. Lynch, SJ, Images of Hope, p. 143.
2 Like this guy.
3 Yes, but nota bene: can be, not “always are.”
4 Here is a poem by Richard Wilbur on the same theme as this post. I’ve known this poem for ten years and I’m still not sure whether he’s saying the same thing as I am here or something completely different, and I’m not sure I agree with him. But it’s a hell of a poem.

St. Dominic Savio and I have a complicated relationship. I learned about him from Z., a luminous, vivacious, and wounded woman with a mystical bent who was my fourth-grade teacher (in a sort of a homeschool co-op thing) and my confirmation sponsor. My older brother Caleb tells me I was so taken with St. Dominic that, whenever I was doing something he didn’t like, all had to say was “You know, I bet DOMINIC SAVIO would let me have the last of the potato chips” and I’d get all shamefaced and hand them over.

So that’s why Dominic Savio is my confirmation name. I confess to having a sort of grudge against him now, something I’ve never quite dealt with. The grudge is because he was such a good boy, and so was I. The problem is that my goodness at the time was more neurotic than genuine, more out of fear than out of love; or so it seems to me now. Was it really? Can you be a good boy without being a prissy one? Does all goodness begin in a kind of hypocrisy?

Whenever I compare my adolescence with those of others — great way to send myself into an emotional tailspin, NOT RECOMMENDED — I’m always struck by how much more drinking, pot-smoking, vandalism, fighting, and general screwing around everybody else seems to have done. It’s not that my adolescence wasn’t filled with vice; it’s just that my vices seem to have been so much less badass than they should have been.1

Dominic Savio didn’t hold with poop jokes or dick jokes — two things that, from time immemorial, young men have used as the basis, or at least the beginning, of friendship. So I can’t help blaming St. Dominic for my own prudishness at that age. If I had been less devoted to him, would I have been less standoffish and therefore less lonely? If I had been less conscientious, would I also be less neurotic? Was St. Dominic really as prudish as I was, or was that his biographers fell prey to the tendency towards idealisation that obscures the humanity of so many of the saints?

Or was it only that I couldn’t distinguish between prudishness and chastity, scrupulosity and virtue? A difficult distinction for any 10-year-old (or 28-year-old) to grasp, especially a 10-year-old who was already eager for his elders to think he was perfect.

I have a friend, C., who seems to have nothing wrong with him at all. He’s not neurotic in any way I can see, he doesn’t cut people down, he doesn’t talk with casual (or any) filthiness. He goes to Mass every day, spends time in prayer every evening, gets up early without complaining, and consistently puts his friends’ and family’s well-being before his own — but does it so you wouldn’t notice, as if it’s just what anyone would expect.

Can you believe that I have it in me to look down on him? Because, I tell myself, his interior life lacks complexity and intensity. Because he’s not tormented and conflicted and INTERESTING like I am. Because he doesn’t seem to be prey to the perpetual whisperings of the Accuser, like I am. How do I know all these things? Because I have perfect insight into the state of his mind, heart, and soul at all times.

Ha ha, just kidding! I don’t actually know jack sh★t about any of those things, because I have exactly zero access to his interior life. They might all be true. Or none of them might be true. Not my business.

My business is to somehow discover C.’s trick of purity without prudishness, friendship without obsession, integrity without scrupulosity, charity without bombast. In a word, my business is to become more like Christ, and to be patient with myself until I get there.

1 And I’m always surprised when people say that they regret this kind of thing. I always think, “Regret? But you were SO COOL!” I know, the grass is always greener.