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Sunday, August 11, 2019

Notes from a Christian Who Does Not Want to Forgive



Recently I met a very nice man, a priest, named Father "Lancelot." "Lancelot" is a pseudonym. I'm talking about a man with an unusual name, and I want to protect his anonymity.

Father Lancelot was very kind to me, and I enjoyed chatting with him. The entire time we interacted, though, I was standing next to a closet. There were padlocks and chains around that closet, deadbolts and the kind of combination locks I haven't used since high school gym class. Throughout our sane, civilized, professionally enhancing conversation, the closet door began to shudder. Its contents began to growl. The locks creaked. A toothed, primitive golem could be glimpsed within. My stomach trembled; my hand rushed to my mouth to cork vomit.

Father Lancelot was oblivious to this dark ritual.

I tried to tell him, then stopped myself. Finally, I told him.

"You have an unusual name," I said. "I've known only one other person with that name. He, too, was kind to me – or so I thought at the time. Since then I've learned that what looks like kindness when staring straight ahead can be revealed to be cannibalism when viewed in the rearview mirror."

And so, in a sort of reverse confession, I told Father Lancelot the story, a story that is decades, and lifetimes, old.

Father Lancelot, who had, heretofore, been a rather sandpapery fellow – sandpapery being a quality I enjoy – a man who made me laugh out loud at his mordant observations of human foibles – suddenly revealed a tender side.

"Of course I never met this person and I've heard only part of the story, and I could be wrong, but it seems to me that your Lancelot was confused. Perhaps, like many, he had been wounded in love before and he was afraid of being wounded anew. Perhaps the sexual revolution warped him, as it warped so many others. Perhaps he was gay and he knew he could not give you what you need and deserve. I don't know, but he sounds like a lost boy. When you pray, in your rosary, the mystery of the finding in the Temple, which is the story of a lost boy, perhaps you could pray for your Lancelot."

Father Lancelot's words touched me deeply. I hadn't realized he had such a compassionate side. I smiled. I told him I'd give his suggestion serious thought.

And then I discovered a side of myself that surprised me.

I have no intention of praying for Lancelot.

I want Lancelot to suffer.

How much of this story do I have to tell for you to understand? Not forgive me, not permit me my desire to see someone else suffer, but at least understand why I, someone who claims to be a Christian, wants someone else to suffer?

***

Two historical events made me wish I could tell the Lancelot story: the priest sex abuse crisis, and the Weinstein scandals and subsequent Me-Too movement.

Even though I wanted to tell my "me too" story, I realized I couldn't. Because no one would understand it as a "me too" story.

Outsiders hear some of these stories and say, "Wait a second. The victim here was 18, not a kid. Why didn't he speak up? Surely this was consensual." Or, "The actress volunteered to go to his hotel room. She never reported it. How can you call that rape?"

I understand that 18-year-old who was seduced by a priest, and who thought, at the time, how good it felt to be singled out, praised, groomed. I understand that actress. And I understand the members of the jury pool who don't understand. They really don't get it. They probably won't get this story, either. Because life, to them, is black and white.

Either it feels good, or it feels bad.

Either the person is your friend, or your enemy.

Either the other is nice, or the other is a monster.

If you are in a situation that is not good for you, it is your duty to recognize that and walk away.

Because, after all, you are an adult.

***

The story is old. Ancient. At least one of the eyewitnesses, MC, is dead. She lives with me still, of course. I can feel her hair, that I used to stroke, see her blue teeth – her mother took tetracycline while pregnant. Her ever-present cigarette. I am in awe of her height, greater, even, than mine. Her Ivy League IQ. Back when it was all happening, during all-night pajama parties in mud huts, illuminated by yak-butter lanterns, during all-day bus rides over impossibly steep roads choked with red dust, MC was the one who tried to warn me. She could see the panorama, the future cliff, that were all but invisible to me. She may as well have tried to warn a moth that the flame incinerates as well as warms.

***

I was an abused kid. How many stories have I begun with those words? How I wish I had never had reason to begin any story with those words.

It's not just about punches, bruises, blood, misaligned body parts, malnutrition. It's also about the message: You are garbage. You are unworthy.

Don't blame my parents. You weren't any better. By "you" I mean society at large. I was unkempt. Hair unbrushed, no umbrella or raincoat in pouring rain, arriving at school, and sitting in my desk, dripping a puddle onto the floor, and no one doing anything. My pale skin was covered with bruises. Kids lined up to ogle them; teachers, doctors, nuns, priests, not a single person did a single thing.

No, you joined in. You called me fat and retarded. You picked me last for teams, and only because you had to. You tried to beat me up, till I beat you up first. You crossed me off the list. All of you. Every list.

Here's the thing – we survivors address, and get over, what we can see. We see that our hair is unbrushed. We brush your hair. We see that we are malnourished. We buy vitamins.

We can't address what we can't see and aren't even aware is there.

I once dreamt that I had been, years before, standing next to a glass house that had exploded. Years later, I was holding my index finger vertically erect. I pulled from it a horizontal shard of glass that was six inches long. This is, of course, physically impossible. The point of the dream: there's stuff in there that I didn't even know was there, and it's much bigger than I have reason to realize.

So. I was invisible, except when some kid or some teacher needed something to punch or tease or insult or exclude.

I was invisible. Inaudible. Alone.

And I dealt with it. And I got over it.

And, then, Lancelot.

I traveled far away. There, Lancelot was The Big Man. Boss, teacher, supervisor, judge. He observed us and wrote reports on us that were read by important people. I stumbled across one of those reports in a government office years after the fact. In Lancelot's report, we all came off like lab rats.

It was our job to please Lancelot. If we did not please him, we failed, we were fired, we were humiliated, we were flown home, we let our parents down, our dreams were dashed.

And this is what happened.

He saw me.

He acted as if I mattered.

He complimented me.

He was nice to me.

On my 14th birthday, I knew I was very sick. I begged my parents to take me to a doctor. They yelled at me. You are being such a whiner. Shut up. Go away. I persisted. I had a sense that whatever was going on was very bad. My father drove me to the doctor, and left me there. I came out of the doctor's office, and my father was nowhere to be seen. I sat on the curb.

Eventually my father showed up again and drove me to a hospital. My appendix was close to bursting.

My mother and sister came to the hospital room and harangued me. You little whiner, you little troublemaker, you cost this family so much money. Do you realize how hard mommy is going to have to work to pay these bills? Get out of that bed. Stop acting sick.

Nurses saw all this. They did nothing. Remember what I said: you are all responsible. It takes a village to destroy a child.

When Lancelot was my God King Emperor, my boss, my teacher, my supervisor, my assessor, I got sick. Stomach trouble. Not unusual in this particular, remote environment. I was in a lot of pain. I said so.

Lancelot looked concerned. He left. He was gone for a long time. He had traveled to a distant source of "Western" medicine, and brought me back a drug – belladonna – for the pain. He gave me the belladonna, and then he sat at the foot of my bed. I could feel the belladonna going to work. It was like an opiate. My pain just ceased. My body calmed down. I stretched out my legs and could feel Lancelot's butt with my toes. He murmured to me gently until I fell asleep.

No one had ever treated me like that before.

No one had ever acted as if my pain mattered. No one had ever cared enough to get me medicine. No one had ever sat with me till I fell asleep.

That's not abuse, is it?

I remember once, there was a lecture, an important lecture we were all supposed to attend to and learn from and be ready to address. My full attention was on the lecturer, a world-class scholar. Suddenly I felt an elbow in my ribs. I turned. Lancelot, whose presence I wasn't even aware of, because I'd been so focused on the lecturer, shoved his notebook into my lap. On it he had written, "Hi, Danusha." I had no idea how to respond to this. I turned my attention back to the lecturer. Again the elbow in the ribs, again, Lancelot's notebook in my lap. He had drawn a picture of my toes. I had kicked my shoes off before the lecture. He wanted me to see his portrait of my toes.

That's not abuse, is it?

And then there was the night he invited me into his sleeping bag, because, you know, it was cold.

No, there was never anything like sex at all.

He didn't use the L word with me till I was leaving. We'd never see each other again. I was walking away. Suddenly I realized he was behind me. "Wait!" he called out. I turned around. "You know – Love."

That's not abuse, is it?

MC, my Ivy League educated friend, tried to warn me. "Don't you realize how dangerous this is?" The power differential. The age differential. The social capital differential. How he lured me; how defenseless I was to resist. I didn't hear her.

I'm not bragging, here, nor am I apologizing: I had lovers in those days. I was in an organization where men outnumber women. All these men were drop-dead gorgeous. They lost weight and gained muscle "in country," walking, as they were, over long trails, building bridges, schoolhouses, and fishponds without aid of technology much beyond shovels, ropes, and levers. They were all smart, idealistic and adorable. I haven't cried a single tear, or nursed a single wound, over any of them. I remember how silky smooth Jeff's chest was, and I wonder if his name really was Jeff. Could it have been Craig? It was all fun, just another physical activity that our young animal bodies enjoyed.

After years of this, I tried to talk to Lancelot about it. I wanted clarity. The ambiguity was killing me. I didn't want *him.* I didn't want the object, the man. I wanted … for want of a better word, I wanted human status. I wanted him to acknowledge that he'd been flirting with me for years, and then pushing me away, and turning me from a human into a toy.

He changed. Anger, snide comments, coldness.

And I was crushed.

And here's that sentence again: "I was an abused kid." I had been told that I was worthless, garbage, and that the world is full of people who are, well, people. Human beings. And I'm not one of them.

And asking Lancelot, my God King Emperor, to acknowledge my human status, was the worst thing I could do. Because I am garbage, and he is a saint. He must be saint, because he was nice to me, me, the most worthless thing on the planet.

And I felt as low as a human being could feel.

I didn't kill myself. I remained alive. A bag of skin with functioning organs, but no heart or soul.

I built the closet, placed the monster inside, and installed multiple locks.

The monster is not "You wanted something and couldn't have it."

The monster is, "Someone treated you as if you were worthy of love and attention and then, when you asked to be acknowledged as a human being, withdrew from you utterly, leaving you feeling betrayed, fooled, and toyed with. You will never escape being the kid called last in gym class. You do not deserve what real people deserve. The nicest person in the world despises you."

I don't think Lancelot was gay. I don't think Lancelot was troubled that he couldn't give me what he knew I needed. I think Father Lancelot, an otherwise intelligent man capable of an unsentimental view of human nature, was all too kind.

I think, rather, that Lancelot was playing with me. And I think he thought I deserved it, because I am low status. And I think Lancelot and company's take of save-the-world liberalism has no problem whatsoever with denying humanity to folks like me.

He saw a young – younger than he – vulnerable, ethnically incorrect, overweight, unattractive, socially awkward, working class girl and played a game with her. Why? Who knows? Because when I looked at him I felt I was looking at the sun, and that showed on my face?

And when I tried to introduce reality into the proceedings, he smacked me down hard. Because, to him, anyway, I was what I have always been – worthless garbage.

Who says I'm worthless garbage?

Not just my mean, old Bohunk parents that everybody finds it so easy to judge and condemn, without a clue as to the hells they went through because they were the wrong ethnicity in the wrong place at the wrong time. And believe me, my parents did go through hell. They weren't born abusers. Life made them abusers. Lives of poverty and bigotry.

Who else says I'm worthless garbage?

Lancelot. The nicest, kindest, most humanitarian man. Soft spoken, gentle, beloved. A man who has built his career on saving the impoverished, in the Third World or in the US. Lancelot, a classic rich, white liberal.

Lancelot introduced me to feeling loved. And Lancelot taught me that feeling loved is the most dangerous feeling there is. Because no matter how cushy, safe, comfortable, delicious, cozy things seem, like that night he brought me the belladonna and sat with me till I fell asleep, it will always transpire that I am worthless and I am garbage and I am an imposition on people much better than myself, and I must *never* request to be treated by the same rules that you follow when you interact with real, live, human beings.

That's the monster in the closet.

Luckily I have not been, or felt, loved since, so the monster is safe in that closet.

And this is what I mean by the long splinter of glass metaphor. I didn't realize any of this till I was much older than the students I taught. Students who were as vulnerable, as defenseless, as susceptible, as alone as I once was sometimes look at me as if I were something special. I understand that if I were a different kind of person, I would give in, and allow them to worship me, and groom them, and discard them, and, thereby, wound them for life.

And, if caught, I could always say, "But they were adults and this was all consensual. And after all she was hardly a virgin."

I'm not that kind of person. And, given that I'm older now, and can see youth as I could not see youth when I myself was young, I realize what a tempting and vile thing that is to do to a young person.

***

It's now decades later. A priest I respect advised me, in line with Biblical teaching, to pray for Lancelot. Jesus says, in Matthew 5:44, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."

Not only do I not want to do it, I think it would be ethically wrong if I did it. I think it would be psychologically sick.

I know I'm not supposed to react that way. I know I'm supposed to submit to scriptural dictates voiced by a priest. I'm not saying I'm right. I'm saying that this is my honest reaction.

There's more.

I read a lot of Near Death Experiences. Experiences by people who have died physically, entered another realm, and returned to their bodies.

A commonly reported feature of the NDE is a life review. Experiencers are shown their own lives. As this happens, they see life events from all perspectives. They feel the impact of their behavior on others.

A woman said that during her life review, "Most things were pleasant to see, some things made me very embarrassed. In fact, guilt took away any good feelings, making me so very sorry for certain things I had said or done. I hadn't just seen what I had done, but I felt and knew the repercussions of my actions. I felt the injury or pain of those who suffered because of my selfish or inappropriate behavior."

This experiencer described picking up a man at a bar just to get him to drive her home in her car. She then "ditched" him, miles from his own home. In her life review, she relived this experience from his perspective. He was terrified and became much less trusting of others afterward.

"I felt his complete panic and fear, and his change as he became less trusting. I was sickened. I had such total guilt that I tried to pull my view away. I was being pounded with the fears, pain, injuries, and anger I had caused in others, and the repercussions that had been passed on and on. I literally turned inside myself and as if going through a cleansing, turned outright again."

Yes, I do fear my own life review. Yes, I have done cruel things.

During those same years, a Marine developed a crush on me. He thought I was pretty special. (I did not think I was anything special.) We had sex. That meant something to him. It meant nothing but immediate pleasure to me. I never thought of him again. This hurt him. I had no idea of any of this till I was told by third parties. I was stunned. It really never occurred to me that he had any interest in me besides a quick roll in the mossy mountain meadow. Again, time has taught me my mistake. I wish I could apologize. I can't. He's another person from those days who died young.

I just found this Marine's obituary online. His friends and relatives describe him as intelligent, inquisitive, kind, generous, enthusiastic, and special. I realize – this is the kind of guy I'd like to have had as a friend. I saw none of that. I just saw a set of hard muscles and one night's good time. Yes, I am ashamed. Yes, I will pay for this pain I caused this sweet Marine in my life review.

I have to say – and I do not say this in my defense – I was not trying to hurt this sweet Marine. I wasn't even aware that I was hurting him. In those days, I had the attention span of a butterfly. I floated from one experience to the next. My brother Phil was killed on my birthday, and my brother Mike died shortly thereafter. I thought I'd go just like them, young. I wanted to pack in as much experience as I could. I did not plan for the future. I thought I had no future. I thought I had no "I." Again, I'm not making excuses. I'm offering some insight into how and why humans hurt each other.  

So, yes. I do want Lancelot to have that life review, and I do want him, if not to feel, at least to be aware of the pain he caused me.

Why do I want this? Because I am a sadist? Do I want revenge?

No. Because this aligns with my sense of justice. That girl's pain must be honored.

But does Jesus not promise that my pain will be healed so thoroughly it will be as if it never existed?

"You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy."

"Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted."

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they will be filled."

Here's the kicker, a line from a prayer I pray several times a day: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

This is the barrier for me: I want what happened to that young girl, who I no longer am, to matter in some scales of justice somewhere.

But, again, my faith tells me that that girl's pain *does* matter. On the cross, Jesus took on the pain of all humanity. I should just leave it at that, and not demand a special court session for that used, betrayed, and wounded girl.

Maybe I will. Maybe someday I will.

Right now, that's not where I am. I want him, Lancelot, to *know.* I don't necessarily want him to feel pain, but I want him to know the pain our interaction caused me. I want him to know that I wasn't a worthless piece of garbage, or a toy, but a full human being, as worthy of respect and care as any of the more photogenic victims he has championed in his save-the-world work.

I'm open to God changing any of this. Lancelot is not the first person I've been invited to forgive. In the past, events have transpired that made it not just easier, but inevitable, that I would forgive. Because forgiveness comes from God, and if he wants to send me a package of it for Lancelot, God will do so.

And if God does do that, I have to ask – why couldn't God have protected me from this entire encounter to begin with? I can honestly say I wish I had never met Lancelot. I wish I had been more self-protective. I wish I had recognized the predator beneath the kindly twinkle.

I don't have the answers to these questions.

And … I think of Lancelot. The night he invited me to share his sleeping bag. He told me some dumb tale involving Buddha and arrows and not asking too many questions.

That was always me. The one who asked questions.

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