Tag Archives: fear

I don’t like disagreeing with people. I tend to do it badly. Either I’m silent when I should be vocal, which makes people assume I agree with them when I don’t, or I rip somebody’s head off about something that doesn’t matter at all, like the other night when I badly hurt a dear friend’s feelings during what was supposed to be a lighthearted argument about the merits of Bob Dylan as a vocalist.

I’m also not, as they say, a joiner. Is that a personality trait or a personality flaw? People are supposed to be part of things. But being part of things makes me scared, because what if the thing doesn’t go the direction I want to go? Or what if it stays at a place longer than I want to stay and I am stuck? Or what if it drives badly? …I perceive that I am talking, suddenly, about carpooling in somebody else’s car, which I also hate. But it comes to the same thing.

I just got inked again, a big visible tat this time. Did I do that because I wanted it? Or was it one more way to say to the world, “Hah, I’m an orthodox Catholic but I’m all tatted up, too! Plus I’m gay! What do you think of THAT, eh!? YOU CAN’T PUT ME IN YOUR BOXES.”

Being a lone wolf seems really cool and independent and, like, brood-y, when you’re a teenager or, okay, a twenty-something, but eventually — I speak from the vast age of 30, at which point I have of course left childish things behind me, completely and forever — it turns out to have been a pose. Like how in seventh grade, Tim S. and I used to stand on the sidelines while other people played touch football, and talk about how we were superior to all those dumb jocks because we enjoyed intellectual pursuits and we weren’t like everybody else.

But actually I was just scared, and I bet Tim was too.

You would think that the one community I’d be okay with joining would be a community of outsiders like me: weird first because we’re Christian, weirder because we’re gay, and weirdest of all, maybe, because we’re those things and also celibate.

But as usual I’m hesitant and scared. As usual, there are some pretty good reasons; and as usual, those reasons aren’t a good excuse for standing on the outside.

I was 14 when I realized I was gay. I thank God that it didn’t take too long for me to find a mentor — my often-quoted Father T — who was kind, patient, sympathetic, and didn’t mind my ringing his doorbell at all hours to come sob on his couch. But before I even found him, I found and devoured Father Harvey’s The Homosexual Person.

I haven’t picked up the book in over a decade, but I remember what a relief it was to discover that maybe the unacceptable feelings inside me were based on something good and true and beautiful, even if that something had gone askew. In college, I read Alan Medinger’s Growth Into Manhood, and began to try to live my life more or less by its principles. A couple of years after graduation, I plucked up courage to attend the Journey Into Manhood weekend put on by People Can Change — if you haven’t heard of them, they’re an ex-gay organization that is mostly areligious.

I’m profoundly grateful both to Medinger and to People Can Change. I believe that they both blessed and damaged me. But I still think the former has been deeper and more permanent than the latter — which, it now strikes me, could be said about a great many of the things and people I have loved.

When the ex-gay movement imploded — which is, I guess, a Thing That Happened, whose apex can be more or less dated to the moment when Alan Chambers issued his apology — I felt like the metaphorical frog in boiling water. All around me the movement had been slowly getting discredited, and I knew it was happening, dimly, but in the back of my mind I still held on to most of its principles; and when more and more people spoke out about how badly they had been hurt by it, I didn’t ignore them, exactly, but I didn’t quite take them seriously, either. But suddenly the water around me was unmistakably boiling.

So I’m in an odd spot. I can’t give up the things I learned from People Can Change and their ilk, at any rate not yet. Their broad-stroke narrative about the genesis of homosexuality still seems true in my case, even though I no longer hold out hope for the kind of change they used to talk about. I still think my love for men has a sizeable chunk of misplaced desire for paternal affection, even if it’s not fashionable to talk that way anymore. And I still don’t have any problem with calling homosexuality fundamentally disordered, despite the panoply of blessings that have entered my life by that strange gate, and continue to do so.

I’m still working all this stuff out. I just hope the cool kids still like me.

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.

It’s not the despair…I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.1

Seems like nearly everybody knows about my SSA these days. My landlord knows, for goodness’ sake. My landlord, H., also happens to be a coworker and an old friend, and someone who’s been through a lot himself — even before I knew some of the details, I always thought he had the look. I asked to use his office once so I could use the landline for a radio interview, and when he got inquisitive, I ended up telling him about the blog.

H. met my revelation with compassion and understanding, which is the reaction I’ve come to expect from Catholics. But a few days later, he had advice, too: “You need to take care of this,” he told me. “You need to make your life about taking care of this. There are guys who are experts. There are studies.” He had googled around, and wanted to know: had I ever heard of NARTH? Had I ever heard of Joe Nicolosi?

The thing about talking to men about your problems is that they, we, like to fix things, and sometimes that’s not what you need to hear. I knew he said what he said because he hated to see me suffer — I was in the thick of the roommate situation at the time — but the conversation upset me so much that, when I went back to my desk, I couldn’t see my code through the tears, and had to retreat to the bathroom till I could calm down.

Because I used to think that way. Then I stopped thinking that way. Then I didn’t know what to think, so I tried to quit thinking. There was a space of about two years, after attending Journey Into Manhood in ’08, when I did just what H. suggested. I read books, went to groups, forced myself to play basketball, made a habit of hanging out with Da Boys every chance I got.

Did that work? Was that good? I have no idea. I do think it’s largely responsible for the fact that I’m now comfortable with men, more or less — anyway it doesn’t usually make me feel all strung out and artificial and terrified to be in a group of guys, the way it used to, and I have a better sense of the rhythm of conversation.2 I’m glad about that.

But I wonder what else it did to me. It’s good to do things that scare you, if they’re good things; but doing things because they scare you looks an awful lot like masochism. It also looks like a lack of self-acceptance. How good did I have to get at socialization, or at basketball, before I decided I was good enough to just live my life?

I understand why ex-gays get vilified. If they’re wrong, if change is impossible, then they’re holding out false hope, and encouraging self-torture in men who are already prone to it. But if they’re right — and if you don’t follow that avenue, if you don’t do everything you can to get healed, get changed, get “fixed” — then you feel like a slacker, a slug. You feel like the double amputee who decided to just quit, just be a victim, instead of becoming a sprinter.

I wish somebody could tell me that it’s possible for me to get married one day, have kids, share a bed with somebody. Or, maybe even better, I wish somebody could tell me that that will never ever happen. It would be easier to hope if I knew there was something real to hope for. And if I could stop hoping — what a relief.

1 From the very excellent and exceedingly tragical comedy Clockwise, with John Cleese.
2 Several years ago, I mentioned in passing to Fr. T. that, when I was growing up, my family didn’t chat around the dinner table. Everybody got a book and we ate in silence, everybody reading. The way his eyes bugged out made me notice for the first time that there was maybe something a little weird about that, and that maybe possibly not all of my social difficulties were entirely my fault.

I: ENOUGH PEANUTS

[Nota bene: This story is in four parts, and parts I-III are pretty grim, but there’s a happy ending. Also, there is a lot of smoking and no small amount of tears.]

I’m making Friday night plans with my brother Caleb. He’s saying we could stay in and watch a movie, or go out and get some drinks. “Or,” he says, “if you want to — and if you don’t want to, that’s fine — some of the guys are getting together to play basketball. We could do that.”

Do I like basketball? I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell whether you like something when the thought of it makes your stomach twist into knots. Some people would say that makes it easy to tell, right? But I make things complicated. Maybe, I think, it’s like someone who is allergic to peanuts, but actually loves peanuts, only he doesn’t realize it because every time he eats them, they make him wish he was dead. Maybe if I just eat enough peanuts, I’ll teach myself not to be allergic to them.

But maybe tonight, dealing with panic is a little bit much, so I say, Let’s stay in. I hang up; but I start to think about it, and think about it, and think and think andthinkandthink until I call Caleb back on my way home from work.

“Hey, so, um. I’m thinking, yeah, let’s go ahead and play basketball instead.” I’m trying not to hyperventilate.

“…Really?”

“Yeah, I want to,” I lie.

“Because, you know, I really don’t care. I really don’t.” He doesn’t.

“No,” I say, taking a deep breath. “I mean, I should. I’m a little terrified. But I want to because I’m a little terrified.”

Caleb pauses, triangulating my neuroses. “You know,” he says, “you’re going to have plenty of chances in life to be terrified. You don’t really have to look for them.”

“Hm,” I say.

“So, Let’s stay in.”

“Um,” I say. “Okay.”

“You can eat here. We’re having enchiladas. Unless,” he says, “you’re terrified of enchiladas.”

II: BETTER THAN BASKETBALL

I know I’ve told that story about Caleb before, but it’s been on my mind because of something my friend L. said last weekend, when I visited DC for a mutual friend’s wedding. I was hoping the trip would be a way to get away, to give me some breathing room from my Terrible Situation.

Oh, the Terrible Situation, I can tell you about that now. It goes like this: after a year of living alone, I moved into a house with two other guys last February. Things started out beautifully. Somebody to come home to! Someone to eat with! Someone to chat with at odd moments! Someone who’ll bring their friends around — more people to meet, more people to know!

All this was true, and all this was good. I became surprisingly fond of both of them in a very short time, S. in particular. Then fondness turned to admiration. For me, it’s a short step from admiration to envy, and from envy to neediness, and jealousy, and all the rest of it. There’s a certain kind of admiration that makes me reassess myself, and the everything I used to consider good about myself, to frame my entire life in what-if terms: would I be more like him if I hadn’t been so scared, or so wounded, or so lame…Those of you who have been there can connect the dots; the mind has mountains.

And then when their college friends visited, which they seemed to do in a steady stream — seeing them interact with each other, watching their comfort and hilarity, would drive the knife home. This is what you want, says the old ἐχθρός, and this is what you will never have. Manifestly untrue, as Sal gently pointed out to me later in an email, but somehow I couldn’t call the right memories to mind, couldn’t think of a time when I had ever been at ease with anyone.

I set myself the impossible task of being as comfortable with them as they were with each other — I’d will myself into it — despite the fact that they’d spent every day together for four years, and when I failed I blamed myself, called myself socially inept, a hopeless loner. I knew it was crazy, and I couldn’t stop. Before I knew it I was in the deepest funk I had seen in a decade.

I didn’t think this was going to happen. I didn’t want this to happen. So I did all the right things. I talked to Father T., opened up to friends, wept and prayed and wept some more, read and meditated about the peace that comes from absolute trust in God. My friends couldn’t see why, if I was so miserable, I didn’t just leave.

But they didn’t understand! This was my way out from loneliness, and more than that, a way to get good at what I had always wanted to be good at: being comfortable in the company of other men. It was a second chance at I’d missed, or thought I’d missed, over and over again, all through homeschool and high school and college.

This was better than basketball.

It would get better, I kept saying. And it did. But every time it did, something would happen: some party where I felt left out, some imagined slight in conversation that snowballed into a full-blown self-pity session, some night when I would be bone-tired but couldn’t fall asleep because I envied the sounds of cheerful conversation downstairs — and I’d be right back where I started. But I couldn’t leave! That would be admitting defeat, that would be throwing away this beautiful opportunity that had dropped into my lap. I should be able to deal with this.

Give me more time, and I will get it right.

[ Cliffhanger!!! Continued tomorrow. ]

“Death is the mother of beauty.”

Dear Wallace Stevens, you brilliant, urbane, doddering old insurance-salesman of a poet: no it isn’t.

Yesterday being All Souls’ day, I spent some time thinking about death. I wasn’t depressed. I felt (and feel) great, actually. Thinking of death is what you’re supposed to do on that day and on Ash Wednesday and at the very least, although more often would probably be better. Pulvus es, et in pulvum reverteris. How will you live, knowing that you’re going to die?

The quotation at the top is taken from Stevens’ very beautiful Sunday Morning, where the mild ennui of a non-churchgoer on Sunday slowly gives way to a meditation on the paradoxes of desire.

“She says, ‘But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss.'” The woman longs for something without knowing what. Even paradise would be incomplete, says the speaker, because paradise lacks death — death which is the mother of beauty, giving all things value because they will have an end. If life extends to infinity, life becomes meaningless; only death gives meaning to life.

This is, of course, romantic horsesh★t.1 It’s exactly the sort of thing you would believe if you were a melancholy college student who didn’t give much creedence to the ordinary idea of happiness as fulfillment of desire because it was too mainstream. Death is the mother of beauty: this was my mantra for years. I had to live, Live!, because one day I would be dead and what did I want it to say on my gravestone?

So I constantly questioned myself: was I living life to the fullest? Was I wringing the maximum enjoyment out of every moment? Did I embrace every experience with open arms, or did I hide from life? Was I fully awake, or did I ever let myself coast along on autopilot? Was I joyful, was I alive, was I having EXPERIENCES??

Try living that way and see if it doesn’t make you a nervous wreck. The irony is that I was doing my best to celebrate life, but there was no atmosphere of celebration about my desperate grasping after experience. That wasn’t joy, it was fear. Fear of not meeting the deadline, fear of flunking at life — in short, fear of death.

If you want proof, think back to the last time you were really happy — not just content, but happy, awed, sublimely assured of the goodness of things. Were you thinking about death? Were you glad, because the world was perishing and you were surrounded by dying flesh, which made everything more precious? Probably not. It was eternity you were tasting. Children know that the last two weeks of summer vacation are impossible to enjoy, because you can’t forget that death/school is just around the corner.2

Live every day as if it were your last, goes the saying. That might be good advice if you’re the kind of person who pays no attention to life, who feels no stirring of guilt after days of nothing but sleep, pot, and video games. But if your natural tendency is introspection, I think a better motto is this: Live every day as if you were going to live forever.

Which is, by the way, true. But the afterlife isn’t an extended epilogue, where all the adventure is over and we get to sit on comfy sofas, reminiscing. Heaven isn’t Stevens’ stagnant paradise, where “the boughs / Hang always heavy in that perfect sky, / Unchanging.” Heaven is where the story begins.

There are too many loose ends in this life, too many unanswered questions, for it to be anything but a prologue.

1 I don’t mean that the poem itself is horsesh★t, just my interpretation of it at the time, which may or may not have been Stevens’ and in any event does not fully account for the poem. I still think it’s one of the most beautiful poems ever written. Even C. S. Lewis notes that melancholy does bear some mysterious resemblance to Joy. But this is too much to go into in a footnote.
2 I’m thinking of that Calvin & Hobbes strip, of course. I’d link to it but they’re impossible to find online. Anyway, here’s a few good, but unrelated, strips.

It’s almost embarrassing to say it, because I had forgotten that I used to feel this way, but: I used to blame myself for having SSA. I thought, if only I’d hung out more with other guys and learned to be like them; if only I hadn’t quit the street hockey team, and soccer, and little league; if only I hadn’t faked sick on field day. If only I hadn’t been so scared all the time.

My main sports memories from when I was young are memories of complete and total confusion. What position am I? Who’s on my team again, which color are we? Are we offense or defense? WHAT IS A RIGHT WING? Do I have to step on the base before after I catch the ball (if I catch the ball), and what the hell do I do after that? HOW IS IT STILL ONLY THE SECOND INNING?

Go a little bit older and the confusion turns to shame. When I was ten, nobody knew the rules. When I was fifteen, everybody knew them, except me, and not only the rules but the terminology, and the stats of players I had never heard of, and breathtakingly convoluted plays that I had I pretend to understand, except why did I bother because they’d figure it out when I suddenly started running in the wrong direction?

The worst, though, was in high school, on field day. The thought of spending THREE HOURS in a state of constant terror, shame, and confusion, was too much for me, so I spent it in the sick room instead, up on the second floor, watching everyone having a good time and wondering what was wrong with me. What made it worse was that, to get out of it, I had had to tell Mr. Staedtler I was “sick” — Mr. Staedtler, who all the girls wanted to marry and all the boys wanted to be — and he knew.

I’m surprised, remembering it, how little shame I feel about it anymore. Not because it was shameful — rational or not, the things I felt at the thought of going out there would have felled a small horse — but because of how it used to make me wince, for years afterwards.

At the time I blamed myself for feeling that way, because I knew a real man wouldn’t have been scared. And at the same time I knew I was a coward, because the others hadn’t let their fear stop them. I never noticed that the two accusations contradicted each other. I envied them for not being scared, but at the same time I envied them for overcoming their fear.

Well, lies usually do contradict each other. I think I believed the lies until years later, the night I told my older brother Caleb about my SSA. I told him how I had envied him, growing up, watching him on the basketball court down the street and thinking how brave he must be to play with people he didn’t even know, how I could never feel comfortable enough around other guys to do that.

He surprised me by saying: The basketball court is the only place I do feel comfortable around other guys.

That was a new thought. That for some people sports weren’t terrifying, but just natural, the way music and coding are for me. That I wasn’t weaker or more cowardly than my brother, but just constructed differently. That “normal” guys had all the insecurities I had, but showed them in ways that I misunderstood. And that none of the above was my fault; more than that, that none of it was anything wrong.

As much time as I’ve spent working to get into the boys’ club, every once in a while I realize: I’m already there, and everyone inside is just like me. Only different.

A reader recently asked what I think of reparative therapy — therapy aimed specifically at getting the gay out, so to speak.

I’m not too sure. I’m not a fan of the name, first of all. All therapy is reparative therapy, ‘cuz we’re all broken,1 so calling this kind reparative therapy is a little like saying: Yeah, but you’re a mess! You like dudes!

There’s also such a thing as too much self-improvement. For a long time, I focused so much on fixing my faults and idiosyncracies — I don’t mean the SSA, I mean other stuff — that I was wearing myself out, twisting myself into unnatural positions.2 I didn’t stop short, for example, at facing my fears: I’d do things like going to play basketball just because it scared the poop out of me, or trying to develop a friendship with a man just because he was kind the man who I find intimidating.

Facing your fears is good and necessary. I’ve faced a lot of them, and it has helped me live more freely. But it isn’t what life is about, and it is easy to get hung up on the process. You shouldn’t let fear stop you from playing basketball — unless you just plain don’t like basketball. You shouldn’t let fear stop you from finding a new friend — unless you don’t particularly like the guy. It can be a hard balance to find, and I’m still struggling with it.3

Now that I’ve got the disclaimers out of the way: there are therapists and organizations out there who have a balanced view of the issue. I think People Can Change is one of them.

They, and the healing weekend they run, focus on dealing with what they see as the root causes of SSA: isolation, father-hunger, shame, rejection. They are geared towards dealing with these things. Whether or not you believe that these issues play a part in the development of SSA,4 I don’t think anyone will say that dealing with them is unhealthy.

So, seriously, check them out!5 I don’t like everything about them, but take a look and see what resonates. Once I get around to adding a “recommended resources” section — hey, I have a full-time job, and this ain’t it — they’ll be first on the list.

1 There is a crack, a crack in everything; / That’s how the light gets in. — Leonard Cohen
2 Cut it out. Dirty mind.
3 I recently told my older brother that Sure, I’d come play basketball with him, but/because I’m kind of terrified of it. He said: You’ll have plenty of opportunities in life to deal with being terrified. No need to invent them. Then he asked if I’d like to come to dinner; his wife was making enchiladas. “Unless, of course,” he added, “you’re terrified of enchiladas.” See, this is what older brothers are for: wisdom and mockery, within a sentence of each other.
4 And whether or not the phrase “the development of SSA” makes sense to you at all. Cue, I suppose, Lady Gaga.
5 If you heard this in Strongbad’s voice, then can we be friends?