Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Scars of Old Men

I ASK that you set aside, for a moment, your opinions about Donald Trump's policies and what they are doing for (or to) our country. 

There is something we can learn from his life, and for that matter, from Bill Clinton's, Elliot Spitzer's, John Edwards' and the lives countless other prominent men whose passions overtook them, overshadowed their gifts, and obscured their legacies. 

King David pleads, 
Speaking Truth to Power: Nathan confronts David
Cleanse me from my secret faults 
Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; 
Let them not have dominion over me. 
Then I shall be blameless, 
And I shall be innocent of great transgression (1).

Eerily prophetic, when we consider the crazy chain of events set in motion by his burning lust (2).  

When secret passions, lusts and weaknesses are festering, we can mask them, perhaps for a time. However, as we age from 15 to 35 to 75, the inner weaknesses ("secret faults") become second-nature, evolving into brazen ("presumptuous") sins. These passions and lusts take deeper root. 

Things start to unravel pretty quickly once you're older and weaker and the seeds of passion are well-rooted. 

Whatever good you may wish to have accomplished in the world is compromised and obscured. How many remember that Elliot Spitzer heroically stood against Wall Street corruption (3), that John Edwards was a champion of the poor (4), that Bill Clinton has a vision for a better world, and that Donald Trump has a vision for a great and prosperous America? 

Were these older men thinking of these greater objectives -- or even of their very families -- when caught in the grip of passion and lust? Did they even have the power, at that point, to do so? 

Whatever you may think of Stormy Daniels or Monica Lewinski, they each managed to sidetrack and, at times, completely dominate the full attention and concern of the President of the United States.

Call me another name, guy. Please!
Daniels had a purported billionaire and the most powerful man in the free world, sitting hunched over a little screen bickering and embarrassing himself over Twitter. She had, momentarily at least, completely pwned (5) him.

I am not judging him. I am a grown man. I know better than to pass judgment on another grown man. Rather, I am trying to learn from the life of a person decades older than I am.
I see that the smallest crack in my integrity can develop gradually over time into a wide, gaping hole. The smallest passion (anger, lust, greed), unattended to, can evolve into the biggest disaster of my life. It is uncomfortable for those close to me to consider these words, to understand their weight and to imagine the possibilities they suggest. But they are grown ups, too, after all.
WHEN DONALD TRUMP WAS A YOUNG MAN, he was famously brash and proud of his sexual prowess and his power over himself and others.

But consider him now: older, weaker, always on the defense, being publicly mocked by a woman for his lack of virility.
It is useless and ignorant to judge him or anyone else. But, it doesn't hurt to do a kind of exercise where you look at a person like that and think "Gee, if I don't watch myself, am I staring deep into my future? Something like it?"

It does not hurt to think of the worst case scenario. As I get older and weaker, do I face a future of being increasingly subject to and controlled by fear, anger, paranoia, and lust? Will I, like many older men, have collected many skeletons in my closet so that I have become skilled in the art of deception and defensiveness, always ready to reflexively attack critics with both fists up?

Or, will I be light and joyful, open and free?

WE TEASE people when they stack their plate too high and can't finish their food, saying, "It looks like your eyes are bigger than your stomach." But, on a more serious level, what happens as we age?Will the appetite for junk food exceed and overwhelm the body's ability to handle it in the quantities I have grown used to over 20, 30, 50 years? What happens as lusts and passions slowly bloom? What happens when the young, self-righteous Sunday School teacher evolves into a boring, lonely old lady? Can she even identify the roadmap to a life or warmth and laughter, attracting the sincere friendship of others?  What happens when a man's hot temper slowly and permanently surpasses his ability to intimidate and harm, and he finds himself a weak, angry little fool? What happens when his sexual passions outstrip a weakened body's ability to satisfy them? There is a reason that the proverbial "creepy old man" is perhaps the most pathetic archetype in our culture.

Yes, life is complex and is not easily reduced to such archetypes. But they do provide a strong hint. 
We all have little bugs rattling around in our system: anger, desire, lust, greed, ignorance, hatred, judgmentalism. For each of us the exact cocktail is different. At the very least, we should make an effort not to feed them. That way, the seeds don't grow into giant monsters which, eventually, can't be hidden in a closet of secrecy.The scars of others," wrote St. Jerome, "should teach us caution" (6).
_____________(1) Psalm 19:12
(2) 2 Samuel 11-12(3) "Remember the Sheriff?"New York Magazine. November 2, 2008(4) John Edwards: 'My Faith Came Roaring Back.'(5) No, not a typo. Look it up. (6) Letter 54

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Pesticides Guy

THIS MORNING, I ran past a guy applying pesticide to some shopping mall landscaping.  I thought I had steered far enough away. Ten seconds later, I felt the unmistakable sensation of pesticide in my throat, which lingered for a good minute and a half. 
Coming for you, runnerboy!

For a split-second I felt a flicker of annoyance at the guy. Catching myself, I was immediately reminded of the following from C.S. Lewis:
I am not angry-except perhaps for a moment before I come to my senses-with a man who trips me up by accident; I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he does not succeed. Yet the first has hurt me and the second has not. Sometimes the behaviour which I call bad is not inconvenient to me at all, but the very opposite (1) 
I was not annoyed, except for a foolish moment, at guy trying to earn a buck, perhaps to feed his family. Had he intended to spray me? Of course not. Had he even seen me? Unlikely.
Get a grip, chap.

We daily encounter people spraying all kinds of poison (anger, ignorance, rudeness) in our direction.  It would take us a long way toward accepting our coworkers and family members, if we understood that, usually, people are spraying their poison unthinkingly and from a place of fear, anxiety and pressure. 

Perhaps we can, with a little effort and grace, give their behavior some context. Maybe, we can give them the same understanding we give ourselves and that we want for ourselves from others.  

(1) Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Ch. 3, "The Reality of the Law."

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Monsters in Mind

"I have observed many men in the world assailed by anxiety, by worry, by the need to talk...and I have seen them run away from the madness of their bodies.” 
-St. John Climacus (1)

As a kid, I'd  stay up late at night reading murder mystery novels, typically an Agatha Christie my mom had given me for Christmas. As I'd switch off the light, I'd have an irrational discomfort that the killer was lurking outside my room. (Was Jane Wilkinson just around the corner? In the room across from mine?).

Some 25 years later, am I so much different? How often, as I lie in bed, do phantom fears bounce off the inner walls of my chest?

A friend described anticipated conversations with her boss: "I'll hand her the report. She'll make this comment in that tone. I'll say this, then I bet she will say this..." Back, forth, back forth. By the end, she'd find herself, alone in her car, utterly furious at a conversation that she never ended up having.
In my experience, people are far less monstrous in person than in my imagination. Real people are often much more humane and reasonable -- "softer," if you will -- in person than they are in imagined future conversations or exaggerated past interactions. Future events (a confrontation, an unfair criticism, an over-your-head work assignment), if they ever face us at all, are usually much more horrific and intolerable in our imagination than they are in reality.

Runners who regularly experience pre-race insomnia know just what I mean ("I'm racing 26.2 miles in 7 hours!"..."How fast per mile?"... "26, for real?"... "Less than 7 hours now."). The thoughts escalate, then the heart pounds faster. This escalates the thoughts, which spurs on the pounding, which further escalates the thoughts... 

Then, you wake up (if you slept at all), lace up, the gun goes off, you run, you finish. Nothing to it.
If the "monster" events, people and interactions are imagined, who is the real monster? I'd say it's the little, often repetitive, internal voice cooking up future scenarios: 

  • "My 12 year old said this, so she will end up saying that, then doing this, and end up like that as an adult. OMG, OMG, OMG."
  • "I am going to have to figure out [insert: vague, imagined project at work], and I won't know what to do, then so and so will be angry and complain to so and so, and then I will be in trouble. Then I will..."
  • "My husband probably didn't do what I asked. I am going to be so annoyed. Then, he will give me that same excuse. He is going to try and turn it on me by saying that. Ugh!"
In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon, advising a junior demon, writes: 
We want a man hag-ridden by the Future -- haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth -- ready to break the [God's] commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. 
We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present (2).
In an age of texts, emails, messaging, and posting, so much is lost, laundered, twisted and misconstrued, making the following quite relevant "Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full."(3) 

It seems to me that we should never, ever deal with a charged, or potentially charged, situation through such means. If at all possible, I'd not even do it over the phone. Meet the other, face-to-face (yes, eye contact and everything). Take in the person's presence, her humanity, her vulnerability. See for yourself that she is just a person, of the same nature, with the same basic fears and hopes as you. Watch grace flow into the situation and the monster evaporate.

(1) Climacus, John. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 2
(2) Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters, XV
(3) 2 John 1:12